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Chinaberry Sidewalks

Chinaberry Sidewalks

3.7 16
by Rodney Crowell

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From the acclaimed musician comes a tender, surprising, and often uproarious memoir about his dirt-poor southeast Texas boyhood.

The only child of a hard-drinking father and a Holy Roller mother, Rodney Crowell was no stranger to bombast from an early age, whether knock-down-drag-outs at a local dive bar or fire-and-brimstone sermons at Pentecostal tent


From the acclaimed musician comes a tender, surprising, and often uproarious memoir about his dirt-poor southeast Texas boyhood.

The only child of a hard-drinking father and a Holy Roller mother, Rodney Crowell was no stranger to bombast from an early age, whether knock-down-drag-outs at a local dive bar or fire-and-brimstone sermons at Pentecostal tent revivals. He was an expert at reading his father’s mercurial moods and gauging exactly when his mother was likely to erupt, and even before he learned to ride a bike, he was often forced to take matters into his own hands. He broke up his parents’ raucous New Year’s Eve party with gunfire and ended their slugfest at the local drive-in (actual restaurants weren’t on the Crowells’ menu) by smashing a glass pop bottle over his own head.

Despite the violent undercurrents always threatening to burst to the surface, he fiercely loved his epilepsy-racked mother, who scorned boring preachers and improvised wildly when the bills went unpaid. And he idolized his blustering father, a honky-tonk man who took his boy to see Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash perform live, and bought him a drum set so he could join his band at age eleven.

Shot through with raggedy friends and their neighborhood capers, hilariously awkward adolescent angst, and an indelible depiction of the bloodlines Crowell came from, Chinaberry Sidewalks also vividly re-creates Houston in the fifties: a rough frontier town where icehouses sold beer by the gallon on paydays; teeming with musical venues from standard roadhouses to the Magnolia Gardens, where name-brand stars brought glamour to a place starved for it; filling up with cheap subdivisions where blue-collar day laborers could finally afford a house of their own; a place where apocalyptic hurricanes and pest infestations were nearly routine.

But at its heart this is Crowell’s tribute to his parents and an exploration of their troubled yet ultimately redeeming romance. Wry, clear-eyed, and generous, it is, like the very best memoirs, firmly rooted in time and place and station, never dismissive, and truly fulfilling.

Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
…becoming a memoirist is a useful change of pace for a 60-year-old musician, especially when the memoir is as rip-snorting as this one. Those who know what a shapely verse Mr. Crowell can turn out may be newly amazed at his way with words when he simply writes sentences.
—The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
Rodney Crowell's memoir of his boyhood in southeast Texas is a wonder: wistful and profane, heartbreaking and hilarious, loving and angry, proud and self-lacerating…Crowell emerges here as a prose stylist of energy and distinctiveness, a gifted storyteller who has, as it happens, an uncommonly interesting and deeply American story to tell.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Singer-songwriter Crowell's upbringing in Texas had all the prerequisite elements of a hardscrabble country music story--drinking, guns, fistfights, fierce spankings, infidelity, Pentecostal preachers, fishing, love, hate, laughter, tears, sex, drugs, and of course, music. But Crowell's storytelling abilities and narrative flair elevate this book far above the average music memoir. Born in 1950 to a blue-collar, hard-drinking, country-singing father and religious mother, Crowell lived in Jacinto City, east of Houston, in a shoddily constructed house cursed with leaks, mosquitoes, and vermin. He recalls hurricanes, fishing trips, rock throwing fights, and bow-and-arrow mishaps, all with the enthusiasm of a hyper 10-year-old pedaling at full speed (something he and neighborhood kids did when following the "Mosquito Dope Truck," a DDT spraying vehicle that they chased on their bicycles). Crowell touches on his early musical influences, including a Hank Williams concert when he was only two, and an outdoor show by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash in a thunderstorm, as well as his first time playing music with his father's band. It's not music that's at the heart of this book, however, but his loving and turbulent relationships with his parents and their often strained but deep love for one another. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

