Book review: 'Nashville Chrome' by Rick Bass

Special to the Los Angeles Times

"Nashville Chrome" is Rick Bass' 25th book — at this stage in the game, there's no such thing as a fresh start …and thank goodness. Pieces of the writer's previous work — landscapes, "pewter skies," endangered species (human and animal), endangered innocence, human greed, nostalgia and regret — are all here in this imagined story of three real-life siblings who formed the root stock of what we now call country music, Nashville style.

Bass gives us Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed Brown, three of the five children of Floyd and Birdie Brown; their childhood in the backwoods of post-Depression south-central Arkansas; and their rise to fame as singers and songwriters, members of the fledgling Grand Ole Opry and contemporaries of Elvis Presley. The trio's biggest hit was "The Three Bells," and they broke up in 1965. Maxine, who had the strongest pull to fame, went on to release a solo album and write her autobiography, "Looking Back to See," which was published in 2005.

Bass does what he does — sluicing their lives, traveling up Maxine's bloodstream to create a parallel story, a work of fiction full of real names, dates and facts. And when he is done with the Browns, those facts sit, like so many fish bones, on history's clean plate. They poke through the dense flesh of the novel every so often, but let us not forget that those 24 other books, the books of Bass, are what make that fish so delicious and so beautiful.

Critics often call Bass a lyrical writer, and it's true, but he is also a master craftsman, an artisan. This means that he knows the importance of imperfection — the flaw in the flow of language. The Browns, in Bass' telling, all had their flaws: Floyd was a drunk who often endangered his children; Birdie was slavishly devoted to her children but also to Floyd; Maxine loved the limelight; and so on. Bass captures their trying, that sheer human effort central not only to our existence but to our ability to forgive and evolve. Here's an example: "The forest shrilled with the shouting chorus of the insects, which seemed to be endeavoring to imitate the roar of the mill." That word "endeavoring" sticks out like a sore thumb, like a hoarse voice, and in so doing it gently reminds a reader that Bass is channeling the Browns; trying to hear the sounds they heard as children — the relentless sawmill and the insects and the drunken footsteps.

"Her wishes are a burnt-out gutted shell of vitreous sear — a lifetime spent burning with a fire, a hunger, no one should be expected to possess…." That's Maxine for you, old, looking back as she does every few chapters. As a child, Maxine woke one night to see the cedar shakes burning on the roof of her home — she saved the babies, Jim Ed and Bonnie, one under each arm. It was all an uphill struggle from then on — against her drunken father, against Fabor Robinson (predator-producer who sweet-talked naïve performers like the Browns into signing their lives away), against a cheating husband, divorce, alcoholism and, worse, public indifference.

Bass creates a slice of music history from the ground up, from the backwoods and front porches all the way to Elvis (whose heart was broken by Bonnie) and Graceland, the "American Taj Mahal." Here's the young Elvis, pre-fame (if such a thing existed): "Grasshoppers clacked. Elvis was just walking, maybe knowing he was stepping into history, maybe not. Maybe just hungry. Seventeen years old. Still essentially just a boy, whistling. His old car out of gas. Walking …"

Bass never grips his story too tightly — the reader has the sense that it could go this way or it could go that way. This is how he avoids the heaviness of so much historical fiction — passages are not suffocated by fate. Maxine, for example, late in her life, wants someone to make a movie about her, and that someone materializes (granted, it turns out to be a mere high school boy, Jefferson Eads). Like Bass, he goes fishing for Maxine's spirit, for the thing that makes her tick, the thing that will live on long after she has passed: "A spirit pervades her; it is the spirit of play and hope and careless joy that was in her back in the beginning."

It doesn't get much more life-affirming than that. Bass, who has written so much about careless environmental destruction, knows exactly where to look for hope and goodness — to the telltale imperfection, the smoldering spirit that makes art out of pain, pulls music out of the ashes. In the background of "Nashville Chrome" is the savage destruction of the logging industry, sweeping up, burning up the very inspiration, the natural beauty that inspired, even created those beautiful voices. "Even to those who had never been in a war," he writes of Floyd and his ilk, "it must have seemed that this was what it would be like: that the forest was the enemy and that the worker's task was to try to gain a little stronger foothold and advance into the enemy's territory a bit farther each day." But these humans are imperfect killers. They "endeavor" but their heart isn't in it. They keep trying, and instead they make music. Or children who make music. Or books about forgotten musicians.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

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