I used to read articles by Rick Bass in one of my favorite magazines, The Oxford American. I don’t know what that title sounds like to folks who don’t know the magazine, but the “Oxford” refers to Oxford, Mississippi, though the magazine is no longer published out of Oxford. Just this week I’ve been listening to my old cds from the Southern music edition of this magazine, which combined make up the best collection of music and writing about music that’s out there, in my humble opinion. So when I was browsing the new fiction shelves at my local public library and saw this book by Rick Bass, I thought I’d check it out. Also, I’m into the fiddling lately, and when I picked this up, I thought this book was probably a fictionalized story about the Carter family. I continued to think this until I got about 1/3 of the way through, and was sincerely wondering why he didn’t just write a nonfiction book about the Carter family.
But Nashville Chrome is not, in fact, about the Carter family. It is about the Brown family. And here’s the kicker–they aren’t fictionalized either. Here I am reading about a family from rural Arkansas, hard scrabble country folks who develop a unique harmony partly by listening for the sound a saw blade makes when it’s been perfectly sharpened (tempered). They form a group called the Browns, with two sisters and a brother. The youngest sister has a long standing relationship with Elvis (yes, the Elvis), who is like a member of their family. They travel to England and meet the Beatles before they even are the Beatles, and even before Ringo. They are bigger than Elvis, with hits on the country, pop and rock charts. They play the Grand Ole Opry. It took me a long time to realize these people were not made up. I’d just never heard of them.
The story focuses mostly on Maxine Brown, jumping between her memories of childhood, fame and the slow, alcoholic fade from the limelight and her current life living in a West Memphis suburb, alone. Having realized that the Brown’s are, in fact, real people, I can kind of see why Rick Bass decided to write a novel rather than nonfiction. He felt he wanted to tell something more about this story than nonfiction would allow. His language is the lyrical prose of a novel rather than the more sparse terrain of nonfiction. And I’m not sure how much about Maxine’s current life and a documentary that gets made by a twelve year old boy about her life is real. All in all, I think that the whole last section of the novel about this documentary could have easily been dumped.
I’ve been looking lately for a book that’s about music and music history. This is not it, and so maybe that explains part of my bewilderment and disappointment. I found the parts about the Browns’ life back in Arkansas and their relationship with Elvis interesting. Overall, it misses the mark somehow, perhaps by trying to be 3-4 different novels instead of focusing on just one. Here’s a partial list of these different novels: the novel about rural folks in Arkansas, the novel about the sweet relationship between Bonnie Brown and Elvis, the novel about what it’s like out-living your fame, the novel about what it’s like to have your own fame so spetacularly surpassed by someone (aka Elvis), the novel about the early years of rock and roll in the South, etc. But I did in the end realize that I had heard the Browns’ most famous song, “Three Bells.” If listen, you’ve actually probably heard it, too.