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.

From the Hardcover edition.

About Rodney Crowell

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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.
Published January 18, 2011 by Vintage. 274 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Arts & Photography, Parenting & Relationships, Humor & Entertainment. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Chinaberry Sidewalks

Publishers Weekly

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Singer-songwriter Crowell's upbringing in Texas had all the prerequisite elements of a hardscrabble country music story—drinking, guns, fistfights, fierce spankings, infidelity, Pentecostal preachers,

Oct 25 2010 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

The New York Times

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The singer Rodney Crowell provides an account of his parents’ tumultuous relationship that is reminiscent of one of his country songs.

Jan 12 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

New York Journal of Books

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This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed—such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time—is a more interesting person than the one found here.

Jan 18 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

Los Angeles Times

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The country music jack-of-all-trades writes about his distressing childhood.

Jan 20 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

The Washington Post

In time I came to understand the nature of her love as being part of an even greater love, one that loved my grandmother for loving me."

Jan 14 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

The Telegraph

As Crowell says: "Life's basic impulse - given .

Sep 03 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks


Michael Pitre’s unforgettable debut, while not a memoir, is just as brutally honest as one in its depiction of...

Aug 28 2014 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

Oregon Live

Rather than write about a life in music -- his time in Emmylou Harris' band, his 13 years as Johnny Cash's son-in-law, the songwriting lessons from Guy Clark -- Crowell wrote about his parents and his childhood growing up poor in Houston.

Jan 29 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

Seattle PI

And there are sections that find Crowell almost too self-analytical, as though the book were written as a form of therapy - Crowell grapples with the complications of loving parents who were arguably not really equipped to be parents, and his often-troubled relationship with his father is a promi...

Apr 23 2012 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

He’ll use it to wonderful effect: a particular preacher is “a good closer.” But sometimes Crowell uses too many metaphors in a short space: While “facing an eternity of roasting like a marshmallow in the bonfires of hell,” congregation members “stew in the juices of our own demise” and hope the ...

Jan 18 2011 | Read Full Review of Chinaberry Sidewalks

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