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Nashville Chrome

by Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 253 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

rick bass

In Rick Bass’ newest novel, Nashville Chrome, he teases out the story and reveals the heartache, endurance, and pure brilliance of the early country trio, The Browns.  The story highlights the story of the eldest Brown, Maxine, but also includes the story of her younger siblings, Bonnie and Jim Ed.  Making appearances in this country music tale are Elvis, and surprisingly, The Beatles (the Browns toured with the Beatles early in their career).

This slice of American country music history is indeed fascinating.  Who knew that, according to Bass, the Browns paved the way for so many country rock stars, with their perfect harmonies and classy style.  Yet this style was also their undoing.  Soon country fans expected and craved a more raw and earthy sound.  Their friend Elvis and all the others left them in the dust.

The story begins as many country singers’ stories do, in the back hills.  In this case, the back hills were Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  Daddy Floyd was a heavy drinker, who worked cutting wood.  He alternated between working the mill and running restaurants (three of which burnt down) with his wife, Birdie, a woman with a “heart of gold.”  The three eldest kids lived close to the land in their early life, wading creeks and playing in the wilderness.  Bass makes the case that this landscape was essential to their growth as musicians.

After the country trio gets their start playing local gigs around Pine Bluff, country music producer and promoter, Fabor Robinson, takes over their career.  This proves a fateful decision.  Like musicians before and after them, they essentially sign their lives away and become slaves to Robinson’s whims and desires.  Even when their songs are on the top of the charts--in 1959, their biggest hit, “The Three Bells” was released--he gives them around a thousand dollars a year.

They tour the country in bad cars, relying on their wits and sometimes working in restaurants to get them from gig to gig.  Yet Bass points out that there was glory in those days, as well, as their flame rose higher and higher.  However, when they were no longer popular, Maxine remains unwilling to accept the fact that their “greatest moments” have past.

Surprisingly, Jim Ed and Bonnie are rather resigned to the fact that their luck has changed—Bonnie marries happily and Jim Ed begins a career on his own, recording and performing as much as he can.  Only Maxine continues clutching to fame with a maniacal zeal.  She becomes a bit of a loose cannon, flinging wine glasses in people’s faces, partying and acting out.  Even the sting of a callous remark, “you’re a has-been,” by a young record executive, doesn’t dissuade her from trying to regain her stardom.

It’s tricky to write novels about historical figures.  There are novels that have succeeded marvelously at walking the fine line between historical accuracy and psychological probing, such as The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which conveys the life of Virginia Woolf. Another fine example is The Master, by Colm Tóibín, which is based on the life of Henry James.  In The Master,Tóibín writes with remarkable restraint and subtlety, yet the emotional impact of the book is immense.  He manages to flesh-out his characters without resorting to clichés or exaggeration.

In Nashville Chrome, the characterization of Maxine and her siblings is sometimes clichéd and overwrought.  Although Bass takes us on the journey—the inexplicable rise of the unlikely trio—he does not allow the reader to feel the resonance of the events he reconstructs.  For example, although he writes about the singers’ early years and the perfect control over their harmonies, he fails to develop these scenes.

We are told that the children were perfect at harmonizing, but he does not depict them singing together.  In fact, as much as their father, Lloyd, is a hero in the book, I never got a sense of his relationship to music.  Bass seems to be saying that the trio arose almost “magically” from their humble origins and that they were simply destined for it.  He writes, “There was no wrong or right in it.  It was all only an elemental force blowing through them.”  By stressing this fact of being “destined” for greatness, he denies the hard work and fortitude that the players themselves possessed.

Bass tries to create emotional weight in the chapters that focus on Maxine as an older woman.  In these sections, a close third person is used, enabling Bass to speak for Maxine.  Maxine’s apparent fragility—she uses a walker and her hands shake—contrast with her unrelenting internal drive.  She has yet to come to terms with the decline of her career and she longs for a movie to be made about her, etc.  She goes about her quiet days feeding a stray dog, drinking cups of tea and reminiscing about the past, but in her mind she is still the restless, young girl with the insatiable desire for stardom.

 Although Bass touches on some broader themes here—who we are through our lives, what we leave behind, and what we carry on our personal journeys—I did not identify enough with Maxine to feel the appropriate sadness or ennui that Bass is trying to convey.  I wish he would have brought more of this introspection earlier in the book, such as when Maxine is in the midst of her horrible marriage—she married a lawyer, an out-and-out scoundrel and womanizer.

This is not to say that there aren’t moments of exquisite language and good story telling in this book.  There are plenty and few surpass Bass in his description of wild places.  His landscapes are rendered with such grace and skill that I can almost feel the darkness of the woods he describes.

As far as the story-telling goes, there are some wonderful vignettes. Two in particular—one story about a dress and one story about Elvis.  Both of these—particularly the story of the dress—seem as if they could hold up on their own as short stories.  Without revealing too much, I will just say that the story of the dress—Maxine’s desire as a teenager to wear a gown that her family is too poor to afford when she is elected prom queen—shows the complicated relationship Maxine had with her father.  One sees the fierce power of the father’s love and how he almost crushes his children with his pride.  That they thrived in spite of him is a miracle.

The part of the book where Elvis courts Bonnie is equally masterful.  Bass describes a romantic canoe ride down a snaky southern river in almost Biblical terms.  None of Elvis’ bravado is apparent in these sections—he’s merely a shy musician, longing for love and a home-cooked meal.  Later, Elvis will turn cold and their friendship will harden when he becomes ‘The King’.  (In another lovely scene, the Browns come to Graceland at Elvis’ calling and have a final farewell with their friend as they shiver on top of Elvis’ car—Elvis is not cold because he’s wearing one of his white suits with a fur collar).

The book does not fully work, yet it enticed me and made me want to know more about the Browns.  I felt I had to hear their music first hand and found myself listening to their harmonies on YouTube early one morning.  It was a recording of one of their most famous songs, “The Three Bells.”  In it, Jim Ed’s voice sang with a deep Johnny Cash kind of seriousness, while the two old sisters—the song was recorded in1999—harmonized with perfect clarity.  For some reason the song really moved me, possibly because of the way the sisters watched each other so intently, their eyes full of emotion.  I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who’d watched the video.  YouTube informed me that 58,000 other people had watched the clip.  Maybe the Browns aren’t so forgotten after all.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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