Chinaberry Sidewalks

Chinaberry Sidewalks

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307595218
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/18/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 475,435
File size: 3 MB

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

Part One

New Year's Eve, 1955 3

The House on Norvic Street 9

Chinaberry Sidewalks 21

J.W. 42

Cauzette 50

Gone to Texas 58

Part Two

Altar Falters and Prayer Witches 67

Christian's Drive-in 85

The Buck Family Chronicles 94

Ricky Schmidt and the Norvic Street Freedom Fighters 107

Part Three

Mrs. Boyer 125

Spit-Shine Charlie and Grandma Katie 131

LaQuita Freeman and the Kotex Kid 137

Tripod throws a Punch 144

Pawnshop Drums 153

Inexplicable Behavior 169

Shotzie Goes Deep 179

Part Four

From Love's First Fever to Her Plague 189

Part Five

Transition 229

Epilogue 239

Acknowledgments 261

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Chinaberry Sidewalks 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 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.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir, Rodney Crowell uses his remarkable storytelling skills to pay tribute to his parents, J.W. and Cauzette. Along the way, the book provides a good bit of insight into what shaped Rodney Crowell into the man he is today, but make no mistake about it, Chinaberry Sidewalks is primarily J.W. and Cauzette¿s story. Rodney just happens to share much of it with them.J.W. (from Kentucky) and Cauzette (from Buchanan, Tennessee) were married in Evansville, Indiana on September 6, 1942 because of the quickness and ease with which a marriage could be accomplished in that state. Eventually the couple would move to Houston, Texas, where in August 1950 Rodney would be born, as he puts it, between his mother¿s ¿seventh and eighth miscarriages.¿ Cauzette had managed one earlier full-term pregnancy but Rodney¿s brother survived for only 37 hours, and Rodney would prove to be an only child.To hear Rodney tell it, there was seldom a dull moment at his house on Jacinto City¿s (a Houston suburb) Norvic Street. Considering the volatile mix that is a hard-drinking, country-singer-wannabe father and a church-attending Pentecostal mother, along with the strong personalities both parents brought to the marriage, this is likely to have been the case. Rodney¿s upbringing may have been loud, and it might have been a bit on the edge, but it was the perfect incubator for one of country music¿s future stars.J.W., who went so far as to make eleven-year-old Rodney his drummer in J.W. Crowell and the Rhythmaires, passed his love for country music (and its legends) on to his son. Cauzette, on the other hand, made sure that Rodney was exposed to another side of show business, including at least one preacher who gave one ¿the impression that he might burst into flames at any moment.¿ He was exposed to moving, emotional music in both cases, and Rodney learned from it all.Chinaberry Sidewalks is filled with stories of growing up in 1950s Houston during those more innocent days when little boys still had the run of their neighborhood streets. Rodney and his friends, as did all boys in those days, formed their own little world, one in which they entertained themselves and of which their parents were only marginally aware. There are tales of near-misses involving bows and arrows, surviving hurricane parties hosted by drunken neighbors, rock-throwing brawls, fishing trips, powerful thunderstorms, and catching the big-name country stars when they came to town. J.W. Crowell wanted to be Hank Williams, and he did live the life ¿ol¿ Hank¿ sang about. He even took a barely two-year-old Rodney to see one of Hank¿s shows just weeks before Hank would die at age 29. That the show made such an impact on Rodney is probably due more to J.W.¿s retelling of the story than it is on Rodney¿s actual memory of it, but there is no doubt that Rodney felt as if he were in the presence of a young god that fateful night. That Rodney would go on to have almost exactly the career J.W. wished so hard for himself is a bit sad, but that career still serves as a fitting tribute to the man he loved so much.Rodney Crowell has done himself, his parents, and his old friends proud with Chinaberry Sidewalks, but potential readers should be aware that this is not a book about his musical career or his life with Rosanne Cash, daughter of John. Those aspects are barely touched upon; here¿s hoping that Rodney is saving all of that for volume two.Rated at: 4.0
DeltaQueen50 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rodney Crowell¿s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks covers his early years. This is not a book about his rise to fame, but more of a loving tribute to his parents. Rodney was often in the middle of his father¿s drunken rages against his mother, who in her turn, was a holy-roller who also had a fondness for beer and whipping Rodney. Yet his words are laced with humor, wryness and a loving fondness and the final pages, when he¿s by the bedside at first his father and then his mother¿s death there is a tender strength that often shows up in his musical lyrics.Growing up in the 1950¿s and 60`s, his parents were scrabbling to make a living in East Austin. Rodney both idolized and abhorred his father. Together they had a love of music, and Rodney was taken to see Hank Williams Senior, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis by him. But the dark undercurrent that was brought out by his father¿s drinking was never far from Rodney¿s thoughts. He also had to keep a close eye on his mother at all times as she was epileptic and Rodney had to be ready at a moments notice to administer to her when she had a seizure.Rodney Crowell is a master lyricist and this ability shines through the pages of this book. Honest, humble, and humorous, he paints a picture of growing up poor, with these damaged parents, yet also is able to portray the love that his family ultimately shared and the value in this upbringing that shaped the man he is today.
Hagelstein on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rodney Crowell writes about his parents, and about growing up poor in Houston, with love, humor, and kindness. He¿s honest about their many flaws, and his own. He shows how his mother struggled with health throughout her life, and how his father struggled with life in general. His father passed his love of music on to Crowell, who in turn has had the success his father craved. This is a very, very good memoir.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have long admired Rodney Crowell. A country traditionalist (country shouldn't sound like pop music), he was heavily influenced by Townes Van Zandt (much like Steve Earle was). His sound has roots in Hank Williams, Johnny Cash (whose daughter he was married to for awhile), Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins - all people I grew up listening to along with a lot of blues, rock and roll, and jazz. My family has always had eclectic musical tastes.Crowell's memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks reads as if you're sitting out on the porch with him on a Texas summer night, swatting mosquitoes and drinking beer. Crowell is a great storyteller and I found the tale of his parents and their stormy relationship, and his childhood growing up hardscrabble in Houston both familiar and fascinating. I'm ten years younger than he is, but well I remember the mosquito trucks, the encephalitis scares, the holy roller preachers, and running around the neighborhood getting into trouble. This book is worth a read for that alone.There is a deeper message throughout this book (which is never preachy). That forgiveness is possible and that even the most complicated relationships can be redeemed. I learned some things from Mr. Crowell that I won't soon forget.
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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