“Personal and profound, an epic remembrance of his parents’ honky-tonk romance, delivered with the same hallmarks of Crowell's best songwriting: expert pacing, gritty detail, and humor by the bottle.” —Austin Powell, The Austin Chronicle
“Thoroughly readable, unblinkingly frank, laugh-out-loud funny and as profane as any Ship Channel longshoreman, it's a literary triumph that will rank along with Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club as one of the finest pieces of Gulf Coast nonfiction.” —William Michael Smith, Houston Press
“[Crowell’s] childhood memories of Jacinto City outside of Houston vary from uproarious to heartwarming, all told with a sharp wit and a Lone Star flair [and] brought to life in a manner that's simple, eloquent, and endlessly entertaining.”  —Jim Caligiuri, The Austin Chronicle
“A loving, affectionate tribute…Crowell's parents remain his heroes not in spite of their flaws, but because of them, and because of their son's proud refusal to sugarcoat the truth.  Instead, this honest, forgiving, and self-assured memoir brings all the skeletons out of the closet and invites them to dance.” —Gina Webb, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Mysterious and wonderful…a rare and unaccountable instance of transcendence.” —Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe
“A great read.” —Billy Heller, New York Post
“Humid, heavily atmospheric and often raucous…both horrific and hilarious [with] some of the most tender passages I have ever read.” —Chet Flippo, CMT
“Rodney Crowell’s memoir of his boyhood in southeast Texas is a wonder: wistful and profane, heartbreaking and hilarious, loving and angry, proud and self-lacerating. Best known as a composer and performer of country and folk music, he emerges here as a prose stylist of energy and distinctiveness, a gifted storyteller who has, as it happens, an uncommonly interesting and deeply American story to tell….It’s a measure of the subtlety that Crowell brings to his portrait of his parents that he simultaneously is appalled by them and deeply loves them….Love, in the end, is what Chinaberry Sidewalks is really about [but] there is much more to it, much of it uproarious or moving in different ways: boisterous small-town boys making mischief, Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns with cuss words added; seeing and hearing Hank Williams two weeks before his death; a spectacular show by Jerry Lee Lewis, followed immediately by an unforgettable one by Johnny Cash, who ‘spoke the language of common people with uncommon eloquence.’ That, of course, is exactly what Rodney Crowell has done in this splendid book.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“This tribute to enduring love [is] rip-snorting...eloquent, movingly spiritual….[Crowell’s] hyperbole segues beautifully into the high-intensity details and events with which the book is studded, and the enthusiasm with which they are described.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Crowell’s upbringing in Texas had all the prerequisite elements of a hardscrabble country music story…but [his] storytelling abilities and narrative flair elevate this book far above the average music memoir.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“With this heartfelt memoir [Crowell] can now be called a writer of the first order…Unsparingly honest…Exceptional.” —Booklist, starred review
“[A] touching, sometimes rough, and vivid chronicle of mid-20th-century Southern life…highly recommended.” —Library Journal, starred review
“This is a wonderful memoir. Full of humor, honesty and true humility, and so well written I had to immediately re-read it to see if it was as good as I thought it was. It is. It is stunningly good. Maybe the best I ever read.” —Kris Kristofferson
“That Rodney Crowell survived his childhood—the poverty, the beatings, the hurricanes, the loaded .22 in the bedroom closet—is a miracle. That he can recall it with such gentle humor, that he can evoke his volatile mother and father with so much love and forgiveness, makes his memoir a powerful lesson in grace.” —J.R. Moehringer
“Some people can just flat write, and other people have a great story to tell, and every now and then it’s the same lucky fool.  Rodney Crowell proves one fried chicken gizzard, one Jax beer, and one awful heartache at a time that you can live with a crazy mama and a damaged daddy and love them both.” —Rick Bragg 
“Long known as a poet among songwriters, Rodney Crowell brings his considerable lyric gifts and his innate Texas storytelling talent to the page. This childhood  is not one you'd  sign up for—hardscrabble, alcohol-sodden, violent enough to jar your eye teeth. Yet Crowell's love for his family finds humor and redemption in every riveting scene. By turns wild and tender, it kept me up all night in a straight-through read.” —Mary Karr

