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Review: Chinaberry Sidewalks

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

Book Review:

Most families are a tad strange, to twist Leo Tolstoy’s observation a bit, while some families — notably that of Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell — are strange through and through.

That made life dicey for the creator of “Ashes by Now,” “It’s Such a Small World” and “Ignorance Is the Enemy.”  But it also supplied the grist for Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s delightful and often moving memoir.

The book proves that Crowell comes from truly oddball stock: His father, James Walter Crowell, was a hard-drinking, honky-tonking wife beater. Born in 1923, James claimed he slept on nothing but straw until 1941: “It’s a wonder I don’t crow like a rooster,” he once told Rodney.

Mother Cauzette, born in 1924, was a Pentecostal epileptic who suffered 13 miscarriages, gave birth to another son who lived only 37 hours and sent her husband to the hospital more than once to have wounds sewn shut.

Yet they were nothing compared with other relatives, including an octogenarian great-grandfather, Paw Jim, whose 1960 death inspired Crowell’s judgment that “he hadn’t answered a direct question truthfully since his twelfth birthday and hadn’t taken a bath since he accidentally fell in the Blood River in 1936.” Nor was Lyin’ Jim Wilson, as he was better known, bound by traditional mores: “His sexual preferences included daughters, sisters, granddaughters, neighbors’ wives, and the odd farm animal.”

A grandmother, meanwhile, “excelled in four areas: beating her children, fighting with her husband, baking biscuits, and breaking wind, the latter being her greatest passion.”

So it’s something of a miracle that Rodney Crowell turned out as sane and successful as he did.

Born in 1950, Crowell writes with passion and a sometimes bemused horror about his upbringing in a Houston suburb of cookie-cutter houses, towering scrub brush and chinaberry trees. His parents, he notes, were not cut out to be members of the landed gentry — or any gentry, for that matter. They “took to home ownership like horse thieves to a hanging judge.”

Pop practiced what might be called laissez-faire home maintenance, allowing the house — “essentially a tarpaper shack with shingle siding” — to slowly disintegrate. James and Cauzette eventually “had to strategically place a number 3 washtub, a five-gallon Igloo water cooler, an ice chest, and various pots and pans to catch the rainwater coming through the ceiling” — which, when the weather cleared, afforded nighttime views of the constellations.

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