If my biographer quizzed me about my earliest musical influences, I'd have to admit that Jim Croce's swingin' "Bad Leroy Brown" was my first pop favorite. I'd even 'fess up to a few innocent encounters with the likes of Barry Manilow, Bobby Goldsboro, and Cat Stevens. Not bad for an aging toddler with a toy drum kit.
While my mom preferred the soft-rocking folkies and contemporary singer-songwriters of the time, my dad steered clear of popular music altogether, cranking up Mozart concertos and Beethoven symphonies instead. Between the tunes I randomly caught on my own, and the music emanating from my parents' stereo system, I've wondered how much it actually influenced my own personal musical taste and musicianship down the road.
If I was super cool, like musician, studio producer, and author Rodney Crowell, I could boast much bolder claims. In his newly released memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, the veteran country/Americana artist lists his first-ever concert experiences as Hank Williams Sr., Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, and Johnny Cash. You can't really beat that for killer early influences.
Chinaberry Sidewalks is a great read — colorful, dramatic, heartbreaking, and hilarious. As a poor kid in rural Texas, Crowell enjoyed a wealth of country, rockabilly, blues, and early-era rock 'n' roll in his formative years.
He had a love-hate relationship with his parents and relatives though. Sadly, he suffered heavy verbal and physical abuse, and refereed more than his share of family brawls and neighborhood fist-fights.
The only child of a boozing daddy and a Bible-thumping mother, Crowell was no stranger to commotion and confrontation from an early age. Through his gentle use of humor, his childhood tales find the comedy and sweetness within the absurdity, whether recalling knock-down-drag-outs at dive bars or fire-and-brimstone sermons at tent revivals.
Now based in Nashville, Crowell was born near Houston in 1950. He's released 20 albums over four decades, with five consecutive number-one hits. With a twangy singing style and earnest storyteller lyrics, he gained widespread recognition as a leader of the "new traditionalist" movement of the 1980s. His honors include a Grammy, an ASCAP lifetime achievement award, and membership in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Crowell's vivid accounts of interpreting his parents moods, allying himself with neighborhood bullies, courting cute classmates, and giggling at Pentecostal preachers during their sermons are heartfelt, humble, and very funny. Much more than a straightforward depiction of his awkward adolescence and young adulthood, each chapter explains a little piece of his musical puzzle. Overall, the book works as a forgiving tribute to the bluster and constant struggles of his father and mother and as a commentary on the blue-collar country music within the culture of East Texas in the 1950s and '60s.
Songs and albums often fire me up about issues, emotions, or events. They inspire me to seek out literature and bury my nose in a few books and periodicals. Reading Crowell's Chinaberry Sidewalks sparked things the other way around. I'm starting my album buying spree with the new Rodney Crowell: Acoustic Trio Live (recorded during Crowell's tour with Will Kimbrough and Jenny Scheinman) and his 2008 collection Sex and Gasoline before working my way back into his catalog.
For more on Rodney Crowell and his new memoir, visit rodneycrowell.com.