Library Journal
A Grammy Award winner, ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Crowell was a leader of both the new traditionalist movement in country music in the 1980s and the alternative country movement. His memoir does not, however, focus on his marriage to and songwriting and production work for Rosanne Cash, his own formidable work as a solo singer-songwriter, or his numerous songs that prominent country and pop artists have recorded. Crowell here concentrates on the role of family in his life. He describes his father as hard drinking and his mother as an epileptic Holy Roller. He writes of growing up in poverty in the Houston, TX, area in the 1950s and 1960s, family dysfunction, childhood play and mischief, and music bringing a father and son together. Yet his memoir is primarily about a hard-to-define love between parents and a growing boy who survives it all. VERDICT Crowell seems deliberately to avoid talking about his great successes, so his account has a universal feel. This touching, sometimes rough, and vivid chronicle of mid-20th-century Southern life is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/10; national, 25-city tour; ebook ISBN 9780307594204.]—James E. Perone, Univ. of Mount Union, Alliance, OH
Kirkus Reviews

A Grammy-winning singer/songwriter reveals the early genesis of his family, predating a marriage to Rosanne Cash (whose 2010 memoir, Composed, is a can't-miss) and the ascent tomusical stardom.

Crowell's introduction to the world of country music began early in small-town Texas, when banjo chords and Hank Williams records sweetened a childhood embittered by familial discord. Raised in a house without a bedroom of his own, the author was relegated to sleeping in the family home's creepy front room, where he became an unwilling witness to his parents' shouting matches and the violence borne from his father's drinking binges. Frequently frustrated with the inescapable drama, Crowell recalls disrupting his parents' raucous New Year's Eve party in 1955; at age five, he frightened guests away by brandishing the rifle hidden in the hall closet. Years later, the family moved to a ramshackle, "post–World War II housing project" in central Texas that was soon decimated by Hurricane Carla. Crowell lovingly and often drolly describes a gassy grandmother, a banjo-playing grandfather, feuding uncles and Cauzette, his strident, God-fearing mother crippled with double dyslexia, epilepsy and a string of heartbreaking miscarriages. In this same tone, the author also discusses life with his boozy father and the distress of a tough childhood. His mother's hysterically seething religious convictions and frequent nonchalant requests to fetch feminine-hygiene products tempered their embarrassing public "prizefights." Yet these rough spots are interspersed with summery recollections of a boyhood spent chumming around and banding together with neighborhood mischief makers, and of his father's drumming lessons, prepping him to play in his band at age 11, then on to higher heights as a budding musician. While Crowell's narrative becomes a viscerally powerful diary of a boyhood hobbled by a dysfunctional family, his burgeoning love of music and the fruits of that talent get left behind. Could a follow-up be in the works?

An unbalanced, frequently depressive autobiography that primarily focuses on the past, leaving little room for the author's resoundingly successful present.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

New Year's Eve, 1955

The four beer-blitzed couples dancing in the cramped living room of my parents' shotgun duplex were wearing on my nerves. In particular, I didn't like the sound of their singing along with my prized Hank Williams 78s. Coon hunting with my grandfather, I'd heard bluetick hounds howl with more intonation than this nasal pack of yahoos. For a while I tried contenting myself with sticking my fingers in my ears and staring squinty-eyed at the scuff-mark patterns forming on the linoleum, hoping a likeness of Jesus or Eisenhower-the only famous images I knew of at the time other than "ole Hank," as my father and I referred to our favorite singer-would stare up at me from beneath the dancers' feet. But when all I could summon up was a swarm of black stubby snakes, I gave up and went back to being in a funk.

