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With her award-winning memoir Just Kids, godmother of punk Patti Smith recently set the standard for what a musician can do with an autobiography. Rodney Crowell is on the other side of the musical world than Smith, but his new memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is every bit as powerful, revealing and gorgeously written. In the book, the master songwriter, producer and once-upon-a-chart hit-maker returns to his Texas roots, evoking the grim and comic world of the Crowell family, from the seasons of hurricanes to the days of country music legends, from explosions of domestic violence to enduring moments of profound tenderness. Prior to his rare, solo-acoustic club date in St. Louis, B-Sides reached Crowell at his home in Nashville to discuss his writing process and the amazing tightrope walk of memory.
B-Sides: Have you been thinking about a memoir for a while?
Rodney Crowell: These songs started coming to me in the late '90s and became this record in 2001, The Houston Kid. A lot of memories started coming back. At the time, I thought some of this would have to be written long form, I'd have to learn to write sentences, because, you know, I didn't pay attention in school. A lot of things that became the backbone of Chinaberry Sidewalks were things I couldn't write as songs.
That was the genesis.
And I mention late in the book that after my father's death, I introduced my mother to Roy Acuff. That had a profound effect on me. My parents had met at a Roy Acuff concert. I knew then that there was the arc of the story. That's what made it bubble up inside me. And eventually I figured out how to write. It took a couple of years to make heads or tails out of it and get a manuscript together.
Country music is so important in your childhood, and I wouldn't expect you to do a name-dropping memoir. The presence of music in the book is more about your relationship to your father and your family.
It is. I thought early on, "I'm not Keith Richards." I say that now because of course Keith Richards has a memoir, a very good one. But I'm not Bob Dylan; I'm not one of those iconic artists. I'm a perfectly legitimate, successful artist in my own way. My travels through the music business, that seems so self-serving. To maintain a relationship to a reader, I would somehow have to do it through my ability to tell stories.
The book begins at a party on New Year's Eve, 1955. Why did you choose that moment?
It's probably the most dramatic scene in the whole book. The drama of me fishing a gun out of my parents' closet and having it accidentally go off in my hands. It took me years to get over that. It was frightening.
That scene is also triggered by you hearing people sing really badly at this wild party.
That's true, but more than their shitty singing it was their loose morals. I knew the trouble that would happen between my mother and father and everyone when wives got blurred with alcohol. It was an accident, but it could have been a really horrible accident.
There's a line in the early pages about a experience you did not witness. There's this image of your father, in a bathroom, beating your mother when she was pregnant with you: "The scene is seared in my mind as if I'd actually been there." That's a statement of how you tell a story.
Also, it's about these stories being told over and over again. My mother liked using that ammunition against my father. The problem for me was that I needed my father on a pedestal, and he was being knocked off constantly. So I was angry with him for doing it and angry at her for keeping me from idolizing my father. It is seared in my mind. I can describe the windowsill and the claw-footed bathtub in that bathroom.
You're very conscious of how memory works, how it gets at truth and distorts at the same time.
One thing you do when you're writing, because it is a 50-something-year-old man writing it, you take your adult self back with you. When you talk about these things that can be too intense to share with a reader, the truth of the matter is, those things had been resolved in my lifetime before I ever started writing. Those scenes were forgiven. Everyone had atoned. Love had replaced danger. So I take an adult back with me to tell the story. It's the adult writing, but it's the child self that's feeding the information. It's a tightrope.