Chinaberry Sidewalks, a memoir by singer, songwriter, and producer Rodney Crowell, is as bittersweet as any honky-tonk ballad. Written with humor and painfully hard-won self-knowledge, it is also as wise as it is entertaining think Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club meets Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. And Crowell reads his story wonderfully in a honeyed, musical twang, with plenty of chuckles, sighs, and even a little singing. The burnished timbre of his voice and his evocative prose immediately transport us to the world of his East Houston childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Chinaberry trees provided the switches Crowell would be sent to pick for his own wallopings, and one tree in particular that he planted with his mother offered a bit of defiant hope when it flourished outside their shambling house. Inside, the drunken mayhem of his hapless parents J.W. and Cauzette drove him, at age five, to shoot his Daddy’s rifle into the wall. A few years later, he’d break up one of their ‘knock-down drag-outs’ by smashing a bottle over his own head. Searing though it was, Crowell never fails to see the irony and humor in their narcissistic neglect. Case in point: his parents and carousing neighbors at a Hurricane Watch party make sure the kids wear raingear when they send them out to play in the gathering storm.
After self-destructive years as an adult, Crowell sees the deep-seated sense of disenfranchisement J.W. and Cauzette brought to marriage and parenthood. Both suffered abusive upbringings. J.W.’s mother Lola excelled in “beating her children, fighting with her husband, baking biscuits, and breaking wind”. Cauzette, already disabled from an in-utero stroke, blamed her alcoholic, terrorizing father for the first seizures in a life plagued by bad health. J.W. and Cauzette sacrifice their dreams to help their families survive Cauzette's to pursue her education; J.W.’s to become an engineer (or Hank Williams).
Crowell’s performance illuminates his poetic imagery and earthy turns of phrase and we hear his hard-won pride in his family’s legacy. Forever grateful that his father shared his musical passions, starting when Crowell was two and watched one of Williams’ last performances from his dad’s shoulders, he was clearly inspired by his mother’s triumph over frailty and her abiding faith especially by the way she blossomed in widowhood and became a devoted grandmother.
Mid-way through, Crowell’s narrative starts wandering and becomes self- consciously literary. But aw heck: the overall experience of listening to this authentic, unique American tale is magical. Elly Schull Meeks