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Review: Chinaberry Sidewalks

Grammy winner Rodney Crowell takes a stark look at his gnarled family tree

The family struggled both financially and emotionally. Crowell writes poignantly of watching his mother cook eggs in an aluminum pie plate heated by an electric iron, and of witnessing fights between his parents that occasionally escalated to the point where bones were broken and blood was shed.

Yet Chinaberry Sidewalks is far from an exercise in family smackdown. It is, for the most part, a story of love — if not of the fairy-tale variety, then certainly of the enduring type. It is also a story of pursuing dreams, especially his father’s desire to become a country crooner, which introduced Crowell to musical performance — initially as a drummer.

He got the job, he admits, not for the beat he could lay down but because the regular drummer in his father’s band had departed and Dad knew he wouldn’t have to pay Rodney — whose playing at his first gig justified the lack of wages. Yet performing in dive bars proved to be an immersive education for the pre-teen percussionist: “I saw every kind of skirt lifting, ass grabbing, ear licking, tongue sucking, and dry humping there is,” he writes.

Crowell also recalls the fateful day in 1958 when he and his parents attended a concert starring Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash: “[T]wenty-three years later I’d produce a live recording of those same three artists.” He would also marry Cash’s daughter Rosanne in 1979; the marriage ended in 1992, but Crowell preserved its high points forever in the lyrics of “That Ol’ Door” on his 1994 album Let the Picture Paint Itself.

Beyond those tantalizing glimpses, however, Chinaberry Sidewalks largely sidesteps both the author’s musical evolution (which included stints with rock and country bands called the Rolling Tones and the Arbitrators) and his personal struggles (a drug overdose landed him in the hospital). Crowell is known throughout the music industry for his songwriting chops, and in this memoir he extends those to the prose realm to recapture his early life with his parents. He vividly recalls attending Pentecostal church services with Cauzette, where he encountered Brother Pemberton, who “gives the impression that he might burst into flames at any moment. With his greasy pompadour spilling down over his eyes, his necktie flying, his shirt hanging halfway out of his pants, his face turned to the heavens like a satellite dish awaiting God’s direct signals, which once received will be spat at the congregation like bullets from a Gatling gun, Brother Pemberton in full flight is a sight to behold.”

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