Saturday, August 17, 2013

"Chinaberry Sidewalks," Rodney Crowell: the real lovesick blues

It's not really fair to call Rodney Crowell just a singer-songwriter. His 35-year career has been part of country and rock music in a way that few can match. His credits include writing songs for performers from EmmyLou Harris to Bob Seger, producing albums for his wife Rosanne Cash, and his own performing career includes thirteen albums.

But before all that, Crowell was a Texas kid whose life was "folksy but complicated," as one reviewer of Chinaberry Sidewalks, his 2011 autobiography, put it. Crowell had a set of parents who provided him with much of the material for a lifetime of country songs. His funny but achingly-told tales have an edge that can't disguise a young man's confusion and hurt. Addie Cauzette and J.W. Crowell's relationship was wild and got wilder, in one of Crowell's own phrases, "from the git-go."

In an early mix of Hollywood matinee-bravery and undeniable scene-stealing at the age of five, Rodney grabbed a gun to break up one alcohol-fueled party -- New Years 1955 be damned. The young gunslinger may not have had the mechanics of marksmanship down but he knew how to make an entrance. As any musician can tell you, that counts for one hell of an impression. Here's an excerpt:

...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. ...

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