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Chinaberry Reflections

Rodney Crowell is teaming up with award-winning author Mary Karr for his next album, Conversations Across the Swamp.
Alan Messer

Even though Rodney Crowell has called Nashville home for almost 40 years, he will forever be the Houston Kid. Raised in Channelview and Jacinto City, Crowell had a typical upbringing for children of the sharecroppers, tenant farmers and small-town escapees who descended on Houston and the Ship Channel looking for decent jobs and a better life in the years after World War II.

While Crowell never found an audience in Houston before he and college roommate Donivan Cowart left Stephen F. Austin State University for Nashville in August 1972, much of Crowell's work has been informed by his childhood environment.

Songs like "Telephone Road" and "Highway 17" from 2000's critically heralded album The Houston Kid, which marked the end of an extended post-major-label artistic dry spell for Crowell, are almost 100 percent autobiographical memoirs carved directly from his childhood memories of wild and woolly East Houston.

Now Crowell comes back to his hometown not with a new album but with his first book, Chinaberry Sidewalks, which takes us from his earliest preschool memories through the deaths of his mother and father. 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 (1995) as one of the finest pieces of Gulf Coast nonfiction.

Like most great literary works, it was a long time coming.

"I actually started tinkering with a memoir around the time I was doing The Houston Kid," Crowell notes from his home in Nashville. "There were false starts and some backtracking, all that comes with learning to do this."

Crowell credits Karr, who grew up in the small Golden Triangle community of Groves — and with whom he is working on his next album, a co-written song cycle to be titled Conversations Across the Swamp — with tutoring and encouraging him.

"Mary's done this, and she gave me some great insights and helped push me on whenever I'd get stuck or discouraged," says Crowell. "I've always bristled when people say things like, 'These songs are my babies,' and Mary taught me early on not to get married to what you write, to be willing to rethink and revise and, if need be, cut.

"That's one of the hardest lessons for someone new to this."

Crowell recalls the sinking feeling when he got the first portion of the book back from his editor.

"You've tried so hard and then it comes back with all these notes and with lines drawn through sentences and it affects you. Or it did me," he says. "But Mary had some great advice that has really stuck with me through this, that in trying to create there is going to be failure and what you have to try to do is just fail better each time. That's a hard thing to learn, but it's totally true if you're a writer. Learn to fail better."

He also found that writing a memoir is a much different enterprise from writing songs.

"The best songs are usually just these bursts of inspiration," Crowell, who describes himself as a two-fingered, hunt-and-peck typist, explains. "Prose is more about work ethic, having the willpower to stick with it."

Sidewalks is chock-full of vivid memories. Crowell notes that the more he delved into his memory banks, the easier it got.

"There's something about the process that just keeps unlocking memories, stuff you haven't thought of in years," Crowell laughs wistfully. "After a while, it was like all these memories were waiting in line, jumping up and down, hollering to be written about."

One of the most interesting chapters of the book details Crowell's relationship with onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash. In one sympathetic vignette, Crowell borrows Cash's Cadillac only to wreck it a few miles from the house.

A sheepish Crowell telephones Cash on the road and tells him, "I wrecked your Cadillac." Crowell, who was married to Rosanne Cash at the time, paid to have the car repaired and won newfound respect from the Man in Black.

"When I came into the family there were a shitload of sycophants and vampires feeding off his fame and wealth, and the one thing I wanted to establish was that I'm not here to feed off you," Crowell recalls. "And he indulged my arrogance in a way. I think he got a kick out of it."

Crowell's own father was an aspiring honky-tonk musician, and the book details two early musical outings that undoubtedly marked young Rodney. He fondly recalls seeing Hank Williams at Cook's Hoedown, just two weeks before Williams's untimely death, as one of his earliest memories. Crowell was two years old at the time, and describes the frenetic energy and bright lights as like being immersed in some form of magic.

But perhaps the most interesting vignette for music fans will be Crowell's retelling of a childhood trip to Magnolia Gardens, a major outdoor music venue on the Ship Channel, where he saw Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at a matinee interrupted by an apocalyptic thunderstorm in the middle of the program.

"Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee had already played when this torrential downpour hit and we didn't know if Johnny would play or even if it would ever quit raining, but we waited," says Crowell. "The storm finally passed and Johnny came out backlit by the sun coming through the clouds and kicked off with 'Five Feet High and Rising.' It was just a completely transcendent moment."

Two chapters detail the passing of Crowell's parents, first his father and then, much later, his mother. Crowell's storytelling brilliance may never be on better display than in his description of his mother's wake at the funeral home. It's filled with an interesting cast of characters that tend to show up at extended family gatherings; to Crowell's credit, he paints the scene with poignancy, grace and wry, black humor that will have readers alternately crying and howling with laughter.

Crowell's current tour to promote Chinaberry Sidewalks finds him traveling solo. He will read from the book as well as play songs that touch on the selections.

"It's pretty free-form," Crowell says. "The challenge for me, with my sensibilities, will be to keep the audience interested and entertained. This will definitely be something new and different for them and for me."

So why has Houston played such a crucial part in the careers of so many notable songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Blaze Foley, et al.?

"'Cause all the way back to Sam Houston we come from a great tradition of lyin' sumbitches," laughs Crowell. "Witness the San Jacinto monument."

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