Book Quote:

“Never in the history of music has any group had as many Top Ten hits over a two-year period.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (SEP 16, 2010)

I’ve often thought that being famous must be a horrible burden. There would be the fun bits, of course, but there’s a definite downside: the psycho fans, the paparazzi, and the fact that every little thing you do could potentially end up on the cover of National Enquirer. But perhaps what’s even worse than being famous is tasting fame and then fading into complete obscurity.

Rick Bass’s novel Nashville Chrome is a fictionalized account of the Browns: Maxine. Jim Ed, and Bonnie. At the height of their fame, this singing trio was second only to Elvis, and even the Beatles shared a few jam sessions with their idols. Have you ever heard of the Browns? I hadn’t, and I’ll admit that I was some way into the novel before it dawned on me that this is a story of very real and very forgotten people. The Browns’ story is so incredible that it could so easily be fiction; when it comes to hits, they weren’t just big they were huge! Born and raised in the swamps of south-central Arkansas, the Brown children (there were five altogether) knew horrific poverty and tragedy. Their father, Floyd, a lumberjack by trade, lost a leg in an accident and then he and his wife, Birdie subsequently operated a series of humble family run restaurants–I say a series of restaurants because three burned to the ground. Elvis showed up at one of these doomed restaurants. He was just a boy with a guitar at this point, and he becomes an honorary Brown, dating Bonnie until finally the relationship is irreversibly corroded by separation and the seductive, intoxicating pull of fame.

The focus of Nashville Chrome is Maxine, the eldest sibling, and the novel goes back and forth in time sweeping over her childhood in Poplar Creek, the tough years on the road singing and recording, to a decrepit old age living on social security when a trip to Piggly Wiggly represents a major expedition. Maxine is the driving force behind the trio–the one who takes their singing career so much more seriously, but perhaps that’s because for her, the stakes are so much higher:

“Some people seem destined for the safe middle, while others appear to be wedded to the extremities of high and low. On their own, Jim Ed and Bonnie were pretty safely in the middle, but once they joined in with Maxine, she took them straight to the upper reaches every time, and then right back down to the bottom, every time. As if their lives had to follow the range of their voices, when they were together.”

Through the story of The Browns, Nashville Chrome (the name given to the sound these three siblings make) offers a view of the Country Music industry. The Browns, too naive to know better, are signed by the exploitive Fabor and join his “stable of slaves for life.” Fabor’s contracts leave The Browns with a sliver of what they should be earning. They endure exhaustive tours on a threadbare budget and often camp outdoors from gig-to-gig. This is a story we’ve all heard before, of course, the artists (the ones with the talent) receive little for their efforts while feeding an industry that works its “products” to exhaustion. In the case of The Browns, however, the highs and the lows the trio experienced, both personally and professionally, make this story so phenomenal.

Nashville Chrome examines the ephemeral nature of fame and whether or not fame is worth the cost. All three of the Browns find themselves making tremendous personal sacrifices, but while a bitter personal life keeps Maxine on the road, her siblings have options. One of the points the novel makes is that life on the road is quite different for men than for women. This was the 50s, of course, and while Elvis and Jim Ed cash in the groupies, Maxine and Bonnie are frequently holed up in a miserable room waiting to move on. This examination of fame leads to the question of identity. How many “stars” eventually become consumed by their own image? Here’s Elvis:

“Elvis was starting to pull away. All three Browns had watched his trajectory with only pride—success for any one of them was success for all. And though they each had different reactions to his ascent—Maxine was excited by and approving of it, Jim Ed found it amusing, and Bonnie was discomfited by it—something different was happening now. It wasn’t so much that Elvis had risen above them, but that instead he was being carried away from them, no longer just some distance above them but drifting laterally. He has lost his anchor, his connection to them. He was lost in himself, and then—just one small false step, but so easy to make amid all that clamor and energy—he got lost in who his audience wanted him to be. This was not the same thing the world wanted him to be, and for that, he was doomed.”

Bass’s style underscores the mythic qualities of the tale, for while the Browns’ story is true, at times it almost seems too fantastic to be anything less than fiction. Fate repeatedly seems to intervene in lives marked by the highs and lows of incredibly bad luck and amazing strokes of good fortune. For those interested, Maxine Brown wrote an autobiography, Looking Back to See.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (September 14, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Rick Bass
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another by this author:

More on the music industry:



September 16, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History

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