Chinaberry Sidewalks is the title of Rodney Crowell’s new memoir of childhood and coming of age in Houston, Texas, in the 50’s and 60’s. Mr. Crowell tells the truth in this excellent memoir, or so one would think, since the phrase “I don’t know if I would have told that” comes to mind more than once as you read. It takes a while, but the reader comes to see why Mr. Crowell truly grieved at the death of both of his parents when that time finally came: He loved them, flaws and all. And they had flaws. J.W. Crowell, or J-Bo as he liked to call himself, always worked, but in low-paying jobs, and he drank up much of what he made. Mr. Crowell’s mother, Cauzette, was a Pentecostal holy roller who could engage in some power drinking when she felt like it and knew exactly how to press J.W.’s buttons when she had had enough of his foolishness. Cauzette endured repeated miscarriages (13 in all; Mr. Crowell was born between 7 and 8) and the death in infancy of Rodney’s older brother while working as an elementary school janitor and managing a household in a leaky, mosquito-infested Jacinto City tract house with three Chinaberry trees planted out front.
The book gives all children of dysfunctionality a point of reference, as in, well, my family was bad, but never that bad. More than that, Mr. Crowell’s unvarnished portrait of his early family life shows the redeeming power of having (and being) parents, depite the imperfections. Mr. Crowell finds his way to that redemption through the gifts his parents had and shared and in reaction to their faults. Because we know about Mr. Crowell’s later successes and his significant contributions to American music, this makes for quite a story.
For the half dozen of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Crowell, hit Google and see what you find. Here I’ll just say that he is a gifted songwriter and musician possessing a beautiful voice tinged with sadness and eyes to match. Or the other way around. He wrote Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight and Shame On The Moon, songs you might associate with other artists. He has written tons of other great songs, but my favorite is Ain’t Living Long Like This, which is about a kid who “grew up in Houston off of Wayside Drive.” That kid was the son of a carhop and a dad who died in a stock car crash, so it isn’t autobiographical, but there is a line about remembering “a drunk man’s breath” in reference to the father figure. After reading the book, it seems to fit.
Fans of Mr. Crowell might be a bit disappointed that the book does not go on to detail his career, tell us about his marriage and musical collaboration with Rosanne Cash or tell about writing songs for or singing with Emmylou Harris. There are some references to these subjects, but this book deals with latter day happenings only in the context of Mr. Crowell’s relationship with his parents. The book does, however, tell us a lot about the origins of the musician and songwriter Mr. Crowell came to be.
J.W. Crowell and Cauzette met at a Roy Acuff concert. He stood up for her honor against some groping, would-be suitor, and she fell in love on the spot. J.W.’s dad, Martin, was a Tennessee sharecropper/rail splitter and his mom, Iola, was the daughter of a man named Lyin’ Jim Wilson, unofficial mayor of Cherry Corner, Kentucky. Iola specialized in whipping children, fighting with Martin, making biscuits and farting. Cauzette (Taylor) was one of eight children, raised in Western Tennessee just a mile south of Kentucky. A stroke before birth partially crippled her, then polio, epilepsy and dyslexia tried to finish her off. Despite all this, she excelled at school after a hard effort and was slated to go to to a state-funded school in Nashville before that was nixed because she was the only member of her family who could reason with her dad when he was drunk. Cauzette’s drunk reasoning skills were tested by her marriage to J.W., and their relationship turned toxic and violent fairly often. The book opens with a 4-year-old Rodney Crowell accidentally discharging a weapon into a New Year’s Eve party to avoid violence between his parents. It works that night, but before the book is over, J.W. will break Cauzette’s arm and she’ll cold cock him with a coke bottle.
