Rick Bass's new novel reminds us how the Browns once ruled the country-music charts.
Regrets over glories unrealized have animated literature ever since Charles Dickens's Miss Havisham was forced to lower her expectations. But few novelists have attempted to penetrate the lives of real, still-living personalities with an eye toward helping them restore an unjustly faded reputation.
Rick Bass, an award-winning writer of finely chiseled Southern fiction, appears to have spent the better part of the past five years in conversation with the Browns, a long-disbanded brother-and-two-sisters singing act that ruled the country charts in the late 1950s. No one who hears their signature hit "The Three Bells" — an angelic adaptation of a French song about three mythic stages in the life of one Jimmy Brown — would accuse Bass of hyperbole when he characterizes each of their voices as "writhing and wrapping around the other two until a swirling, smoky sound was created."
Modern readers may not recall the Browns' ubiquity in Eisenhower America, but the trio (and its quicksilver career) is restored to vibrant life in the pages of Nashville Chrome. Bass weaves in their complex but intimate relationship with the pre- and post-fame Elvis Presley; their exhausting road trips with crooner Gentleman Jim Reeves; and the memorable day in the mid-1960s when the Beatles cited the Browns as a musical influence. The Browns' long string of number one hits — eight of them recorded under the production guidance of master guitarist Chet Atkins — typified the soft, earnest harmonies that came to be known as the "Nashville Chrome" sound. (To sample their best tracks, lend an ear to "Scarlet Ribbons" or "I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.")
Nashville Chrome retraces the rise and fade of the Browns' family-values act as they struggled to adjust to changing public and private circumstances. The real-life Browns — Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie — were products of Depression-era rural Arkansas, where their bitter, alcoholic father ran a sawmill and their mother baked unforgettable fruit pies. Bass hews to those historical details, then departs from the factual path to imagine how the young singers might have developed their perfect pitch and timing: Could it have come from their childhood exposure to screaming saw blades and the "ax-like drumming of woodpeckers back in the swamp"?
Like many rural musicians, the Browns began their harmonizing in kitchens, churches, and taverns. Then, just as they were getting traction, they signed their performing lives over to unscrupulous manager Fabor Robinson. He worked them ragged and shunted their earnings into his own pockets, stealing "their magic as surely as if capturing three fireflies in a glass bottle," Bass writes.
In Bass's re-creation — a sort of countrified episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" — the narrator interrupts his own 1950s story line with flash-forward, well-imagined scenes of oldest sibling and chief songwriter Maxine. We see her eking out a lonely existence on the fringes of 21st-century Memphis, Tennessee; now divorced from a wanton womanizer, this Maxine still yearns for a big-city comeback. Using a walker to move about her modest home, she visits her trophy room to revel in photos of her years as a country queen: One framed image shows her throwing out the first pitch at the 1956 Major League All-Star game. "My God," she says to herself, "if I could have those thirty or forty middle years back, I could have been somebody."
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.