The Washington Post
Nashville Chromeby Rick Bass
Late in 1959, the Brown siblings—Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed—were enjoying unprecedented international success, rivaled only by their longtime friend Elvis Presley. They had a bona fide megahit on their hands, which topped both the country and pop charts and gave rise to the polished sound of the multibillion dollar country music industry we know today.
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Late in 1959, the Brown siblings—Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed—were enjoying unprecedented international success, rivaled only by their longtime friend Elvis Presley. They had a bona fide megahit on their hands, which topped both the country and pop charts and gave rise to the polished sound of the multibillion dollar country music industry we know today. Mesmerized by the Browns’ haunting harmonies, the Beatles even tried to learn their secret. Their unique harmony, however, was only achievable through shared blood, and the trio’s perfect pitch was honed by a childhood spent listening for the elusive pulse and tone of an impeccably tempered blade at their parent’s Arkansas sawmill.
But the Browns’ celebrity couldn’t survive the world changing around them, and the bonds of family began to fray along with the fame. Heartbreakingly, the novel jumps between the Browns’ promising past and the present, which finds Maxine—once supremely confident and ravenous in her pursuit of applause—ailing and alone. As her world increasingly narrows, her hunger for just one more chance to secure her legacy only grows, as does her need for human connection.
Lyrical and nuanced, Nashville Chrome hits all the right grace notes with its vivid evocation of an era in American music, while at its heart it is a wrenching meditation on the complexities of fame and of one family—forgotten yet utterly unforgettable when reclaimed by Bass—who experienced them firsthand.
The Washington Post
“Rick Bass deftly weaves the true and fictional into a wonderful novel of the rise and fall of one of country music’s greatest acts—the Browns. It’s as lyrical, plaintive, and true as the best country music, which is exactly what the Browns made. Nashville Chrome is a great celebration of the Browns, and above all, a terrific read.”
—Thomas Cobb author of Crazy Heart and Shavetail
Based on the career arc of a 1950s singing trio, this mythic novel is sadder than most country songs and stranger than any.
A book that defies categorization, and that reads more like cultural criticism than fictionalized biography, this narrative about the "bondage of fame" represents a radical departure for Bass (The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana,2009, etc.). Where the author writes often about the natural world in both his fiction and nonfiction, here he treats the Browns, a sibling country group remembered mainly for "The Three Bells," as if they were fate's playthings: "It had to be a freak of nature, a phenomenon, a mutation of history," he proclaims of their harmonies. "As if some higher order had decided to use them as puppets—to hold them hostage to the powerful gifts whose time it was to emerge." The narrative tone is often so portentously oracular and deliriously hyperbolic that the reader wonders whether there's some irony intended, particularly when the grasp of the facts seems tenuous. Yet the descent of Maxine Brown into alcoholism and anonymity is ultimately tragic, as the narrative alternates between her bitter memories "after nearly fifty years of being forgotten" and the formative years of the Browns, whose sound "healed some deep wound within whoever heard it, whatever the wound." Supporting players include Elvis Presley (for whom Bonnie Brown was his one true love, according to this account), Jim Reeves and Chet Atkins, though this is a novel less about individual characters than about "the heartbreak of immortality and the bitterness of pursuing it," and how "the most constant thing in the world is change." At the mercy of fate's furies, the three Browns arrive at very different destinies, leaving Maxine to wonder whether "her life has been a huge mistake, a huge tragedy of waste and squander."
An odd yet oddly affecting book.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
HER FIRST MEMORY is of heroism and stardom, of great accomplishment and acclaim, even in the midst of ruin.
She was five years old, firmly in the nest of her family, at her aunt and uncle’s cabin. The adults were in the front room, sitting in front of the drafty fireplace. Maxine was sleeping in the back room on a shuck mattress, Jim Ed was on a pallet, and Bonnie was in her cradle. Maxine awoke to the sight of orange and gold flickerings the shapes and sizes of the stars, and beyond those, real stars.
The view grew wider.
Stirred by the breezes of their own making, the sparks turned to flames, and burning segments of cedar-shake roofing began to curl and float upward like burning sheets of paper.
She lay there, waiting, watching.
It was not until the first sparks landed on her bed that she broke from her reverie and leapt up and lifted Bonnie from her cradle and Jim Ed from his pallet, a baby in each arm, and ran into the next room, a cinder smoking in her wild black hair, charging out into the lantern-light of the front room as if onto a stage, calling out the one word, Fire, with each of the adults paying full and utmost attention to her, each face limned with respect, waiting to hear more.
They all ran outside, women and children first, into the snowy woods, grabbing quilts as they left, while the men tried to battle the blaze, but to no avail; the cabin was on fire from the top down, had been burning for some time already while they played, and now was collapsing down upon them, timbers crackling and crumbling. In the end all the men were able to save was the Bible, their guns, and their guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and dulcimers.
There are a thousand different turns along the path where anyone could look back and say, If things had not gone right here, if things had not turned out this certain way—if Maxine had not done this, if Jim Ed and Bonnie had not done that—none of all that came afterward would ever have happened.
Only once, looking back, it would seem that from the very beginning there had been only one possible path, with the destination and outcome—the bondage of fame—as predetermined as were the branches in the path infinite.
That the greatest voices, the greatest harmony in country music, should come from such a hardscrabble swamp—Poplar Creek, Arkansas—and that fame should lavish itself upon the three of them, their voices braiding together to give the country the precise thing it most needed or desired—silky polish, after so much raggedness, and a sound that would be referred to as Nashville Chrome—makes an observer pause. Did their fabulous voices come from their own hungers within, or from thrice-in-a-lifetime coincidence? They were in the right place at the right time, and the wrong place at the right time.
There was never a day in their childhood when they did not know fire. They burned wood in their stove year round, not just to stay warm in winter but to cook with and to bathe. In the autumn the red and yellow and orange leaves fell onto the slow brown waters of the creek, where they floated and gathered in such numbers that it seemed the creek itself was burning. And as the men gnawed at the forest and piled the limbs and branches from the crooked trunks, they continued to burn the slash in great pyres. The smoke gave the children a husky, deeper voice right from the start. Everyone in the little backwoods villages sang and played music, but the children’s voices were different, bewitching, especially when they sang harmony. No one could quite put a finger on it, but all were drawn to it. It was beguiling, soothing. It healed some wound deep within whoever heard it, whatever the wound.
The singers themselves, however, received no such rehabilitation. For Jim Ed and Bonnie, the sound passed through without seeming to touch them at all, neither injuring nor healing. They could take it or leave it; it was a lark, a party trick, a phenomenon.
Where had it come from, and when they are gone, where will it go?
Meet the Author
RICK BASS’s fiction has received O. Henry Awards, numerous Pushcart Prizes, awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and his memoir, Why I Came West, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
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