Chinaberry Sidewalks: Another Excellent Crazy Childhood Memoir by Rodney Crowell

Welcome new guest blogger, Richard Potter. Below you can learn more about him and more about an excellent memoir from singer/song writer Rodney Crowell. If you love memoirists Mary Karr, Rosanne Cash, and Jeanette Walls, you will love this one also. 

By Richard Potter

Chinaberry Sidewalks is my first direct exposure to a great American writer, Rodney Crowell. A songwriter first and foremost, with Chinaberry Sidewalks Crowell proves to be a gifted memoirist as well.

As I prepared to write this review, it became clear that my indirect exposure to Mr. Crowell reaches back more than thirty years. He wrote one of my all-time favorite songs, “Ashes By Now”, which was covered by Emmylou Harris in 1981 and again by Lee Ann Womack in 2000. Crowell’s name appears as producer and composer on several of my treasured vinyl LPs, including Harris’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978), and Rosanne Cash’s Somewhere in the Stars (1982). (Crowell and Cash were married from 1979-1992.)

More recently, my favorite memoirist Mary Karr posted a video of Crowell and herselfin the act of co-writing lyrics for an upcoming album. In a 2010 interview with Crowell, Karr asks, “What possessed you to go from being a Grammy-winner to being an actual literary memoirist?” Crowell explains that he did not want to limit his creativity to music, especially as he grew older. “I wanted to learn to paint on a different canvas so I would never stop working as an artist.”

At first, Crowell found he was “drunk” on how many words he could use, and it took some time to be weaned from the “trickery” he had come to rely on to write songs. Chinaberry Sidewalks demonstrates that Crowell can easily stomach the solid food of sentences and paragraphs, and that his gift of storytelling crosses easily from music to memoir. His account of cracking himself over the head with an empty pop bottle displays a clever sense of humor: “I got the full cartoon effect. It felt as if I’d split my skull into two pieces. I saw stars. Drunken birds tweeted, chirped, and crash-landed on the seat next to me. Guardian angels swooped down for a closer look, winced, and sped off in search of scraped knees or bumblebee stings.”

Crowell can just as easily make you cry. Chinaberry Sidewalks is a series of vignettes drawn from his memories of growing up poor in east Texas, the only child of an alcoholic father and a Bible-thumping mother. The book opens through the eyes of a five-year-old eavesdropping on his parents’ 1955 New Year’s Eve Party. Disgusted by the drunken behavior, young Rodney accidently-on-purpose fires a .22 caliber bullet into the linoleum floor. He braces himself for the worst as his father grabs the gun. “Instead, he hugged me so close to his heart that even through the ringing in my ears I could hear it pounding. Being squeezed so hard gave me a feeling of comfort. My peacekeeping mission was complete. There would be no fighting that night.” Although there are many “knock-down drag-outs” to come, it is clear that Crowell truly loved and respected his mom and dad. In his interview with Mary Karr he describes Chinaberry Sidewalks as their “triumphant love story…cloaked in the strangest housecoat you’ve ever seen.”

Despite the abuse he witnessed and suffered — physical, mental, and emotional — Crowell responds with humility, strength, and courage. He recognizes his parents as fallible human beings who made mistakes, but loved him nonetheless. At his father’s deathbed Crowell lifts the curtain on his own inner battles: “His condition seemed to mirror every ounce of self-loathing I’d managed to accrue in thirty-eight years of living, and an overwhelming desire to kill him screamed through every pore in my body.” Horrified at the thought of harming a dying man, he asks then-wife Rosanne Cash if she could understand his feelings. “He’s just burning off the past, Rodney,” she says quietly.

From cover to cover, relationships take center stage. Two full chapters are devoted to the bond between Crowell and his childhood friend, Dabbo. Crowell appears to bring the friendship to a close at the end of Part Two: “My partnership with Dabbo dissolved completely when I encountered the awkwardness of junior high and a whole new set of social concerns. Despite our best efforts, the two-year age difference between us became a chasm we simply couldn’t cross.” But then Dabbo abruptly reappears less than two pages into Part Three. This is about the only place where the memoir misfires, and it demonstrates how difficult it can be to cross-pollinate a series of vignettes with the chronology in which they occurred. Fortunately it is a minor disruption, and easily excused as Crowell weaves his stories into a warm, comfortable blanket of love and forgiveness.