The next thing I remember, Cookie Chastain was screeching to be heard above the scratchiness of whichever record she'd just gored with the blunt end of the phonograph needle. "Twenty minutes till midnight. Everybody change partners." And while the rest of the gang bumped around and groped for whom to dance with next, she was making a big deal out of sashaying into the waiting arms of the one man whose lust for oblivion I knew could turn this little shindig into a repeat of my worst nightmare. By then I'd guzzled most of the six-pack of Cokes I'd discovered in the icebox and was no longer ready to pretend that this New Year's Eve nonsense was anything but a recipe for disaster. My mother was mad as a hornet, but too ashamed to make a scene just yet; Mr. Chastain and the others were too wasted to notice or care; and my father, the only real singer in the bunch, had once again lowered his standards to a level that guaranteed trouble.

I'd been privy to the shadowy undercurrents detailed in my mother and father's all-night shouting matches long enough to know that drunk husbands and wives swapping two-steps with other drunk wives and husbands, though a time-honored Texas tradition, was anything but harmless fun. I could never grasp what she accused him of doing with Lila May Strickland or Pauline Odell, but I knew by her disdain for the word "screwing" that nothing good ever came of the deed. And it got more complicated when she started screaming about how he'd even screw a light socket if one could spread its legs for him. Grown-ups were weird.

Unlike my father, I was beginning to understand that all this business about who or what he was supposedly screwing served a darker purpose for my mother: setting up yet another reprise of the brain-scalding accusation that he'd belt-whipped her across the belly when, eight months pregnant with me, she stood naked in the bathtub.

The scene is seared in my mind as if I'd actually been able to witness it. A sliver of July dusk creeps in under the canvas window shade, and the dangling circle on the end of its pull string is tapping against the yellowed wallpaper beneath the sill. On the back of the door, an ancient hot-water bottle gives off traces of vinegar douche, mementos from a time before I entered the picture. There's the buck-stitched cowboy belt and fake trophy buckle; for years I imagined a silver- headed rattlesnake in the grip of an escaped convict, though I've yet to conjure how he managed, in a space half the size of a prison cell, to wield the thing. And veiled in a sepia gauze, courtesy of the light fixture above the medicine cabinet, is my mother, naked as Eve, dripping wet and cowering in the claw-footed tub, stillbirth emblazoned across her frontal lobe. But whose memory is this in which I can see these things so clearly yet can't place my father? His? Hers? Or mine?

I despised my mother's need to belittle my father in my eyes as much as I hated his refusal to deny wielding this belt. To accept her version as fact, which I did, and never believing his trademark "Aw, hell, Cauzette, you know I did no such a thing" meant embracing the possibility that it could all happen again. Together, my parents made it impossible to keep my father on the pedestal where I needed him most. And about that, all I can tell you is this: I'd be well within range of the truth if I said there were times I was mad enough to kill them both.

I'd been sleeping in the living room longer than I could remember, my mother making a nightly ritual of "fixin' [me] up a pallet" on the sofa. In the early days, the kitchen chair she positioned to keep me from rolling off onto the floor simulated a perfectly good crib. Still, the shame of my not having a bedroom of my own was particularly hard on her. Other than dying and going to heaven, the dream of a nursery for her only living child was her lone investment in the promise of a better future. As far as I was concerned, this was a waste of wishful thinking; I much preferred my arrangement on the couch to the mildewed cave that was the front bedroom.

Conditions surrounding my parents' beer-and-baloney soiree made the crossing of some invisible line in their ongoing war of hard words and physical abuse a foregone conclusion. As much as I hated the discomfort of having my territory invaded by mindless adults, I dreaded even more my inability to escape the hellish crescendo I knew would follow when my father started chasing beer with whiskey.

