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Book Review: Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell

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Rodney Crowell’s story would serve as interesting fodder for the timeless nature/nurture debate. An acclaimed singer/songwriter of obvious intelligence and sensitivity, not exactly disinclined to a bit of self-examination, he grew up dirt-poor, with a hard-drinking daddy and a holy-roller mother who’d no doubt scoff at the very notion that a child’s self-esteem mattered much — if it existed at all.

It was definitely a different world then, at least by modern urban standards. Unlike today’s micro-managed kids, Crowell and friends were free to roam neighborhoods, form alliances, and generally figure their own way through a complex world where adult behavior was unrelentingly mysterious and routinely violent. Yet Crowell, it seems, turned out quite alright.

Chinaberry Sidewalks, a memoir of growing up in what seems a distant and long-lost era, is a raucous and loving tribute to the unbreakable bonds of family life. The only child of ‘J-Bo’ and Cauzette, his frail yet surprisingly resilient mother, Crowell survived a childhood of mostly benign yet intermittently loving neglect, and recounts it with warm-hearted affection and rollicking good humor.

An acclaimed songwriter, Crowell has a knack for colorful description and vivid imagery, recounting boyhood adventures with obvious relish that combines the maturity of adult reflection with remnants of the youthful exuberance that fueled his escapades, proving himself an engaging and witty companion along the way.

At times things get a bit episodic – there are chapters devoted to individual incidents that don’t really flow seamlessly. And there are sections that find Crowell almost too self-analytical, as though the book were written as a form of therapy – Crowell grapples with the complications of loving parents who were arguably not really equipped to be parents, and his often-troubled relationship with his father is a prominent thread throughout.

But it’s Crowell’s story, after all, and his story is one of family. Music fans could wish for a bit more about that aspect of his life – he doesn’t really delve deeply into his passion for music, though its presence as a backdrop to daily life is felt throughout. Early on he recounts the time his father, an amateur musician himself who never quite realized his own ambitions, took him to see his beloved ‘ol Hank’ (Williams). And later, in retrospect, he wonders what his father might think if he knew that, 30 years after they attended a concert by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins together, Crowell would produce a live recording by the three giants. They’re minor, if pivotal, incidents in the tale, yet Cowell’s prose so perfectly captures the time and the culture – Houston in the ’50s, still suffused with post-war optimism yet beginning to see the dark side of industrialization, with much of its population still fresh from the farm – that one can almost hear the hillbilly honky-tonk in the background.

Crowell largely skims over his adult years (first working with Emmylou Harris, he’d subsequently go on to produce – and marry – Roseanne Cash, and make a living as a professional musician) other than a few reflections on fatherhood, but dwells at length on the end of his parents’ lives, particularly his father’s. Describing the agonizing yet poignant final moments, it’s clear that he has indeed found meaning in his father’s life, and there’s a sense of closure to the book as well – Crowell as an adult makes peace with the wild and often frightening man he idolized.

Crowell’s boyhood adventures make for a fast-paced and fun romp, but Chinaberry Sidewalks proves far more than a collection of rosy-hued recollections of simpler times and innocence lost. A meditation on family and love and what it means to live, it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. And in the end, as a love letter of sorts to the mother and father who raised him as best they could for the time and the place – it’s a lovely and touching tribute.

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