Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell



By Rodney Crowell
 Illustrated. 259 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

Sad and True Love Story, Worthy of Its Soundtrack
Janet Maslin - New York Times Rodney Crowell’s parents met in 1941 at a Roy Acuff concert in a high school in Buchanan, Tenn. “I knew right then and there he was the boy I was gonna marry,” Addie Cauzette Willoughby said about J.W. Crowell. “I loved Roy Acuff, but I couldn’t hear a word he was singin’ after your daddy showed up,” Crowell’s mother would tell her son.
  Fifty years later, she met Roy Acuff again, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry . She was introduced to Acuff by another country music luminary: Rodney himself.  “Identifying herself as a lifelong fan, she told the most popular country musician of her generation that she’d met the love of her life at his concert,” Crowell writes in “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” his new memoir, “obliging everyone present, myself included, to imagine this had taken place only a night or two before.”

As Crowell tells it, Acuff graciously gave the senior Crowells’ love song its final verse. “The courtly superstar paid rapt attention,” he writes. Then Acuff told Cauzette, now widowed, that “his most treasured memory from that evening was of two young lovebirds whose faces shone from the audience with the light of love everlasting.” If the heartache and sweet eloquence of this story go straight to your tear ducts, you will not be alone.

This tribute to enduring love leaps out of “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” a memoir that echoes the spirit of Crowell’s music. His other, more rollicking, mad-dog memories of his parents don’t sound anything like fairy tales. J.W. was apt to address his wife with an “Aw, hell, Cauzette,” as in “Aw, hell, Cauzette, you ain’t got a bit more sense than God give a mule.” Cauzette “liked the sound and feel of sliced air,” which she’d hear whenever she cut a switch off one of the Chinaberry trees of the title and whipped little Rodney for one of his seemingly nonstop infractions. Since Rodney had the honor of helping to plant Chinaberry saplings, his book’s title reflects the triple tenets of the honky-tonk hit parade: nostalgia, pride and pain.   Crowell has written many such songs himself,

Crowell attaches near-apocalyptic impact to his experiences watching Pentecostal preaching (a particularly bravura chapter) and witnessing a Jerry Lee Lewis performance and listening to a Jimmy Reed record. He appreciates the showmanship of each. He recalls being stunned by his first glimpse of Johnny Cash in concert, making it sound credible that Cash could make the sun come out after a violent storm. And, by the way, that’s about as close as “Chinaberry Sidewalks” cares to get to the Cash family. Crowell’s book discreetly avoids discussing his marriage to Rosanne Cash, just as her recent memoir, “Composed,”  stuck to their professional producer-singer collaboration  and emphasized music over domestic details.
“Chinaberry Sidewalks” also steers clear of the particulars of  Crowell’s long career; if he wants to write another memoir, he’s got the goods. For now, he leaves readers with eloquent, movingly spiritual accounts of his parents’ very different deaths, events that inspired his deepest awe. One of the gifts of losing them, he says, was the realization that they were free of their troubles.
“Another,” he says, for all their turmoil, “was my conviction that in the end she was a wise and powerful woman, and he a kind and gentle man.”

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