Growing up playing board games and listening to country music with my older sister, I had a pretty fair idea of what the genre was all about. Or so I thought. Little did I know that country is — in many ways — the foundation of rock and the wellspring of rich subsets including bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana. Join me in conversations with both established and up-and-coming artists as tell us about themselves, their music, and how it fits into today’s country sound.
A vicious belt slap across the bare stomach of a woman who had miscarried thirteen times. A five-year-old so terrified that violence would erupt at an alcohol-fueled New Year’s Eve party that he shoots a gun to disrupt the scene. An ugly fistfight in a honky tonk between two women— including one suffered severe epileptic seizures for decades—over one of their husbands.
These are among the real-life images that much-honored singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell recalls from his East Texas childhood in his just-published book Chinaberry Sidewalks. Although it’s easy to assume the verbal and physical violence in the book means the story is one step away from reality television, nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead Crowell, a member of Nashville royalty who has written, produced, and otherwise collaborated with Vince Gill, Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris, Chely Wright and many others— including his ex-wife Rosanne Cash— centers the story around his parents’ love story that started and ended (in the book, anyway)
with the couple’s love of country legend Roy Acuff.
“To write something that personal I had to walk a fine line,” said Crowell from his Tennessee home just before the book’s January release. “I wanted its nature to never be cloying, never [appear that I was] trying to get sympathy. As a friend of mine said ‘It’s not who took the worse beating, it’s how they look standing.’”
And thanks to the brilliant writing and vivid details brought to life by Crowell, the couple that physically lived in Jacinto City, Texas, but emotionally dwelled in the music of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, look pretty darned good.
Just before the book was released, Crowell spent some time talking with OurStage about his parents—Addie Cauzette Willoughby and J. W. Crowell— and just what their loves story means to him. Here’s some of what he had to say:
OS: Why did you choose to write this story about your parents and part of your childhood instead of writing something about your career?
RC: When I got the idea to write it, I pretty quickly I realized I’m a songwriter and there are people that know about me, but I’m not a personality that people would be interested in knowing about my career. Really, from the get go I was interested in writing something that would have to stand and create an audience based on the quality of the writing and not what I [have done professionally].
OS: It had to be difficult to write something so raw where you talk about violent encounters your parents had, your dad’s drinking and the verbal abuse.
RC: Occasionally I would get a little cold sweat and think “Wait a minute! My mom and dad aren’t living and they are not here to defend themselves.” Then I thought “Good!” (laughs). But I know my mother would have approved, and probably my father would have, too. I wrote a song “The Rock of My Soul,” that pretty much exposed in song form what this book is about. When my mother heard the song—at the end of the song I use poetic license and the narrator goes to jail—her remarks were “I don’t mind what anyone knows about me in this song but I don’t want anyone to think you went to prison.” I said “If I didn’t have a guitar and your gift of gab, I would have wound up in prison.”
OS: You’ve always been revered for your vibrant writing. How did writing this book differ from songwriting?
RC: The process was continually peeling away, revisions, revisions, revisions, revisions.
A lot of what I understand about the English language is guess work until I use the key and unlock something that clarifies the images I’m trying to chisel out. The process I love. It’s daunting and exhausting but by the same token I’m very happy in that routine. I’d work six to eight hours, ride my bike a couple hours, then my wife and I would figure out what we were going to eat. That process and routine suits me fine. I’m a strange character…I enjoy the solitude and I enjoy getting out on the road and performing. I think it’s a pretty healthy schizophrenia I hone.
OurStage: How did you choose the segments of your life—and your parents’ lives—that made it into the book?
RC: Part of it was when I thought the arc of the story was really that of my mother’s and father’s love affair. I’ve said to people “If we were standing in this room right now and sending my 18- and 19-year-old mother and father out into the world, we’d both say they’d never make it.” That was the arc for me—I considered myself narrator, referee and participant.
Although they were self destructive, hitting myself over head with Dr. Pepper bottle was a really sound way to break up their fight [as told in one story of the book]. That’s pretty extreme but also in service of the arc of their story in that something as drastic as me cold cocking myself stopped them for a moment. If they had not stopped, the arc of the story wouldn’t be the same.
OS: Did you share pieces of the book with others as you wrote it?
RC: I read it aloud to a few friends. I’d call a friend of mine and read a paragraph or read a chapter aloud if I had one. It took seven years of writing to figure out how to write it and then over a couple years I produced a manuscript that my editor received and we worked on. GREAT credit goes to my editor. He really helped me raise it to a level I couldn’t achieve on my own. I had some superb help.
OS: As you reviewed your childhood, did it make you think about how you raised your own children?
RC: Isn’t that true with each generation? Lo and and behold, come to find out with my grown children I did things worse. I think it gets thrown at you—part of the slings and arrows of parenthood are that eventually it comes back to you what a shitty job you did and also what a great job. I think parenthood is like a drive-in-movie-size mirror reflecting back.
OS: One of the most personal parts of the book to me was reading about your wife and daughter preparing your mother for the funeral. I felt a bit like a bit of an intruder reading something so personal. Why did you choose to include it?
RC: I included that because it was about sisterhood, about my daughter and my wife. In my contribution to that scene I’m sort of bouncing around nervous as the undertaker keeps coming down to check. Yet these two women had dropped into this genetic memory or this midwifery that has been passed down for ages and ages. My wife and daughter were dressing and bathing this woman. My mother had given [my wife] Claudia instructions for what she’d want. It is part of the female archetype. They were channeling that archetype that dress bodies of loved ones to send them into the afterlife.
Fans will be able to find out even more during Crowell’s “Chinaberry Sidewalks Tour” that combines his music with stories from the book and beyond. The tour began January 18th. You can order the book and get a complete list of tour dates and venues, here.