When singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell was working on his autobiography, “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” a friend handed him a copy of author Mary Karr’s memoir, “The Liars Club.” Crowell remembers being struck by the similarities between his own life and Karr’s.
Both grew up in abusive, alcoholic households in east Texas during the 1950s and ’60s. Both found themselves at the center of their parents’ constant feuds. And both overcame those dysfunctional childhoods to find success in creative fields — one as an alt-country icon, the other as an award-winning poet and professor.
No wonder the two make such a good team. They released the album “Kin: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell” in June.
“We kind of settled into this brother-and-sister thing,” Crowell, 62, said. “Our joke is that her mother was a frustrated artist and my father was a frustrated artist. If they had gotten together, there’s no way we’d be here today because they would have killed each other first.”
Predisposed to songwriting
Growing up in an east Houston suburb, Crowell was introduced to music by his harddrinking dad, a semi-professional musician who knew dozens of songs by heart.
“My father would sit on the side of the bed and sing songs for hours, while I sat on the floor playing and just absorbed it,” Crowell recalled. Later, as a teenager, he listened raptly to records by Chuck Berry, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, writing down the lyrics in a journal.
“I was pretty predisposed to be a songwriter,” said Crowell, who moved to Nashville in 1972 to pursue his own musical career.
“As luck would have it, I ran into the right crowd,” he added, a group of seasoned songwriters that included Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt.
He landed a spot as rhythm guitarist and duet partner in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, then formed his own group, The Cherry Bombs, before embarking on a solo career with the 1978 album “Ain’t Living Long Like This.”
Crowell found mainstream success when his 1988 album, “Diamonds & Dirt,” produced five consecutive No. 1 singles, including “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy for Leavin’” and “It’s Such a Small World,” a duet with then-wife Roseanne Cash. One track, “After All This Time,” won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1989.
“Something about that record just struck a chord,” recalled Crowell, whose follow-up album, “Keys to the Highway,” featured the hit songs “If Looks Could Kill” and “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway.” “That was the music I wanted to create.”
In recent years, Crowell has released a string of critically acclaimed albums, including 2003’s “Fate’s Right Hand,” 2005’s “The Outsider” and 2008’s “Sex and Gasoline.”
Crowell said his “musical memoir,” 2001’s “The Houston Kid,” convinced him to write “Chinaberry Sidewalks.”
“I decided that the basic core of that record could be turned into literature,” he said. “That was my goal. My goal wasn’t to write one of those self-congratulatory career-synopsis things.”
It was during that process that Crowell read “The Liars’ Club,” inspiring him to name-check Karr in his 2003 song “Earthbound.” The two eventually met in New York City.
“Within 15 minutes we were running behind the mosquito truck in our imaginations,” said Crowell, referring to the trucks that used to spray Texas neighborhoods with DDT.
Before long, Crowell and Karr were crafting tunes together effortlessly. “Those songs just poured out of thin air,” he said. “That was a gift from the Almighty, in away.”
To record “Kin,” Crowell turned to many of the artists he’s worked with in the past, including Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson and Vince Gill.
Emmylou Harris sings “Long Time Girl Gone By,” while Lucinda Williams performs “God I’m Missing You” and Lee Ann Womack appears on “Momma’s on a Roll.”
Crowell said he always had Womack, who also grew up in east Texas, in mind for that song. “I just knew that combination of colloquialism and vernacular would work,” he said.
He selected “Sister Oh Sister” for ex-wife Cash, who has three sisters and two stepsisters.
Although a few tracks didn’t make the final cut, Crowell said they’ll “see the light of day” before long. “Mary and I will strike up the band again,” he said.
Crowell also recently collaborated with Harris on an as-yet-unnamed album, which he described as “a throwback to that Southern California country rock that she and I came out of.”
Crowell, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Jerry Reed, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw, said he’s just happy to still be writing songs.
“It’s a blessed form of work, one that I truly love with all my heart and soul,” he said. “I’m grateful to the creative source of the universe for letting me do this.”
RODNEY CROWELL 8 p.m. Sept. 21 Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande $38 to $44 489-9444