Within the company of songwriters, Rodney Crowell is a revered name, particularly in the field of country music. His compositions include ”’Til I Gain Control Again,” “Ashes By Now,” “An American Dream,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” “Song for the Life,” “Shame on the Moon” and the Grammy-winning “After All This Time.” He has also earned considerable distinction as a recording artist, scoring five No. 1 country hits in a row during the late 1980s.
But the reader will learn nothing of these achievements in Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s simultaneously gritty and affectionate account of growing up as an only child in post-World War II Houston, Texas. His focus is on his dirt-poor, blue-collar parents—J.W. and Cauzette—who could charitably be called “dysfunctional” but more accurately “abusive.” And yet Crowell’s stories brim with appreciation for them, even as they keep him wary and occasionally terrorized by the side effects of their corrosive discontent with the world and each other.
J.W. drinks too much and falls too short of his modest dreams; Cauzette, besides being epileptic (a source of pity and embarrassment to young Crowell), seeks comfort in raw, hellfire Christianity. One of the earliest coping skills Crowell develops is discerning his father’s mood by the way he pulls his battered car into the driveway. But the father who is quick to lash out is also sensitive enough to take his two-year-old son to see what would prove to be the great Hank Williams’ next-to-last performance. And his mother is a daily example of courage and inventiveness under fire.
Crowell emerges from his narrative as a latter-day Huck Finn, a cheeky kid who finds adventures, friends and grotesquely comic adults in every corner of his scrappy neighborhood. Fortunately, he brings to these adventures Tom Sawyer’s romantic imagination. Indeed, it is his imagination that makes his hardscrabble existence not just tolerable but inspirational. A graceful prose writer, Crowell is able to convey his fears and deprivations without being maudlin or sentimental.
Ultimately, Chinaberry Sidewalks is a hymn to resilience, to the ability to understand, compartmentalize, contextualize, rationalize and forgive until all the causes for bitterness and self-pity are distilled away and only the residue of love remains.
Edward Morris has written about country music for CMT.