Book Review: Chinaberry Sidewalks
“Hank Williams was singing ‘Lovesick Blues’ when I stepped into the living room armed with my father’s rifle.” Rodney Crowell announces, within pages of the start of this memoir, focused on his relationship with his parents. He goes on to describe how the five-year-old Rodney, watching the deterioration of a New Year’s Eve party in his home, fires a gun to “save my parents from themselves”.
Crowell’s white trash childhood in the suburbs of Houston provided much of the fodder for The Houston Kid – the album that marked a major turning point in his long musical career – but the stories in the songs are fictionalised. Chinaberry Sidewalks is his attempt to tell the true story.
The only child (a brother died shortly after birth) of a hard-drinking father who never achieved his dream of being a country singer and an epileptic mother who found company in holy-rolling Pentecostal churches, Crowell grew up as much on the streets of Houston as he did in his home, which barely stood up physically, let alone metaphorically, to the extremes of the Texas climate. He describes the scrapes he got into, the relationships with friends and neighbours, but returns all the time to the father he idolised and the mother he adored.
We’ve long known that Crowell has a way with words, so it’s no big surprise that he can put it to good use in prose as well as songs. In particular, his description of the pair of preachers who shared the duties at his mother’s church leaves a long-lasting impression. However, he sometimes lets his command of language fly away with him, leading to convoluted mixed metaphors (“When at last my father’s white flag was raised in defeat, my mother seized the opportunity to pour salt on his wounded ego”) and some of his similes are frankly incomprehensible (“before the door banged shut behind the first vigilante, he was on me like a bad paint job.”)
The other problem with the book is more fundamental: it is frankly questionable whether Crowell’s childhood was actually unusual and interesting enough to justify an entire book about it. Though there is a threat of violence hanging over everything that happens, the instances of violence, serious neglect or other unusual occurrences are few – and some of them happen not to him but to his friends. The description of the New Year’s Eve party and of Crowell stopping an argument between his parents by smashing a bottle on his head are the only really dramatic events he describes. His childhood was chaotic certainly, but no more so than that of many other children raised in poverty at the time.
Most writers of autobiographies describe their childhood in terms of the way that it shaped the adult who came to be famous for one reason or another, but Crowell appears to have deliberately avoided doing that in order to keep the focus on his parents. Mentions of his development as a musician are almost in passing, and the description of a trip to see Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash play in 1958 is described more in terms of the impact it had on his father than on the young Rodney. In some ways, he stops writing at the point where the interest begins for most readers – certainly those who pick up the book out of love of his music.