A Forgotten Nashville Trio Gets Its Due in 'Nashville Chrome'
This is a fictionalized account of the real-life harmony-singing hit-makers the Browns, who cavorted with their close friend Elvis Presley, and made fans of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Nashville ChromePublisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 253 pages
Author: Rick Bass
Publication date: 2010-09
The narrative arc of the standard-issue music biography is almost unfailingly depressing.
A rapid rise fueled by undeniable talent, burning ambition, and a big break lead our heroes and heroines to the top of the charts and the apex of artistic achievement.
If they're lucky, they might enjoy the high times and oversize swimming pool for a hot minute, but sooner or later, they're going to get ripped off by the man, ravaged by substance abuse, and estranged from the better selves that lifted them up from humble beginnings in the first place.
All of that isn't enough of a bummer for Rick Bass, whose finely wrought country music novel Nashville Chrome is a fictionalized account of the real-life '50s and early-'60s harmony-singing hit-makers the Browns, who cavorted with their close friend Elvis Presley, and made fans of John Lennon and Paul McCartney thanks to their 1959 recording of "The Three Bells", which was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bass tells the tale of Brown siblings Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed, born into a hardscrabble life where, as they were raised up by an alcoholic sawmill-operating father and a selfless pie-baking mother named Birdie, they at first "did not know the weight of their gift, or even that their lives were hard."
We know, though, right from the get-go. And the lives of the Browns — and particularly the life of Bass' tragic heroine, Maxine, the oldest and most driven — will be difficult in an epic, mythopoeic way. The geographical deterministic epigraph from Cormac McCarthy, a prime Bass influence, is one tip-off. McCarthy wrote in All The Pretty Horses that "the weathers and seasons that form a land also form the inner fortunes of men."
The Browns do, indeed, come from a hard land — the piney swamps of south-central Arkansas — and their lives, you can bet, will not be easy.
The other way the reader knows that times are going to be tough and endings not happy is that Bass is bold enough to pretty much give away his downer of a denouement right at the beginning. Chapters set in the past that chronicle the trio's rise alternate with episodes that find Maxine — who, in real life, worked with Bass for five years as he researched and rewrote her story — living alone in Nashville. She's aged, infirm, and bitter in her knowledge that she and her siblings have been all but forgotten.
All that might make Nashville Chrome — whose title is taken from the Browns' signature sound, produced with the aid of Music City guitarist and countrypolitan architect Chet Atkins — seem like an arduous read. And at times it can be, particularly when Bass piles on the adversity, with chapters carrying titles such as "Another Mistake", which begins: "Now the hard times really began..." In that instance, the bad news involves Maxine's unhappy marriage to a philandering husband, coming on the heels of Jim Ed losing a few fingers in a sawmill accident.
What keeps you hanging in with Nashville Chrome, however, is Maxine's grand diva character. She's a tough-minded, hard-drinking, sometimes petty woman envious of what she sees as the easy life of her own siblings. She may "suck the air out of a room," as Bass writes, but she's also alive on the page, and justified in the fierce pride she retains in her God-given talent and in her willingness to do anything to earn the recognition she feels she deserves.
That includes placing an ad for a movie director to tell the Browns' colorful story on the bulletin board of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. (In what might be a self-mocking depiction, Bass has a would-be auteur answer her ad who turns out to be considerably smaller in stature than what Maxine had in mind.)
The other thing that Nashville Chrome has going for it is that the Montana-based Bass, an O. Henry Award-winning writer and environmental activist who's equally well known for nonfiction works such as his memoir, Why I Came West, writes with lyrical, literary flair. "One of the many elements of greatness is confidence," he writes in an early chapter, just as the Browns' bountiful talent is about to spark the flame of fame. "And they began to get just the faintest hints of it — as if the breath of God within them was choosing to blow gently on those embers. Dooming them."
As legitimate country stars who have been all but lost to obscurity, ripe to have their story told, Bass has a real find in the Browns. In recasting their story and falling in love with their music, however, Bass is guilty of pumping up the sibling act's importance in musical history, which, of course, makes Maxine all the more tragic a heroine in the telling.
The Browns' relationship with Elvis is real — he did date Maxine's sister Bonnie. And Bass sets them up as a one-stop-shopping symbol of the innocence and musical purity that Presley lost touch with as his popularity grew and "the knowledge of what he had left behind, of what he had taken, would come to him slowly over the years, even as he became numbed."
Nicely put. But by overplaying the sibling act's influence on the King in order to underscore the Browns' significance, he inadvertently does a disservice to the harmonizing trio, whose story is more than strong enough to stand on its own.