Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nashville Chrome

The Browns (Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie) were already a successful country music trio when I began listening to recorded music as a boy.  For that reason, it seems that their music has always been part of my life.  And even though the siblings broke up the trio decades ago, I continue to listen to Jim Ed perform on, and host, the Grand Ol’ Opry radio broadcasts on Nashville radio station WSM.  So I thought I knew a little about the Browns.  But when I started to read the new Rick Bass novel about the Brown family, Nashville Chrome, I realized just how little I knew about their personal lives or how the three eldest children became, for a time, so famous.
Nashville Chrome tells the Browns’ story largely through the eyes of the oldest Brown sibling, Maxine.  Rick Bass did the research, including visits and interviews with members of the Brown family, and it shows in the story he tells; there is plenty about the family’s early days and their relatively brief career as one of the most popular singing groups in the country.  
But fiction being what it is, it is hard to know just how accurately Bass portrays Maxine’s reaction to the breakup of the group and the rather sad efforts she made during the next several decades to make a personal comeback on her own.  Is his portrayal of Maxine factually accurate?  Was she humiliated by the young employees of her old record label?  Would she actually consider making a documentary film directed by a 12-year-old boy with a handheld video camera and a vision of his own?
Bass reminds readers just how big the Browns were at their  peak.  They successfully competed on the charts with a young Elvis Presley and, in fact, topped him for a long time.  Their admirers included people like Johnny Cash and the Beatles.  They had it all; and they lost it all so quickly that most people today have never heard of them.  
Country music and pop music fans will appreciate Nashville Chrome for the way that Bass recreates a long gone era, a time when new music stars could still come from nowhere, and often did, catching the imagination of the country in a way that just doesn’t happen very often today.  
What they might not appreciate nearly as much is the way Bass presents his story.  Nashville Chrome is a novel, but it reads more like a series of magazine articles.  The Browns, as individuals, never come to life, and it is never easy to sympathize with any of them - or with anyone else in the novel with the exception, perhaps, of the Brown matriarch.  The feeling that the novel was pasted together from previously published works is even stronger because of the repetitiveness of what Bass has to say about the unusual sound developed by the Browns as children.  According to Bass, it was simply fated to be this way; fame was the trio’s destiny and they could not have avoided it, for better or worse, no matter what they might have done.  This might be a great theory - but the reader is beat over the head with it so many times that his eyes begin to glaze over.
Bottom line is that the story of the Browns is an intriguing one and Nashville Chrome is worth reading for that reason, alone.  That the novel is written in such an un-novel-like style is unfortunate.
I am with Maxine.  The Browns deserve a movie version of their own.
Rated at: 3.0

I love this YouTube clip of the Browns doing their best known song, "Little Jimmy Brown," in 1999.  They still had the perfect harmony that made them so famous.


  1. Wow, they sound incredible in this clip!

    I wish Nashville Chrome had turned out differently. I want so bad to like it, but I've read so many reserved reviews!

  2. They do still sound pretty good, don't they? They never lost their talent; musical fashion changed and they got to be old hat to too many people to survive as a group. Bonnie was ready to call it a day anyhow but Maxine, not so much.

    I really found reading this one to be a chore and it shouldn't be that way. Bass is a good writer, so I have to believe he thought he knew what he was doing by adopting this style for the book. It just did not work for me...or for lots of others, as you say.

  3. They sound great together - what a wonderful story and I love the book cover. Thanks for sharing this :}. You might also enjoy an inspirational memoir out by Linda Lambert Pestana called, "Voices of the Heart." Her story was so moving and touching. I especially loved her writing on forgiving yourself and others. What an amazing woman Linda is.