BOOK WORLD

"Nashville Chrome," a novel by Rick Bass, about the Browns

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By Dave Shiflett
Saturday, September 18, 2010

NASHVILLE CHROME

By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 253 pp. $24

Fame is something you wish only for those at the very top of your enemies list, at least according to "Nashville Chrome," a darkly engaging "reality-based" novel that might make you think twice before trying out for "American Idol."

Rick Bass, an O. Henry Award winner, based the novel on the lives of siblings Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed Brown, whose peerless vocal harmonies, at least according to him, were much imitated but never matched, not even by the Beatles, who were mesmerized by the rustic trio. So why don't we remember the Browns? Their flame flickered and died in the early 1960s, which turned out to be a blessing to Bonnie and Jim Ed, though it was Maxine's undoing.

Bass, who spent five years working with the Browns on the project, launches the tale in Poplar Creek, Ark., where the family, though humble, lived a life of sometimes extravagant misfortune. Father Floyd guzzled moonshine, caroused a bit and ran a sawmill that provided hard wages while relieving him of a few fingers. He also lost a leg in the timber trade, which he occasionally abandoned for the restaurant business. His wife, Birdie, was renowned for her pies and hard work, though their buildings were somewhat prone to burning to the ground.

Yet the sawmill was a conservatory of sorts for Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie, who early on revealed their musical precociousness by identifying exactly when a spinning saw blade had been properly tempered. Their precise ears informed their precise harmonies, which first caught the attention of parents and neighbors, then of a predatory manager named Fabor Robinson, whose credo, Bass writes, was that while "a star might be born, a star would most assuredly not get paid."

There's no downside these days to whipping music-industry weasels, and Bass lashes Fabor as a parasite's parasite, living large off the sweat of the Browns' brows while showing them all the warmth of a wolverine. They were paid next to nothing, and when they went broke touring, he refused to send gas money, leaving them to wash dishes to make enough to get back home. The eventual falling-out, however, was in response to Fabor's monstrously lecherous move on Bonnie, who had also caught the eye of the young and not-yet-jaded Elvis Presley.

The Browns rubbed shoulders with many greats -- Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly and eventually the Beatles, with whom they played a series of U.K. gigs. They also worked closely with Chet Atkins, the guitar god who Bass says eventually discovered that "what he really loved doing was helping other musicians bring out the best in themselves." While there will be readers who consider Atkins's "Nashville sound" sappy enough to make Mantovani blush, he's pretty much the only guy wearing a white hat in this tale. Elvis, meantime, is Exhibit A of how greatness and fame can corrode an otherwise charming mama's boy.

The Browns knew him early on, and for several years, at least according to this story, Elvis was a gentle soul who walked in their shadow. Yet he was a marked man who was eventually transformed into what Bass calls "the bloated extrapolation of insatiable American appetite and surface showmanship." Even after becoming famous beyond earlier imagining, he told the Browns, "he was pretty sad most of the time."

Poor Maxine led a train wreck of a life. She married a philandering lawyer who flew the coop, leaving her with a couple of kids. She retired to the deeper recesses of the bottle, spicing her morning coffee with rum, though she eventually shook that demon.

The fame devil, however, did not go so easily. Maxine spent half a century desperately hoping to somehow launch a comeback. How desperate? She posted an ad on a Piggly Wiggly grocery store bulletin board seeking someone -- anyone -- who would make a movie about her life. Her ad was answered, albeit not by Tom Hanks, though the film project and its unlikely director gave something of a happy ending to her tale of woe.

The novel is fairly short but richly written. There are times, to be sure, when a reader hears a loud Faulknerian echo -- but there are far greater sins. Bass can certainly leave you with an arresting mental image, including this one from Elvis's funeral: The King, he writes, lay "in an open casket on ice, his insides baking, they said, decomposing faster than most normal people, falling apart, riven by violent internal chemistries, the simmerings of errant prescriptions and unsustainable excess."

Bass has clear sympathy for those whose fate is to haunt some A-list or another. "There is no right or wrong to greatness," he writes, "there is only the forward movement of it, and those who possess the most of it are the least in control of it." Yet you're left with the impression that the desire for fame might well be considered a form of mental illness. The next time you feel the urge to hire a publicist, you might be better off hiring an exorcist instead.

Shiflett is a writer and musician who posts his original music at http://www.DaveShiflett.com.


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