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.
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.”
Despite the fire and brimstone, Crowell writes, the preacher was in fact bored — which he revealed to Rodney by winking at him during one memorable service. The moment was transformative: “In the wink of an eye,” Crowell recalls, “I saw a compassionate, tolerant, and non-judgmental God of love and great humor. My own faith was planted as a seed that morning, and there are days its fruit sustains me still.”
He also writes powerfully about his father’s demise — which, though wrenching, ended on an almost blessed note. “Your daddy looks like he did the day I married him,” Cauzette said just after James died (she would live on for another several years).
By embracing his role as “a witness to and harvester of my family’s past,” Crowell writes, he has been able to “realize that life’s basic impulse — given half a chance, even in death — is to heal itself.” In Chinaberry Sidewalks, his healing has produced a memoir that is, in its own strange way, life-affirming indeed.
Writer and musician Dave Shiflett posts his own music at Daveshiflett.com.