But no refuge was to be found in the front bedroom, whose dark shadows and damp spookiness scared me witless. Wallpaper hung from the ceiling in stained ragged strands, like a cross between witch hair and brown cotton candy. The jaundiced glow of the exposed overhead lightbulb fell far short of its four corners, where untold evil lurked. Should I find myself alone in that room, the cardboard windowpanes, creaky floors, and lumpy thirty-year-old mattress were the least of my worries.

Traffic to and from the party's beer supply rendered the kitchen in back of the house a useless hideout, likewise the bathroom where I could have played with my toy cars on the floor. Left to idle in the narrow hallway between the living room and the bedroom, I began to hatch a plan.

My intention to break up the party, before it reached the point that my parents had time and again proven themselves unable to return from without inflicting damage, didn't necessarily include subjecting their guests to bodily harm. I liked Doc and Dorothy Lawrence, Pete and Wanda Faye Conn, Paul and Cookie Chastain as sober adults. Just the same, the job of saving my parents from themselves called for drastic measures, and innocent bystanders couldn't be helped.

My father kept a loaded pump-action 16-gauge and a .22-caliber rifle stashed in the bedroom closet. Such an arrangement was as natural to him as breathing the night air. Childhood in the Depression-era backwoods of western Kentucky had left him ingrained with the notion- contrary to his wife's-that a boy was never too young to put food on the table. On the morning of my fifth birthday, I awoke to find him cleaning the shotgun. While examining his handiwork, he broached the subject for the first time. "Son," he said, affecting more profundity than I was used to hearing, "in this old world of snakebites and hunger pain, a man's aim's 'bout as close as he's gonna get to a paid- up insurance policy. They ain't many scores that cain't be settled with a load of buckshot." My mother argued rather convincingly that in East Houston in the midfifties, squirrel and rabbit were in such short supply that knowledge of small firearms was about as useful as the ability to speak Portuguese. But she was told where she could stick Portuguese, and with that the discussion ended. Later in the day, he borrowed Little Willie Smith's shiny black '49 Ford Roadster and drove Grandpa Willoughby and me to a pine thicket north of Old Wallisville Road, where I was given my first lesson with a single-shot .22.

My decision to fish the .22 from the closet wasn't made lightly. To retrieve the gun meant entering the room alone, a chilling prospect even in broad daylight. But sensing the storm gathering behind the rising levels of alcohol, I figured those dark corners were no match for what would happen if the adults out there started screwing each other.

Aside from enhancing the gravity of my announcement that it was time to go home, I had no intention of using the gun. Based loosely on the Saturday matinees I'd seen at the Navaway Theater, where the good guy got the bad guy's attention by wielding a six-shooter full of silver bullets, my plan required the gun as a prop.

Hank Williams was singing "Lovesick Blues" when I stepped into the living room armed with my father's rifle. Dorothy Lawrence was the first to notice my arrival. "My Lord, he's got a gun!" she called out, a bit less dramatically than I'd have liked but compelling nonetheless. The focus of attention shifted instantly in my direction, and having all eyes on me sent a surge of power through my nervous system that left my mind a small blank canvas. From there, the script unraveled.

It was lack of preparation for this pivotal moment that provoked two serious blunders: one, inadvertently disengaging the thumb-activated safety on the rifle; two, pointing it at my father and pulling the trigger. The bullet exploded into the linoleum floor less than a foot from where Dorothy stood. "Lovesick Blues" came to a screeching halt, and my father pounced on me like he was Batman on pep pills. Sensing his first impulse was to beat me with the butt of the rifle, I braced myself for the worst. 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 that I could barely breathe gave me a feeling of comfort. My peacekeeping mission was complete. There would be no fighting that night.

Shocking people sober and sending them home thankful to be alive is one way to break up a party. Although visibly shaken, my parents' friends showed no ill feelings. Cookie Chastain said she knew I was "a good boy and wouldn't hurt a flea." Pete Conn reckoned I "knew not to play with no more loaded guns." Doc Lawrence went as far as making a joke about my aim being so bad that I was "lucky not to have shot [my] dang pecker off." Hushed exits, however, told the story of how they really felt.

