The Houston Kid
Rodney Crowell reminisces on '˜Chinaberry Sidewalks'
By Austin Powell,
3:37PM, Thu. Jan. 27, 2011
Rodney Crowell's 2001 triumph, The Houston Kid, was essentially memoir in song, a poignant look back at his dirt-poor childhood on the outskirts of town. That album also helped spark the writing of Chinaberry Sideawalks, his stellar debut memoir. Expect the two to come together when Crowell visits BookPeople on Friday, 7pm.
Off the Record: I listened to a sample of the audio version of Keith Richards' autobiography, Life. It was narrated in part by Johnny Depp, which made it sound like something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It made me wonder who you could see potentially narrating Chinaberry Sidewalks.
Rodney Crowell: I've already done it. It was no easy task.
OTR: Can you tell me a bit about it? How long did it take you to read the book?
RC: Let me put it this way: I got better as I went along. Once I finished, I told the director, "Let me do the first two chapters again." What took me two hours the first time, I got in 20 minutes the second time. It seemed as though the words would come off the page a lot more easily than they did when I first got started.
OTR: You're no stranger to the studio, obviously. How much different was this process for you?
RC: Considerably. With music you've got chord changes, the tone, and whatever changes move along the narrative. When you're reading, it's just you and the words and whatever it is you're able to make of them. It's a different process entirely. I'm glad I did it. As hard as I worked writing it, I think I worked, though in a much smaller time span, just as hard reading it.
OTR: Do you tend you to read things back to yourself when writing? I find some writers are more interested in how things sound as opposed to how they read.
RC: Writing the book I often called Kimmie Rhoades in Austin and said, "Hey, listen, let me read this to you." She was one of the audiences of one that I called upon from time to time. When I would read it aloud, I'd get a sense of the flow. I did that quite a bit. Eventually, I started to realize that I had to establish that rhythm, that flow, where it reads silently and that slipstream narrative just comes off the page. A book and its reader is an intimate relationship. Eventually, I just started to trust or just try to get closer to that intimacy.
OTR: What led to the decision to start writing down these stories?
RC: My mother. My mother met my father at a Roy Acuff concert. After my father had died, I had by then performed on the Grand Ole Opry a few times, and I introduced my mother to Roy Acuff. It was a pretty magical meeting between the two because she relayed the story about meeting her husband, and he was very princely and charmed her to no end. She floated out of there, and I thought to myself, I need to write about this. And it became a passion for me to tell their story.
I'm a pretty successful songwriter and known in some circles, but I didn't think the story of my career was of any real entertainment value. I think people automatically assume that when they hear a songwriter's writing a book that it's about the music and the songs, but my intention from the get-go was to write something that would survive on the quality of the writing and the story I'm telling.
OTR: Are these stories that you've shared over the years with audiences and friends or more so a feat of memory?
RC: Mainly memory. A lot of the family history is from before I was even born. My mother was an oral storyteller. She would tell stories over and over again. There's a scene in 1942, a pretty violent scene between her father, herself, and her brothers, that my mother told me easily 20 times in my life. It was one of the first memories that volunteered at the front of the line when these stories started coming out. Memory is interesting. When you start sculpting it or recreating it, the stories just come to you, and it becomes a matter of how to capture the detail with sentences and paragraphs. It's easier for me to do in songs. I can get a lot said in 12 lines, but when you start dedicating chapters to it, it becomes a different animal altogether. Big metaphors don't work as well as they do in songs.
OTR: For a debut work, it's so carefully crafted: your word choice, the pacing, the closure of each setting. How long did you work on this?
RC: Ten years. Seven of those years were me learning how to write something that wasn't based on how I write songs. One of the things I learned early was that when I write a paragraph, my natural instinct was to change chords, but someone told me early on to stay in the scene. With chord changes, the scenes happen fast, four lines and you're out. The first thing I had to learn to do was stay in the scene.
OTR: If you've been working on this for a decade, did the process influence 2001's The Houston Kid?
RC: I started somewhere around the same time, but in some ways it goes back further. I wrote a song a good long while ago, 'I Ain't Livin' Long Like This,' that has been around and been recorded by a lot of people, but it was basically childhood memory. As I sort of glance back at the arc of that process, I probably started pretty early mining those early images and memories and trying turning those into small pieces of art that would survive. For this project, I made several trips back to Houston. There's a scene where I'm talking about walking to church Sunday mornings. I could have sworn as a child it was like 40 blocks from Avenue P to Navigation Blvd. I went down there and walked it. It was 24. But the thing about taking that walk was seeing how everything had changed. Quite a few of the same facades were there when I passed them but they had changed so much. Time had taken a lot of color out of it.
OTR: What was that process like of returning to your past and re-examining your parent's relationship?
RC: From the very beginning I reveal some pretty dark and unseemly things about both of my parents, and I couldn't have done that had I not lived long enough to know that redemption had happened. They redeemed themselves each in their own way. That was the permission I needed to tell these stories, and only time and distance can give you that. The healing had already taken place.