If I had the chance, I’d like to shake Rodney Crowell‘s hand. The country musician’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is nothing short of a great read. Even for those who aren’t country music fans, this is a book that ranks with Russell Baker’s Growing Up as a great tale of childhood. This is the sort of book folks like to describe as “an unflinching account of a poor boy growing up with an alcoholic father and epileptic mother,” implying of course that this was a terrible childhood and isn’t Mr. Crowell amazing for having risen above all that?
Of course, that tack suggests that Crowell grew up in misery, and that is pointedly not the case. While, yes, his father, J.W. Crowell, was a drinker with dreams of country music stardom, he paid the bills and worked at his job. And, indeed, his mother, Cauzette, was prone to grand mal seizures and certainly had a bit of holy roller in her, she still gave her son a loving home. Crowell tells these stories not “unflinchingly,” but in a matter-of-fact tone that conveys humor and understanding born of love for his family and friends, and appreciation for what his upbringing instilled in him.
Chinaberry Sidewalks is told more or less chronologically, but his parents each get a chapter of their own, so that you can see where this all started. In addition, the other chapters are arranged around central characters, like his father’s band or Crowell’s childhood friend Dabbo. Crowell’s voice shines through all of these, making each chapter seem like a session on his front porch, with the author spinning yarns like a well-read shitkicker. It’s not folksy or homespun. Honestly, I’m reminded of nothing so much as the introductions that Lee Hazlewood did for songs on albums Requiem For An Almost Lady or Trouble Is A Lonesome Town.
Crowell is honest, as a I said, and presents things without a gloss of nostalgia over them, instead showing folks for who they are, including himself. Even when he’s forced to break up a fight between his parents by breaking a Dr. Pepper bottle across his scalp, he’s still filled with pride when his father calls him “my boy.” That honesty comes full-force at the end of the book. The epilogue is lovely, yet heartbreaking. There’s no way to go into detail without ruining the effect when you read it.
You can read an excerpt from Chinaberry Sidewalks‘ first chapter and listen to an interview from Fresh Air on NPR’s website. If you live in Kansas City, he’s doing a one-man show at Knuckleheads on Tuesday, March 1, playing solo acoustic and telling stories from the book. Further dates can be found at his website.