He's known as a folk/country songwriter, performer and producer, but as it turns out, Rodney Crowell is one hell of a prose stylist.
"Chinaberry Sidewalks," his newly published memoir of growing up poor in rural Texas through the '50s and '60s, reads like a great Southern novel. Crowell didn't have to invent the colorful characters that populate his at turns heart-rending and sidesplittingly hilarious tome, however. He was born into a family and a hometown stuffed full of them.
Crowell's gift for song is well-documented, but it's his ability to turn phrases that deftly blend poor Southern vernacular with an at turns earthy and lofty poetic acumen that arrives like a wholly unexpected gift just as the man enters his 60s.
At once self-deprecating and shockingly honest, Crowell's assessment of his own life, and the lives of his parents J.W. and Cauzette Crowell, strikes a perfectly articulated pitch from Page One, and maintains it to the bittersweet end.
Of course, the fact that Crowell grew up the only child in a kin arrangement that resembles some unholy union between a family from a William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers text gives him plenty to work with.
On the surface, his situation appears hopeless in a gothically grotesque manner. Dirt-poor, living in a tar paper shack with an alcoholic father given to spousal abuse and an epileptic mother torn between religious near-mania and a weakness for the drink herself, Crowell was baffled by the train wreck that was his parents' marriage from his earliest recollections. Indeed, "Chinaberry Sidewalks" -- the title is a nod to the trees that lined the streets in and around Jacinto City, Texas -- commences with his recounting of a booze-fueled bacchanal in his parents' living room on New Year's Eve in 1955. As his folks and their friends tear it up in a wasted frenzy, the 5-year-old Crowell is so horrified by the proceedings that, unnoticed by the whiskey-addled adults, he pulls his father's loaded gun from a closet and discharges it in the living room, by way of announcing that the party needed to come to an end.
It gets worse for Crowell from there, as he recounts his mother's battle with violent epileptic seizures, all of which his father avoids by spending increasing time in honky tonks and icehouses, getting loaded with his ne'er-do-well buddies while his son is left to deal with the horror of his mother's fits.
When a hurricane blasts through Jacinto City, Crowell senior abandons the family home to Mother Nature, and hauls his brood to a buddy's house for -- what else? -- a booze-bash.
He then changes his mind in the middle of the night, forcing the clan into the car so that he can drive them home through gale-force winds and black sheets of rain while hammered out of his mind.
It would be hard to make this stuff up, and one could forgive Crowell for feeling nothing but anger and bitterness for the folks he'd been saddled with as parents. But what makes "Chinaberry Sidewalks" so deeply moving is the manner in which the author is able to view his parents as individuals through a compassionate lens.
J.W. Crowell was a boozer, a womanizer, a man who beat his wife -- something she never took lying down, doing her best to give as good as she got in the violence department -- and a guy whose grandiose visions of self-import dwarfed any sort of reality he was able or willing to provide for his family.
But Crowell worshipped him anyway, constantly seeking his approval and attention, and seeing in this often nasty shell of a man a human being whose every dream in life had met with disappointment.
Crowell offers the same blend of baffled incredulity and compassionate acceptance to his mother.
"In the interest of maintaining her Christian self-image," he writes, "my mother chose righteous indignation when it came to alcohol and loose women. When I pointed out the hypocrisy of denigrating 'floozies' when she herself was known to chug beer occasionally, she adamantly refused to acknowledge that guzzling a six-pack of Jax for the purpose of knocking herself unconscious before the onset of a grand mal seizure could possibly be construed as licentious behavior. She viewed her drinking as self-defense. But whether it was for numbing the effects of epilepsy or joining her husband in escaping a tedious existence, the results were never pretty."
Those "results" included public knock-down-drag-out brawls with her husband in front of their child, events that clearly took a heavy psychic toll on Crowell, and ultimately took him most of his adult life to reconcile. That he managed to do so, through substance abuse problems and relationship issues of his own -- including a failed marriage to Johnny Cash's daughter, Roseanne -- is the action that provides the warm heart of "Chinaberry Sidewalks." Ultimately, this is a story of forgiveness.
Crowell's recounting of his father's death provides some of the book's most moving descriptive language.
"In the minutes that followed, his eyes shined a shade of sparkling blue deeper than I could've imagined. His skin seemed sculpted from marble ten grades finer than Michelangelo's David. The peace settling over the room was so intense that everyone cried at the joy of knowing such serenity. I found it hard to close his eyes, not because of the finality of this act but because I couldn't bring myself to alter something so beautiful."
Jeff Miers is The News' pop music critic.
Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir
By Rodney Crowell
Alfred A. Knopf
259 pages $24.95