Country musician Rodney Crowell has been making music for the better part of his life, going all the way back to playing drums in a band with his father at the age of 11. He has worked with Emmylou Harris as part of her Hot Band, and married into country-music royalty when he wed Rosanne Cash. His 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt yielded five number ones on the Billboard country charts, including "I Couldn't Leave You if I Tried."
However, in his recent memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell focuses more on the story of his family, barely touching on his musical accomplishments. The heartfelt book, which Crowell describes as "a very forgiving book," tells the tale of his life growing up in Texas. Chinaberry Sidewalks contains tales of being dirt-poor and dealing with an alcoholic father and epileptic mother, yet manages to never sound maudlin or weepy.
Crowell's tour for the book brings him and his guitar to Knuckleheads for a solo show tomorrow, March 1. We were fortunate enough to speak with Crowell by phone last Friday about the book, his writing process, and what to expect at the show.
The Pitch: What's the show like for this tour?
Rodney Crowell: It's just me, and I'm reading a little bit. I've found passages that, with a little backstory, I can move along. Obviously, you don't have time to read a whole chapter. But I'm reading from the book and telling free-form stories, and illustrating it all with song.
Is this your first tour without a backing band?
No, I've done one other tour and a few scattered performances, but this is the first extended tour that's just been me.
How's it going so far?
Well, it's been fun so far. It's work, but the work is all mine. But it's enjoyable. I don't get to hand the load off to someone else and let them handle it for a while -- it's all mine, which is a nice challenge.
Was the decision made to do this tour instead of going around and signing stuff at bookstores?
Well, I've done a few of those mixed into this, but my idea was just, "Hey, I'll go do what I do and you guys bring the booksellers to where I'm performing, and we'll both win."
How long did it take to write Chinaberry Sidewalks?
Well, all in all, I was on it for about 10 years. First seven was tinkering around to see if I could figure out how to do it, and over the seven-year span, I came up with a manuscript and then did quite a bit of revision on that. Then, I started to work with an editor and pound it into shape. So, all in all, 10 years.
What I found most interesting about the book was that you stuck pretty much to the story of your family and spent very little time on your musical career. Was that by design?
Yeah, that was a choice I made before I wrote the first word. You know, I ... maybe if I were David Bowie or Keith Richards or Mick Jagger or something of an icon, I might presume that my story might be interesting -- of my career. As it is, if I'm going to sustain a reader's interest, it's going to be on how well I write, not on what I've done. The story of my career might be interesting to some, but it's not interesting to me. I had a wealth of characters from my childhood that were far more interesting, from my point of view.
Are any of your songs inspired by events from the book?
No, not by things that specifically happened in the book, but there were songs that were being born. I made a record called The Houston Kid maybe 10 years ago, and both those songs and the idea that I could maybe write a book started happening around the same time. Some of the songs come from the same wellhead, I guess.
What led you to go back to the stories of your childhood?
I don't know -- well, I do know. I reached a place in my own adult life where what might be called "the traumas of childhood" had been resolved for me and all was forgiven, you know? And from that point, the memories started to come up in such a way that, instead of repressing them, I started embracing them and making art out of them. They turned into songs and stories.
When writing the book, were there stories you chose not to include?
Well, obviously, I didn't go for the mundane. I was talking to a young woman, and she said, "I know this was over a span of 18 years, but it just seems like your life was so action-packed," and I said, "You know, there was a lot of action, but there was a lot of downtime in between." Let me put it to you this way: The stories that seemed worth telling were the bigger stories, rather than the long, rainy winters where nothing was going on.
Did you confirm any of the stories in the book after it was written? Did you track down any of the folks who were part of your story?
Some of the people I wanted to confirm with, I couldn't find until after the fact. A lot of the information that my mother gave me, it might've been good of me to confirm it in advance, but I didn't know how to do it. So, I just said, "These are my memories, and I'm going with 'em."
What was the writing process? It took seven years. Was it little bits, here and there, as the stories came to you, or did you set aside time to do it?
I would find week and two-week periods where I could concentrate on it, but when I finally came up with a manuscript, I said, "OK, I believe that I can turn this into a book," and I started working on it every day, around the clock, for three years. It became all I was doing, really. Did a few tours in there -- small ones -- but for the most part, I would get up in the morning and work all day. Loved it. Loved the work. That isolated, singular existence suits me just fine.
Was this writing at your place in Nashville?
Well, I entertained myself along the way. I camped out -- well, I found a place on a beach in Florida and worked there. Also spent a wintertime in Montana working there. Also, at home. A little time in California for a while. I would go to some other places, but it would be the same schedule. I'd just get up and work, every day.
Did you find that the different locales would bring up different memories?
No, not really. It just a nice diversion that I was leading that singular existence in another location. The dinner hour would be different. The daytime hours were sitting at a desk, working. I'd push the desk over to whichever window I was looking out, but the change of location was more for when the workday was done. I'd go find dinner, or my wife and I would find dinner, or the conversation with different people. I think all writers, at the end of the day, savor a good conversation.
You can read a review of Chinaberry Sidewalks at Rock Star Journalist. If you go to Crowell's website, you can purchase VIP meet-and-greet passes, as well as an autographed copy of the book. You'll still need to purchase tickets for the Knuckleheads show when you get there, however. They'll run you $24.