Rodney Crowell has conducted a respectable if unspectacular career as a progressive country jack-of-all-trades, writing, performing and producing commercial hits and critically respected works for himself and such collaborators as Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash.
The revelation of Crowell’s new memoir is that this seemingly stable adult emerged from a childhood awash in abuse and violence. In his debut as an author, he labors hard to explain that transformation, scouring the rocky landscape of his early years in search of keys and clues.
That “Chinaberry Sidewalks” all but ignores his professional career might be a letdown for its most natural audience — Crowell fans looking for insights into his craft, accounts of life on the road and in the studio, his take on his 13-year marriage to Cash.
Music still figures prominently. His parents met at a Roy Acuff concert, and when Rodney was a toddler, his father, J.W., took him to a Hank Williams show — the doomed star’s penultimate performance. There was an outing to see Jerry Lee Lewis and his future father-in-law Johnny Cash, and Rodney later played the drums in his father’s bar band.
But the heart of the book is Crowell’s outlandishly dysfunctional 1950s childhood, a near-Dickensian upbringing that unfolds in a poor East Houston suburban development, where the shoddy houses crumble around their residents and a truck rolls down the street spraying DDT toward swarms of voracious mosquitoes.
Crowell’s mother was a dyslexic epileptic with suicidal tendencies and a taste for warm beer and Pentecostal preachers. His father was an irresponsible, hard-drinking philanderer who idolized Ol’ Hank and struggled with his failure to make a living as a musician.
Cauzette and J.W. put on quite a show for their only child (only surviving child, that is — his mother had 13 miscarriages and managed to give birth to one other son, who died on his second day.)
Taunting, punching, cheating, belittling, maneuvering — the Crowells kept none of it hidden. Rather than cower in a corner, where most of us would go when presented with the psychodrama they enacted for most of their lives, young Rodney exhibited a precocious, instinctive grasp of the household’s toxic dynamics and jumped into the fray.
At age 5, he ended an ominous New Year’s Eve party by firing a rifle in his father’s direction. He later brought one of mom and dad’s brawls to a close by breaking a soda bottle over his own head. His mother often relied on his uncanny ability to ascertain J.W.'s alcohol level and mood by the way his Studebaker negotiated the driveway.
As the emotional toll mounts, a reader might be inclined to give up on these characters, but Rodney never does. Determined to penetrate their craziness, he traces the trail of debris back to their origins in rural Arkansas and Tennessee, where their own childhood homes are populated by hillbilly grotesques.
In his parents’ backwoods upbringings, their son finds the crucial turning points where each was denied the opportunity to make something substantial of the life ahead — a similarity of circumstance, he hypothesizes, that united them in heartbreak.
Crowell’s breakthrough comes much later, providing another moment of clarity in a narrative that often becomes more tangled the more it tries to undo the knots. His writing isn’t deep or nuanced enough to really sort out the mess, but he tells his story with a fitful, disjointed energy that mirrors the rambunctiousness, confusion and desperation of his life.
“Chinaberry Sidewalks” is less involving when Crowell heads off into various coming-of-age vignettes, though his penchant for taking boyhood mischief to reckless extremes makes for some colorfully harrowing passages.
It’s when he pulls us into the turmoil of the family’s florid battles that Crowell claims our attention, rewarding it with an examination of fierce loyalty, of love distorted but ultimately fulfilled.