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Country hit maker Rodney Crowell's on a roll

When Rodney Crowell first teamed up with poet and memoirist Mary Karr, he figured the collaboration might yield a couple of songs he could use on an album of his own.

When Rodney Crowell first teamed up with poet and memoirist Mary Karr, he figured the collaboration might yield a couple of songs he could use on an album of his own.

"But it caught on so fast and we produced so much in such a short time, I said, 'You know, we're making an album here,' " the 62-year-old singer and songwriter says over the phone while heading east from Columbus, Ohio.

Indeed, they were. The terrific result is Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell. Produced by Joe Henry, the 10 songs are sung by Crowell, Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, and Crowell's former wife Rosanne Cash.

"A lot of narratives we let run specifically female, so that's what led us to have all these glorious female performances on the album, because Mary is not a singer," Crowell explains. "And then, because it seemed out of balance if I handled all the male narratives myself, that's why Vince Gill and Kris are on."

As Karr tells it in the liner notes, the album is called Kin because she and Crowell both hail from East Texas and share many of the same sensibilities: "It was like we'd grown up next door in a hellacious place. . . . We adored those characters and their language - we'd never choose anywhere else."

That sense comes through in the set's country- and folk-inflected songs. They brim with vividly memorable characters, as in "My Father's Advice": "Never eat at a place called Mom's/ Don't play cards with a guy named Doc/ If you find yourself in a high-stakes game/ Tuck your big bills in your sock."

For Crowell, the onetime country hit maker who still turns out excellent albums and proved to be quite a memoirist himself with his Chinaberry Sidewalks, Kin is not his only recent collaboration with Emmylou Harris. He has completed a duets album with the songbird who helped jump-start his career when he was a guitarist in her Hot Band.

"It's an idea we've batted back and forth for 35 years," Crowell says of the set, which includes only a few of his own songs. "It's not an album about me making a statement as a songwriter. It's just an album of Emmy and I singing songs we wanted to sing together. I enjoyed it from the point of view of 'Hey, I'm making a duet record with Emmy, one of the great singers. I'd better step up and sing my ass off.' "

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