Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Memoir, East Texas Style

Back when I was in college I recommended Mary Karr's The Liars' Club to my friends because my version of childhood in rural East Texas, a place where getting drunk on the catwalks above the livestock at the auction barn was considered a fine way to spend a Friday night, was so foreign from the movie theaters, malls, and restaurant meals my city friends experienced.  I still hold that book in high esteem as one of the best memoirs--and arguably the best book about East Texas--ever written.  I didn't expect to find another revelatory memoir moment resembling my first reading of Mary Karr, that feeling that the author just got it--that place, that time--and then was able to articulate that it with such grace, poetry, humor, humanity, and resilience.  Truly, I loved The Liars' Club, and I loved Karr's follow-up efforts, Cherry and Lit.

And then I read singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell's new book, Chinaberry Sidewalks.  I read it because I work for his publisher, and I read it because I live in Houston now and Crowell writes about growing up here in the Bayou City.  I picked it up because it was my job.  I discovered, though, that this book belongs in the canon of Texas writings and in the hands of all of those memoir readers out there.  Crowell's use of language is masterful, and just as I related Karr's book to my childhood, reading about the rougher parts of Houston in the 50's and 60's presented a version of the city and era in which my mother was raised.

Rodney Crowell is best known as a songwriter (and former husband of Roseanne Cash), a member of Emmylou Harris's back up band, a member of a band The Cherry Bombs which included Vince Gill as well, and an award-winning producer.  He's worked with Johnny Cash, Crystal Gayle, Guy Clark, Wynonna Judd, and Chely Wright among others, and scored a series of chart-topping singles in the late 80's and early 90's as a solo artist.  In 2004 he won the AMA (Americana Music Association) Song of the Year award for "Fate's Right Hand," and in 2006 the AMA gave him a lifetime achievement award for songwriting (an honor that went to Willie Nelson the following year).  He's a member of the Songwriting Hall of Fame.  I knew who Crowell was--growing up in the sticks, country is about the only radio option--but I didn't know that he'd grown up in Houston.

Hurricane Carla

Chinaberry Sidewalks recalls Crowell's childhood in East Houston, opening with a stunning scene in which a five year old Rodney breaks up his parents' rowdy party by firing a gun.  His is a story of heavy drinking adults, fighting, humor, and love.  He writes about the threat of a hurricane barreling down on Houston and the enormous holes in the walls on the dilapidated house in which he lives.  He details a harrowing scene with his best friend and his friend's unstable father.  He talks about his mother's devout Pentecostal beliefs and going to church with her, and his father's aspiring musical hopes and spending nights in honky tonks as an 11 year old drummer.  And he tells about the route of a kid who grew up along the ship channel to Nashville.  It's a terrific tale, but what really sets apart Chinaberry Sidewalks is Crowell's amazing use of language.  Technically this book is a celebrity memoir, but he is not your typical celebrity writer.  He's a poet; he writes as if he's been writing books his story for his whole life.  And I guess he has, set to music.

Around the time that I read Chinaberry Sidewalks last fall, I noticed that Mary Karr began posting comments about Rodney Crowell on Twitter and YouTube.  It turns out that the two know each other, even collaborate.  These two great writers could have been long lost siblings, otherwise unique voices detailing a part of the world I know too well.  I love Crowell's book, and I'm happy to write that Chinaberry Sidewalks hits bookstores today (Jan 18th).  Rodney Crowell is touring all over the country, including Mississippi, Houston, and Austin--if he's nearby, you absolutely MUST check him out.