Written in song

Country songwriting legend Rodney Crowell pens first memoir

Photo By Alan Messer

Rodney Crowell appears at the Sierra Nevada Big Room Monday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m., Tickets: $25
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 1075 East 20th St., 345-2739, www.sierranevada.com/bigroom

“The evergreens are tufted with snow. It’s gray, overcast—which holds the whiteness in place. It’s lovely.”

They could almost have been the lyrics to a song. Rather, they were the words spoken over the telephone by singer-songwriter and producer Rodney Crowell, poetically describing the weather outside during a recent interview from his Nashville home.

Crowell (rhymes with “growl”) is coming to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Big Room on Feb. 7 to put on a one-man show featuring his music, and the stories of his childhood growing up in east Texas—“an evening of storytelling illustrated by songs,” as he described it. It is one of only two California shows slated by Crowell on his current tour in support of his newly released memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks.

Besides having made a name for himself over the years as a stellar country musician/singer and poignant lyricist (he penned country singer Crystal Gayle’s No. 1 hit “Till I Gain Control Again,” and “Shame on the Moon” for rocker Bob Seger, among others), the 60-year-old Crowell has also become somewhat of a cult figure in alt-country circles.

Now, the ex-husband of Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne adds “author” to his résumé.

Chinaberry Sidewalks is an unflinching, heartfelt, entertaining and well-written account of the hardscrabble lives of his late parents, J.W. and Cauzette Crowell.

“The four beer-blitzed couples dancing in the cramped living room of my parents’ shotgun duplex were wearing on my nerves,” the book opens. “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.”

Rodney was 5 years old. His fear at the time, based on previous experience, was that the situation of “drunk husbands and wives swapping two-steps with other drunk wives and husbands” would take a darker turn.

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Crowell ended up fetching his dad’s loaded .22-caliber rifle from his bedroom closet and firing a shot into the room, breaking up the party.

“I didn’t focus on trying to deliver a love letter about myself to my fans,” said Crowell of his approach to writing Chinaberry Sidewalks. “I focused on, if I were going to entertain readers, it would have to be with my ability to write and tell stories.”

The book, Crowell offered, is “a ‘love summation’ to my parents.”

He spoke of the “dedication, work ethic, doggedness and tenacity” necessary over the 10 years it took to write the memoir, which takes its name from the three chinaberry trees planted in front of his childhood home.

“Songs are much shorter” to write than a book, Crowell acknowledged. “The book is the equivalent to writing about 100 songs.” Crowell said he did his “earliest tinkering” with the book at about the same time he was working on his 2001 album Houston Kid.

Houston Kid, he said, “sort of took a glancing look at what later became fully fleshed out in Chinaberry Sidewalks.”

Writing a book, he said, is a “really different” experience from songwriting, and “in no way is there a ghost writer involved. I wrote every word.”

He said he wrote of the “darkness, dysfunction and craziness of my parents’ young lives” and his childhood “not to make the reader feel sorry for me. In the beginning, the reader may be appalled by them, but by the end, my job was to get you to love them.”

Why write a book at all?

“The truth of the matter is, I had to,” said Crowell. “It was inside of me and it had to get out. It was comin’ through and I was a vessel for the way it got through and I knew I had a job to do.”