New York, NY, June 5. “Sing, Mary!” the crowd at Joe’s Pub hollers. It’s six or seven songs into the set, and Mary Karr, in western gear, is perched on a high stool, swaying, laughing, and bantering. But she won’t sing.
“I’ll sing when I have the juice,” she promises.
“Get it!” comes the good-natured shoutback.
Obviously many of the fans in this room are admirers of Karr’s poetry and her three best-selling memoirs about life in the gritty East Texas “swampland” where she grew up. They have followed her through The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit, the forthright memoirs that take her from a brutal childhood (alcoholic father, mentally disturbed mother, poverty, ignorance) through a hippie adolescence (drugs and alcohol and dropping out of school) through her redemption by literature and A.A. and the Catholic faith. Now in her late fifties, she has been transformed, by faith and pure grit, into a professor, a poet, a memoirist, a responsible mother. And now—further transformation—a singer and songwriter.
Karr’s friend and collaborator Rodney Crowell, the Grammy Award–winning singer/songwriter/guitarist, comes from that same patch of Texas swampland. Crowell and Karr have just collaborated on a new album, Kin, (download in I-Tunes) a set of contentious Country & Western ballads about “the people you most want to drag behind the back of a car—the people you share DNA with.” This is the album’s debut night.
She and Crowell are “lucky in language and lucky in the steamy milieu swirling around us when young . . . that hideous backwater wound infected with a grotesque glamour,” Karr’s liner notes observe. It’s that grotesque glamour that’s behind the album’s songs glorifying wildness: “If the Law Don’t Want You, Neither Do I,” for instance, and “I’m a Mess,” and “Anything but Tame.”
The likes of Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris, as well as Crowell, sing the album’s songs, because, as Crowell says on the promo, “Mary doesn’t sing.”
Or didn’t. Onstage, when Crowell plays a few bars of “a song we’re workin’ on,” Karr gets off the stool: “I’m takin’ this. It’s a girl song.” To whoops from the crowd she launches full-throated into “I Can’t Stand the Bitch Who Had You First,” a second wife’s torrent of bile featuring pleasing couplets like “You’re a man so well-respected, how could you stand to see her nekkid?” (This from a professor of literature at Syracuse University whose mission—in her engaging three- or four-minute “Poetry Fix” videos on YouTube—is to persuade viewers of the power of great poetry. Karr reads, seriously, the poems she most respects, from Archilocos—a distinguished source of invective—to Keats to Neruda to Milosc.)
But there is poetry in the lyrics too. “Sister, Oh Sister,” Karr’s paean to her big sister Lecia, “who was there to finish any fight I’d start,” goes “You’ve been my seawall/ You’ve been my flood/You’re in my blood/I thank God for you.” And “Just Pleasing You” isn’t necessarily a tale of redemption through passion for a mate.
If she didn’t sing before, she’s singing now.
Crowell pauses for a Literary Moment. Karr recites the passage that most galvanized him about her first memoir, The Liars’ Club—the tale of Mary as a second grader in full hate mode, targeting a family with a BB gun from up in a tree and saying . . . (phrase deleted). Then Karr slides into a recitation of Philip Larkin’s oh-so-apropos poem that tells us flatly that it’s our parents who fuck us up.
Emmylou Harris and Mary Kay Place are called up from the audience to perform. Then we’re expelled from the pub to make room for the next act, and Karr, in her new incarnation, is off across the country with Crowell to put the new album over.
Mary Karr—poet, professor, memoirist, mother, and now, in the second half of life, singer and songwriter too. Some woman.
How Rodney met Mary.