On the back of the dust cover, fellow songwriter Kris Kristofferson states that Chinaberry Sidewalks is “so well written I had to immediately reread it to see if it was as good as I thought it was. It is.” I wholeheartedly agree, and hope Mr. Crowell won’t make us wait too long for Volume II of his gifted storytelling.

Do you think a songwriter has an advantage in learning the art of story telling?

Do you like to read about “crazy” families? How do such memoirs impact your view of your own childhood, your own family? Leave a comment please.

Richard M. Potter is a freelance writer, musician, and consultant to nonprofits. He blogs at www.richardmpotter.com, jams at www.shoalcreek.org, and loves his wife and two teen-aged children at home in Kansas City, Missouri.


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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Celebrity Memoir, Guest blogger and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Chinaberry Sidewalks: Another Excellent Crazy Childhood Memoir by Rodney Crowell

  1. Thank you, Shirley, for introducing me to, yet another, great memoirist. I can’t wait for this great read over the holidays!

    Yes, I think a song writer has an edge in writing memoir. If nothing else, I think a lyricist would lean naturally to great metaphors.

    I’m wondering why we insist on chronology in memoirs. Chronology really isn’t the point, so why do we need it so?

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Excellent point about song writing and metaphor. This could apply to poets also. The boiled down quality of good lyrics, whether set to music or not, should still help a memoir sing, which is one of my favorite metaphors for good writing.

    As for chronology, I’ll let Richard explain what he meant. But I do know that some memoirs suffer a bit from repeated exposition from chapter to chapter, especially if they were published as separate essays. I don’t know for sure if this was the case in Crowell’s memoir.

    Thanks for your faithful comments, Brenda. I look forward to your questions and keen observations.

  3. ShirleyK says:

    I’m not sure I know any families that aren’t crazy. Or anyway, it’s a comforting thought. At bottom we’re all a little nuts (I think).

    So yes, I love such stories.

    • shirleyhs says:

      This is a great time to quote Mary Karr” “A dysfunctional family is one with more than one person in it.”

    • In “A Million Miles In A Thousand Years” Don Miller defines story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Crazy families are fertile ground for conflict. Maybe that’s why they make for such great memoirs.

      And I agree with both Shirleys: all families are crazy, and all families are dysfunctional. Maybe EVERYONE should write their own personal memoir!

  4. Hmmm… good question, Brenda! I don’t know that it’s a matter of insisting on chronology. In the case of Chinaberry Sidewalks, there is a totally acceptable (and deeply touching) back-story of how Rodney’s parents met, which he delivers in the pages that follow the opening New Year’s Eve story. The back-story did not feel at all out of place. However, his vignettes tend to follow a historic timeline, and I really felt like we said goodbye to Dabbo as he closed Part II. When he was back 3 pages later, that definitely felt out of place.

    But I do want to reiterate that this is a minor criticism of a truly fine memoir that I’m sure you will enjoy.

  5. Pingback: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Memoir « Richard M Potter on Purpose

  6. jzrart says:

    This sounds like a winner to me. And Mary Karr is one of my favorites too.

    Yes, I like reading about crazy families because there are no other kind. It’s always helpful for me to read about how others have dealt with the disfunction in their lives. It’s part of the healing process to know that I’m no different than the next person on the block.

    A songwriter is a poet and is able to use words in a way that those who aren’t poets or songwriters. Descriptive passages become visual and I’m there with the writer. Too much though and it doesn’t work so well.

    • Great point regarding the healing process. It is so easy to become isolated and think that you are alone in your suffering. Memoir can be a great factor in the healing process.

      I totally agree with your observation regarding descriptive passages. A little goes a long way, and it can be a difficult tightrope to walk.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    “Too much thought and it doesn’t work so well.” That’s a good mantra to take into my day, Joan. I was trained as an academic, and that thinking stuff doesn’t always help me as I try to tell stories. 🙂

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