Monday, May 9, 2011

"Chinaberry Streets" by Rodney Crowell

Rodney Crowell writes prose just as he does songs, there is a lyrical quality to his writing and phrasing. His words come out as fluidly as the scores of songs he has written in his 4 decades of making music. From his early years in 1975’s “Heartworn Highways” and touring with Emmylou Harris’ “Hot Band”, through the 1980’s and the heady days of “The Cherry Bombs”, not to mention his tempestuous marriage to Roseanne Cash, he has been inspirational in shaping the direction of authentic American folk/rock, as well as gospel music. His friendship with Johnny Cash is legendary. But if you are looking for tales of the life of a star, look elsewhere.

One of the most remarkable things about this book is that Mr. Crowell has managed to avoid telling the time worn story of a poor boy turned star. Rather, he has carefully crafted this as the story of his life, beginning as a poor kid in East Texas, with a dysfunctional family that is at once scary, and yet at the same time, hilarious. His affection for, as well as his puzzlement of, both his mother and father, are at times heartbreaking, yet in the same breath you can’t help but laugh with him.

If you have listened to Mr. Crowell’s albums, particularly “The Houston Kid”, and “Fate’s Right Hand”, then you are already familiar with many of the characters and places that you will encounter in this book.

Mr. Crowell begins by telling us of New Year’s Eve 1955, when he was 5 years old. His parents were having a party and with alcohol flowing freely, things were getting out of hand quickly. Tired of playing nursemaid to a group of drunks, the young Rodney Crowell went and got his father’s shot gun, blasting a hole in the ceiling. This sobered things up quite quickly.

His earliest memory is of sitting on his Dad’s shoulder’s in 1952 and seeing Hank Williams, Sr., play. He doesn’t remember Hank Williams as much as he does his father’s reaction to seeing his hero in person. From there to book goes back to 1955 and forward, chronicling the event’s typical of a 1950’s childhood. Life was mainly concerned with playing “war”, TV and just generally getting into mischief.

The chapter concerning Hurricane Carla in 1961 is of particular interest. The author’s family rode it out in the home of a family friend, until alcohol and freely roaming hands sent the family packing at the height of the storm, back to their own shack, with it’s leaking roof and dirt floor.

Fans of Mr. Crowell’s music will recognize some of the places and terms used in the book. Telephone Road is just as I pictured it, with the bar ditch and DDT spray trucks each evening. The book reads like a sepia toned photo of the era in which the author was raised.

The real universal appeal to this book is the story of the struggle we all face in coming to terms with our parent’s demons. And often, when we finally do come to understand them, and why they were the way they were, it's too late. Sadly, by that time we have taken these flaws out on our own children.

This is a wonderfully written book, giving even more insight into a truly unique American artist.

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