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Nashville Chrome

Rick Bass's new novel reminds us how the Browns once ruled the country-music charts.

Nowadays — in both the novel and in actuality — Maxine's younger sister, Bonnie, is happily married to a nonmusical retired physician. She stays in Motel 6's and accepts the fact that diner waitresses no longer recognize her. Back in the 1950s, however, she was Elvis's secret sweetheart (and so busty that the producers of The Ed Sullivan Show insisted on sewing another piece of cloth over her stage costume for a broadcast).

As the Browns savor their fame, Bass foreshadows the real-life blows they would absorb in later years: the accidental death at age 12 of the Browns' richly talented youngest brother; the damage to Jim Ed's guitar-picking fingers when he stumbled while operating a circular saw; and Elvis growing distant and mean as his rising star leaves the Browns earthbound in the Arkansas woods.

Gallant Jim Ed Brown is perhaps the least developed character in Bass's perceptive portrayal. Though the young man eagerly joined Elvis in hotel rooms to receive groupies, he comes across as stolid in later life, blithely carrying on as a minor solo act. (Jim Ed learned to play the guitar again, using different fingers, and he did ultimately partner with a major talent: country singer Helen Cornelius.)

Readers taking stock of their own lives are apt to sympathize most with the long-suffering Maxine. We come to care about her and count on her for the novel's tension as she confronts the reality, as Bass puts it, of a time "when the contracts vanished and the Browns disbanded — and before she made her uneasy peace with that new accommodation, the cessation of fame."

If the Browns were more prominent today, Rick Bass's novel might not have achieved the suspense it manages to deliver. Perhaps the group was jinxed; perhaps brother-sister acts came to seem cornball; or perhaps the bitch goddess of Fame is simply a false idol.

Bass's Maxine proclaims that the Browns opened the gates for such glorious successors as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, and that Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks both owe her thank-you notes. Perhaps she'll take solace in a shout-out called Nashville Chrome.

 

Charlie Clark, a Washington writer, got hooked on oldies by the Browns in the early 1980s.

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