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Home Reviews Book Reviews CHINABERRY SIDEWALKS: Rodney Crowell's story of battles, redemption and the bonds of family blood

CHINABERRY SIDEWALKS: Rodney Crowell's story of battles, redemption and the bonds of family blood

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Rodney Crowell spent the past 40 years learning his way around the music business. Early in his career, he toured with Emmy Lou Harris. Country music superstars like Lee Ann Womack (“Ashes by Now”), Keith Urban (“Making Memories of Us”) and George Strait and Jimmy Buffett (“Stars on the Water”) have covered his tunes. He writes songs with Guy Clark. He played in a band, The Cherry Bombs, with the likes of Vince Gill and Tony Brown.

From 1979 to 1992, he was married to Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash. The couple have three children. He produced one of her albums.

Having conquered the Nashville scene with his poetry, the Crosby native has turned his attention to writing prose. On Jan. 18, he released “Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir” (Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95. 256 pp.), his story of growing up in Jacinto City, near Houston, in the 1950s.

“I wanted to learn to paint on a new canvas,” Crowell said during a recent phone interview. “I just started down another path.”

The job of putting his story onto paper suited Crowell.

“I like the work,” he said with a soft laugh. “I’m perfectly happy with a sort of monastic life, working by myself day in and day out. I’m a strange bird that way. I like the singular existence of the writer. At the same time, I like performing.”

Unlike most writers, Crowell actually enjoyed the editing process.

“That was joyful,” he explained. “After my literary editor helped get my manuscript in publishable shape, then I had a go with a copy editor. I loved that.”

Right before he started work with the editor, a friend who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University told him the biggest mistakes graduate students make is falling in love with what they write.

“So, when I got those first pages back with lines drawn through these really clever super high performance metaphors, I never batted an eye,” he said. “Lo and behold. A narrative started to surface and I knew I was in really good hands.”

Crowell’s chronicle begins on New Year’s Eve, 1955, where “the four beer-blitzed couples dancing in the cramped living room of my parents’ shotgun duplex were wearing on my nerves. ... By then I’d guzzled most of the six-pack of Cokes ... and was no longer ready to pretend that this New Year’s Eve nonsense was anything but a recipe for disaster.”

At the end of the scene, the 5-year-old Crowell gets a .22 rifle and fires it into the linoleum floor to break up a fight.

Crowell made a conscious choice to open the book with violence and discord.

“I decided early on that I could tell the truth and really reveal in the first seven pages that my father was capable of being an out-and-out bastard,” Crowell explained during the interview. “But I knew if I were just to tell you, the reader, that, it would be self-serving on my part and designed to make you feel sorry for me.”

That’s not what he wanted.

“I want to show you this man and this woman because I’m going to be able to make you love them,” he said. “I wanted to introduce somebody in such a dark way and then to succeed in getting the reader to love them the way I do. That was the arc of my story. I knew I had the redemption in the end.”

The book’s title comes from the three Chinaberry trees Crowell and his mother planted in the front yard of the family’s “tarpaper shack” on Norvic Street.

J.W. Crowell and Addie Cauzette Willoughby met in 1941 at a Roy Acuff concert in Western Kentucky. Another boy had made an inappropriate pass at Cauzette, prompting the swaggering Crowell to step in and rescue her.

“Your daddy was good-lookin’, and he stood right up to that other boy,” Cauzette tells her son. “I got walked home that night by the sweetest boy in the world, and I ain’t even thought about another man since.”

Although he had a penchant for mathematics, J.W. was forced to leave school and go to work. “The lack of a formal education and a degree was a source of constant shame that my father was never able to overcome,” Crowell writes, even though his father eventually earned the rank of superintendent at the Mid-Gulf Construction Company in Houston and “his level of expertise in the construction business made him equal to any civil engineer coming out of Texas A&M or Rice.”

Cauzette’s life was no easier. According to a country doctor, she suffered a stroke while still in her mother’s womb, so “from before birth, a pattern was set by which polio, acute dyslexia, epilepsy, the sudden death of an infant son, and a subsequent case of whacked-out nerves would join the lengthy list of maladies assaulting the young Cauzette well before her 20th birthday ... my mother rarely drew a heathy breath.”

Although she had learning disabilities, Cauzette loved school and was offered a full scholarship at a state-funded girls’ school in Nashville, but her parents refused to let her go.

“The cruel injustice of her having to forego education to work on a succession of failed sharecrop farms was the beginning of the long, slow dimming of my mother’s natural light,” Crowell writes.

Cauzette’s epileptic seizures were traumatic for young Rodney.

“My father had a sixth sense when it came to my mother’s epilepsy,” he writes. “And when one of her spells came on he had a knack for being gone.”

When his grandmother died in 1961, 11-year-old Rodney inherited Cauzette’s first aid kit and learned what to do when she had a seizure.

“Keeping her alive was something I became good at,” he says in the book.

Being raised by two such damaged people wasn’t an ideal childhood, but Crowell records the drunken brawls, the harsh discipline, the shame and, ultimately, the forgiveness and the redemption, with such bright and cutting honestly it’s hard not to be drawn into the pages and soak up every ounce of the good, bad and brutal.

“It’s OK to go as dark as it gets,” Crowell said at the end of our interview. “I didn’t spare my father at all. I did spare my mother a few things – that’s the son looking after his mom. This wasn’t a love letter to my fans about me. It was a love letter about my blood.”

 

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