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Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell by Rodney Crowell and Various Artists

Long before Rodney Crowell published his book of memoirs—2011’s Chinaberry Sidewalks—the songwriter displayed a knack for painting vivid images in such songs as The Oak Ridge Boys’ hit “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and his own 1989 No. 1 “She’s Crazy for Leavin’.” Given his literary leanings and recent emergence as a nonfiction writer, Crowell’s collaboration with bestselling author Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club) seems a natural progression. The two writers have more than creativity in common: both hail from southeast Texas, and both grew up in chaotic, alcoholic homes. This shared history forms the cracked but inspiration-rich foundation of their jointly composed album, Kin. 

Because Karr is not a singer, the pair enlisted several heavy hitters to handle vocal duties. These guest vocalists serve as characters in vignettes drawn from the writers’ family histories, while Crowell himself sings primarily from a first-person perspective. Collectively, they touch upon a complex range of emotions and interconnections, supported by sparse and countrified instrumentation that sets an appropriately Texan tone.

The opening two tracks entertainingly yet tellingly explore the curious romantic attraction that draws troublemakers together, while the less attractive side of that equation shows up on “Momma’s on a Roll,” an inside view of marital and family dysfunction performed by Lee Ann Womack. On the song’s companion piece, “Sister Oh Sister,” Rosanne Cash tenderly portrays a character reflecting on her bond with a protective older sibling. Kris Kristofferson plays Dad to a younger Rodney on the comical but poignant duet “My Father’s Advice,” which perfectly captures the awkward affection between dads and sons. The steel-guitar-enhanced “Just Pleasing You,” on which Vince Gill provides typically graceful lead vocals, proves to be the album’s least theatrical and most immediately accessible number.

The album’s vulnerability and emotional reach far exceed that of most current Nashville product, and a few tracks veer into stylistic gray areas, but Kin, as its folksy title suggests, hews close to country’s bloodline. While Rodney may be highly literate among his country colleagues, he doesn’t get above his raisin’.

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