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Although little remembered today, the Browns were among the more popular harmony groups of the '50s and '60s. Under the wing of Chet Atkins, they helped establish the Nashville Sound: slick, rangy music suited to country's increasingly affluent and urban audience, and palatable to dabblers who wouldn't set pump or loafer inside a honky-tonk. The trio's best songs found an open-hearted grace that, as Rick Bass writes in the Browns-inspired "Nashville Chrome," could "impose a bewitching calm."
The Browns -- siblings Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie -- grew up in south-central Arkansas. Their alcoholic father ran a usually struggling lumber mill, where the pitch-perfect kids were charged with discerning "a certain sound, a ringing, that a fully tempered saw made when it had achieved that absolute perfect edge." More than anything, "Nashville Chrome" is about those moments of perfect edge, when the world seems to be in close harmony, when one wishes the moment would endure, unchanged forever. Or rather the book is about those moments and their painful echoes -- since, after all, those moments don't last and can be few and far between.
This nostalgia is felt abjectly by Maxine, the trio's oldest member. Although most of the novel presents a highly imagined version of the Browns' past, its best chapters follow the frail Maxine in the present. Ambitious, reckless and sometimes selfish as a young woman, she's often embittered and defeated (and poor) as an old one. She longs for a return to fame, perhaps by way of a biopic. She seeks out a director by putting a note on a Piggly Wiggly tackboard, and, miraculously, lands a young auteur -- a 12-year-old documentarian who understands the blessing and curse of genius firsthand. He starts making what sounds like a lovely film (the documentary is more vivid than the Browns' music, which Bass never quite gets inside).
While the present-day material is finely imagined and rich in pathos, the rest of the book struggles. Mindful that the facts can get in the way of a good yarn, Bass has augmented true stories, invented legends, played with dates and trivia and made amusing historical alterations. Alas, none of this invention leads to much narrative momentum, and, except for Maxine, the Browns and their associates remain flat and distant, like sheet music awaiting singers. Elvis Presley, who courted Bonnie in real life and courts her longer here, comes more to life but doesn't deviate interestingly from his existing mythology. After a while the effect is like hearing a long string of someone else's family stories.
Not surprising from Bass, there's some fine nature writing throughout the book, and some careful evocations of rural life. But the novel's reflections on fame, happiness and metaphysics are as often pretentious as they are enlightening. In the end, I found myself treating the chapters about the aged Maxine and her preteen director as an excellent short story wandering around a slow-going novel.
Dylan Hicks is a Minneapolis writer and musician.