Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chinaberry Sidewalks

In Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir, Rodney Crowell uses his remarkable storytelling skills to pay tribute to his parents, J.W. and Cauzette. Along the way, the book provides a good bit of insight into what shaped Rodney Crowell into the man he is today, but make no mistake about it, Chinaberry Sidewalks is primarily J.W. and Cauzette’s story. Rodney just happens to share much of it with them.

J.W. (from Kentucky) and Cauzette (from Buchanan, Tennessee) were married in Evansville, Indiana on September 6, 1942 because of the quickness and ease with which a marriage could be accomplished in that state. Eventually the couple would move to Houston, Texas, where in August 1950 Rodney would be born, as he puts it, between his mother’s “seventh and eighth miscarriages.” Cauzette had managed one earlier full-term pregnancy but Rodney’s brother survived for only 37 hours, and Rodney would prove to be an only child.

To hear Rodney tell it, there was seldom a dull moment at his house on Jacinto City’s (a Houston suburb) Norvic Street. Considering the volatile mix that is a hard-drinking, country-singer-wannabe father and a church-attending Pentecostal mother, along with the strong personalities both parents brought to the marriage, this is likely to have been the case. Rodney’s upbringing may have been loud, and it might have been a bit on the edge, but it was the perfect incubator for one of country music’s future stars.

J.W., who went so far as to make eleven-year-old Rodney his drummer in J.W. Crowell and the Rhythmaires, passed his love for country music (and its legends) on to his son. Cauzette, on the other hand, made sure that Rodney was exposed to another side of show business, including at least one preacher who gave one “the impression that he might burst into flames at any moment.” He was exposed to moving, emotional music in both cases, and Rodney learned from it all.

Chinaberry Sidewalks is filled with stories of growing up in 1950s Houston during those more innocent days when little boys still had the run of their neighborhood streets. Rodney and his friends, as did all boys in those days, formed their own little world, one in which they entertained themselves and of which their parents were only marginally aware. There are tales of near-misses involving bows and arrows, surviving hurricane parties hosted by drunken neighbors, rock-throwing brawls, fishing trips, powerful thunderstorms, and catching the big-name country stars when they came to town.

J.W. Crowell wanted to be Hank Williams, and he did live the life “ol’ Hank” sang about. He even took a barely two-year-old Rodney to see one of Hank’s shows just weeks before Hank would die at age 29. That the show made such an impact on Rodney is probably due more to J.W.’s retelling of the story than it is on Rodney’s actual memory of it, but there is no doubt that Rodney felt as if he were in the presence of a young god that fateful night. That Rodney would go on to have almost exactly the career J.W. wished so hard for himself is a bit sad, but that career still serves as a fitting tribute to the man he loved so much.

Rodney Crowell has done himself, his parents, and his old friends proud with Chinaberry Sidewalks, but potential readers should be aware that this is not a book about his musical career or his life with Rosanne Cash, daughter of John. Those aspects are barely touched upon; here’s hoping that Rodney is saving all of that for volume two.

Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. I think you'll have fun with it. One of my best friends grew up two or three blocks from Rodney and has told me a few stories of those days...I've passed the book on to him to get his thoughts.

  2. Another one for my stack! Your description reminds me of Liars Club by Mary Kaar.

    How do you choose which books to read?

  3. Sean, you're absolutely right. This one is very similar to Karr's first memoir. I grew up in the town next to Karr's hometown and can vouch for the authenticity of that one. And that was only about 90 miles from where Crowell grew up at about the same time. It all rang very true to me.