My parents never asked why I chose to wave a loaded rifle around a room full of people, let alone pull the trigger. Their joint lecture on involuntary manslaughter suggested they were filing the experience away under the harmless "Child Plays with Father's Gun" heading. I wanted to tell them my true intentions, that it was all their fault, that I was sick of being stuck in the middle of their stupid shouting matches, that their friends needed singing lessons. Seeing them work as a team held this impulse in check. At that moment, volunteering information seemed as great a waste of ammunition as the .22 slug lodged in the floorboards.

On the surface, a temporary halt in my parents' conflict and a hole in the linoleum was all I had to show for my shooting spree. Beneath that, my success was more far-reaching. Ten-plus years of knock-down- drag-outs were still to be accounted for, but from that day on my father refused to allow a loaded gun in the house, a decision that perhaps saved his life and my mother's many times over.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Born in Houston in 1950, Rodney Crowell has released nearly twenty albums in four decades, with five consecutive number-one hits, and has also worked widely as a songwriter and a producer. His honors include a Grammy, an ASCAP lifetime achievement award, and membership in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He lives in Nashville.


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Chinaberry Sidewalks 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
emmar1994 More than 1 year ago
Expecting to read an account of Rodney Crowell's musical career, I was pleasently surprised to find a hilarious and insightful look at a poverty-stricken, mid-century Texan childhood. The memoir, which is basically a collection of anecdotes laced with relatable humor and occasionally heartwrenching truths, pulls at your heart strings and easily makes you laugh and cry- sometimes in the same paragraph. From accounts of forced playdates with an ex-Nazi and eating squirell meat roasted on a backyard fire when money got tight to watchcing his mother in a bar fight when he was eleven and dealing with her epilepsy, Rodney Crowell demonstrates his combined hatred and love for his parents and the unconventional environment in which they raised him. This dynamic book is definitley worth taking a lazy Saturday to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As another Houston Kid of the 1950's, I loved this book! Rodney captures the magic, tragic, and the absolutely (sometimes) absurb reality we grew up in the 'burbs of Houston during that period. It is a lovely and wonderful book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok Read- was hoping it would be a bit more like Glass Castle
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
northidahoman More than 1 year ago
As a longtime fan of Mr. Crowell and his music, I figured I should read this latest effort. It's a GREAT read! His 'lyrical turn of a phrase' has followed him completely to this new genre and I just couldn't put it down. Not only has it further cemented the "Houston Kid's" image for me, but it's brought me a new understanding for aging and accepting the hands dealt us by fate. Rodney.... ya done good man!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
catwak More than 1 year ago
Rodney Crowell's memoir, sometimes poignant and often outrageously funny, is a tribute to his parents. It proves that what could tersely be described as a deprived childhood in an abusive, dysfunctional family can in fact provide nurture -- and yes, love -- for talent to grow and flourish. I bought this book because I grew up in Crowell's Houston, albeit in a different part of town. But what kept me engaged were shared experiences of the times: the mosquito trucks, the terrible weather, the omnipresence of church in community life. Being a fan of Crowell's music, I can't help feeling that his manuscript was hijacked by someone who logged too many hours at writers' workshops. (Example: "A full 6 feet and 4 inches of antediluvian autocracy rose fom its leather chair like the gray dawn of the Apocalypse, pulling from a hidden sheath the exact crimson Excalibur I'd foresworn never to lay eyes on.") I much prefer his singing voice: "The chill in my bones just reminds me that life isn't fair and nobody cares/About lost souls surviving on hard knocks and vice."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have to say I loved this book it reminds me of my self at times,but in a good way. This is Crowell's first book and it is well written. The memories of his parents are forever tatooed in his brain. Even with growing up in the 50's and money hard to find he loved his some what over bearing parents with all of his heart.
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