(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Rodney Crowell is well known as a song crafter of such brilliant works as “’Til I Gain Control Again,” “Shame on the Moon” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” as well as for several stellar albums. His Diamonds & Dirt album yielded five straight No. 1 radio hits. His composition “After All This Time” won him a Grammy for country song of the year.
Now, Crowell has turned his eye and his pen toward a memoir. The result is equally rewarding.
Chinaberry Sidewalks, to be published Tuesday (Jan. 18), is a humid, heavily atmospheric and often raucous look at his years growing up in the Houston of the 1950s. He and I have often discussed those years. He grew up in a less-than-affluent Pentecostal household culture in Houston. I did the same thing at the same time, miles up the road in Fort Worth, Texas.
We were both subjected to frequent fire-and-brimstone sermons two or three times weekly in tiny churches, but we both also discovered such treasures as the wonderful blues of Jimmy Reed and the great teenage songs of the likes of Cookie & the Cupcakes and Slim Harpo and Clarence “Frogman” Henry and Fats Domino. And such fun pastimes as urban river fishing and playing with bows and arrows and going to drive-in restaurants and snow cone stands and exploring the glory of jukeboxes. And Chinaberry trees, which also proliferated in my neighborhood and which provided wonderful ammunition for slingshots.
Interspersed with such joyful childhood exploits are such incidents as a squad of Pentecostal women marching, in their severe hair bobs and modest dresses and lace-up granny-shoes, into the Crowell house to pray Satan out of his mother, Cauzette. Why else, they say, would she be afflicted with seizures, if she is not infected with the Antichrist? The result is both horrific and hilarious.
All of that, and his many childhood exploits and scrapes and adventures, as well as his disastrous teenage love affairs, turn into a backdrop for his real story here, which is a sometimes-jarringly honest but eventually a very gentle and moving account of his lifelong relationship with his parents.
His mother was born partly paralyzed, having already suffered in the womb the first of countless epilepsy seizures that would haunt and scar her life. His father was a raw, two-fisted good old boy with the usual emotional shortcomings and handicaps of such men of his generation. They both were denied a chance at a decent education by the Great Depression economy and by the selfishness of their own parents.
His parents met at a Roy Acuff concert, when some lout tried to sexually attack his future mother, and his future father defended her. It was love at first fight.
His father, J.W., took young Rodney to see shows by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. J.W. deeply longed for the Nashville musical stardom that Rodney eventually would gain, and it ate at him that he never rose above being a country singer — albeit naturally talented — working for meager salaries and tips in the ice houses and honky-tonks of white trash Houston. When J.W. pressed Rodney as an 11-year-old child into playing drums in his Rhythmaires band, Rodney’s musical education began in earnest. J.W., Rodney writes, knew just about every country song, past and present.
And, Rodney says, when he later found himself in intense song-swapping sessions with such songwriter royalty as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, he survived by singing old folk ballads his father had taught him, such as “Great Speckled Bird” and “The Rosewood Casket.” Those tided him over until he got the hang of songwriting and produced a few titles that — fortunately — Emmylou Harris latched onto.
His mother, despite her physical handicaps and her dyslexia, became a force of nature. Even after many miscarriages and the stillbirth of a child who would have been Rodney’s older brother, and after being knocked around by J.W., Cauzette remained remarkably resilient and became a staunch grandmother as “Nana Zeke” for the grandchildren.
As every child and teenager does at some point, Rodney at times felt hatred toward both his parents. As a teenager and young adult trying to make it on his own, he distanced himself from his parents. He began to rethink his relationship with them after he himself became a father and as his daughters discovered their grandparents. He admits they were only mortal and forgives their shortcomings.
His rediscovery of the genuine love he felt for his parents and his delicate ways of rediscovering and healing that love are revelatory, to say the very least. In the end, Chinaberry Sidewalks is a love letter to Cauzette and J.W.
His accounts of the deathbed scenes of his father’s slow, painful — but eventually transcendent — passing and then of his mother’s relatively casual dying are some of the most tender passages I have ever read — anywhere, by anyone. That is some real writing, by someone who has experienced some real living. And some real dying.