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Chinaberry Sidewalks, a memoir by singer, songwriter, and producer Rodney Crowell, is as bittersweet as any honky-tonk ballad. Written with humor and painfully hard-won self-knowledge, it is also as wise as it is entertaining think Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club meets Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. And Crowell reads his story wonderfully in a honeyed, musical twang, with plenty of chuckles, sighs, and even a little singing. The burnished timbre of his voice and his evocative prose immediately transport us to the world of his East Houston childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Chinaberry trees provided the switches Crowell would be sent to pick for his own wallopings, and one tree in particular that he planted with his mother offered a bit of defiant hope when it flourished outside their shambling house. Inside, the drunken mayhem of his hapless parents J.W. and Cauzette drove him, at age five, to shoot his Daddy’s rifle into the wall. A few years later, he’d break up one of their ‘knock-down drag-outs’ by smashing a bottle over his own head. Searing though it was, Crowell never fails to see the irony and humor in their narcissistic neglect. Case in point: his parents and carousing neighbors at a Hurricane Watch party make sure the kids wear raingear when they send them out to play in the gathering storm.
After self-destructive years as an adult, Crowell sees the deep-seated sense of disenfranchisement J.W. and Cauzette brought to marriage and parenthood. Both suffered abusive upbringings. J.W.’s mother Lola excelled in “beating her children, fighting with her husband, baking biscuits, and breaking wind”. Cauzette, already disabled from an in-utero stroke, blamed her alcoholic, terrorizing father for the first seizures in a life plagued by bad health. J.W. and Cauzette sacrifice their dreams to help their families survive Cauzette's to pursue her education; J.W.’s to become an engineer (or Hank Williams).
Crowell’s performance illuminates his poetic imagery and earthy turns of phrase and we hear his hard-won pride in his family’s legacy. Forever grateful that his father shared his musical passions, starting when Crowell was two and watched one of Williams’ last performances from his dad’s shoulders, he was clearly inspired by his mother’s triumph over frailty and her abiding faith especially by the way she blossomed in widowhood and became a devoted grandmother.
Mid-way through, Crowell’s narrative starts wandering and becomes self- consciously literary. But aw heck: the overall experience of listening to this authentic, unique American tale is magical. Elly Schull Meeks
From the acclaimed musician comes a tender, surprising, and often uproarious memoir about his dirt-poor southeast Texas boyhood.
The only child of a hard-drinking father and a Holy Roller mother, Rodney Crowell was no stranger to bombast from an early age, whether knock-down-drag-outs at a local dive bar or fire-and-brimstone sermons at Pentecostal tent revivals. He was an expert at reading his father's mercurial moods and gauging exactly when his mother was likely to erupt, and even before he learned to ride a bike, he was often forced to take matters into his own hands. He broke up his parents raucous New Year's Eve party with gunfire and ended their slugfest at the local drive-in (actual restaurants weren't on the Crowell's menu) by smashing a glass pop bottle over his own head.
Despite the violent undercurrents always threatening to burst to the surface, he fiercely loved his epilepsy-racked mother, who scorned boring preachers and improvised wildly when the bills went unpaid. And he idolized his blustering father, a honky-tonk man who took his boy to see Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash perform live, and bought him a drum set so he could join his band at age eleven.
Shot through with raggedy friends and their neighborhood capers, hilariously awkward adolescent angst, and an indelible depiction of the bloodlines Crowell came from, Chinaberry Sidewalks also vividly re-creates Houston in the fifties: a rough frontier town where icehouses sold beer by the gallon on paydays; teeming with musical venues from standard roadhouses to the Magnolia Gardens, where name-brand stars brought glamour to a place starved for it; filling up with cheap subdivisions where blue-collar day laborers could finally afford a house of their own; a place where apocalyptic hurricanes and pest infestations were nearly routine.
Would you consider the audio edition of Chinaberry Sidewalks to be better than the print version?
Rodney made me laugh out loud . His accent was a plus.
Who was your favorite character and why?
Rodney had me fall in love with him. I went looking on his website to find out more! I just wanted more Rodney Crowell!
Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
When he went to get the girl out of her daddy's house.
Any additional comments?
Don't miss out on this book.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I am nuts about Rodney Crowell. There is not a better country music writer extent. That being said, I have found from listening to Chinaberry Sidewalks that there is a difference between writing poetry and prose. All those warnings your high school English teacher gave: "less adjectives, more action verbs, etc." are true. Rodney's vast vocabulary and skill with folksy idioms worked against him in this book. He just didn't know when to stop. The average sentence was about a block long, which made it tough to stay focused. I lived on the wild east side of Houston for many years, so I enjoyed hearing his take on familiar landmarks. Living is a trip on Telephone Road.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Easy time lesson to. Keep me going wanting to fear more of the story. Fantastic.
What could Rodney Crowell have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?
Quit using the F--- word!
You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?
Any additional comments?
I have no intention of listening to a book where the F--- word is used! I find it an insult and I will not tolerate it.
2 of 7 people found this review helpful