Chinaberry Sidewalks never strays far from music. J.W, who was born in the same year as Hank Williams, took two-year-old Rodney to see Hank in his next-to-last public appearance. When Rodney was 11, J.W. drafts him to play drums for his small-time band, The Rhythmaires. J.W. comes home one day with a pawn shop drum kit and tells Rodney, who’s never played drums, that he can do it. “Just watch my foot!” he says, and match the bass drum beat to it. Rodney’s career as a honky tonk drummer ends just a short time later after Cauzette and one of J.W.’s groupies get into a catfight during a show. J.W. later takes his son to a concert with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, an outdoor show that goes on despite a rainstorm. Mr. Crowell’s recollection of that concert is priceless. Years later, Rodney will produce a live recording of these men and will, of course, marry one of Johnny Cash’s daughters.
The book is funny. Mr. Crowell has always been able to to make you smile as a songwriter, and he does not disappoint as an author. Cauzette’s Pentecostal adventures give several opportunities for humor. Mr. Crowell’s description of Brother Pemberton’s “alter falters” is great. During sermons, Brother Pemberton will check out, feigning death, as a way of reeling in the flock. But Mr. Crowell’s take on evangelism is even better: “All it takes is audacity and the willingness to annoy.” For me, though, the best of the religious stories happened in the Crowell home when a “coven” of Pentecostal sisters showed up to conduct an exorcism to rid Cauzette of her epilepsy. No way to describe it, you’ll just have to read it.
The kid stories in the book are funny as well. Mr. Crowell’s neighborhood buddy is a kid named Dabbo Buck. Dabbo’s mom, Margie, chewed Day’s Work tobacco and had a sharp tongue where her son was concerned. Mad at Dabbo for hiding from her, she screams, “I’m gonna cut your balls off with your daddy’s straight razor.” This resulted in Dabbo staying under a parked car for three hours to avoid her wrath. There’s a great story about a neighborhood kid of German descent whose father spent visitation days throwing dirtclods at him and how the neighborhood “freedom fighters” decided to deal with the problem. The kid stories are reminiscent of Stephen King’s story, The Body, which was made into the great film, Stand By Me.
Mr. Crowell tells stories on himself, too. Among my favorites are his failed attempts to impress a crush named LaQuita Freeman. He drives his bike into a car while she watches. Shortly thereafter, Cauzette sends him to the store for a box of “supers” where he fumbles the box of tampons into LaQuita’s mom’s shopping cart. Later, he tells about his failed attempts at love in high school and college, capping this with a story of his visit to a female psychiatrist years later. The psychiatrist opines that Mr. Crowell always chased the inaccessible girl because of a reverse Oedipal complex. He then delivers the punchline at his own expense: “And, on top of that, [she told me that] as long as I continued showing up at her office trying to entice her into having sex with me, our sessions were useless.”
The book never lets you forget that the Crowells were almost always on hard times. Cauzette is unable to pay off the back-to-school layaway one year, leaving Rodney in last year’s school clothes. This led a particularly candid girl to tell him, “You’re kind of cute but everybody thinks you’re on free lunches.” And he was. The poorly constructed house in Jacinto City slowly falls apart (his parents will eventually abandon it and allow it to be foreclosed) and as it does, mosquitos had free rein and the rain came in freely. Mr. Crowell writes that “on a clear night, stars could be seen twinkling through the holes in the roof.” Cockroaches were an even bigger problem than the mosquitoes. Turning on the light in the kitchen “meant entering a dimension where every available inch of surface space was swarmed by their translucent, root-beer liquidity.”
The writing in Chinaberry Sidewalks is vintage Rodney Crowell. He can turn a sentence on a dime and give you change. No words are wasted. I am reminded of the quote attributed to Pascal, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I sent you a long one.” Mr. Crowell had time, or took the time, to pull every sentence of this fine book into shape. This memoir compares nicely with those by his writing partner, Mary Karr, and the recent memoir by his former wife, Ms. Cash. It is mandatory reading for fans of Mr. Crowell and Americana music, great reading for anyone else.
Chinaberry Sidewalks is published by Alfred A. Knopf. Mr. Crowell is currently on the second half of a tour in support of the book. Details (and a nice interview by Mary Karr) are available on his website.
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