Late in 1959, the Brown siblings--Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed--were enjoying unprecedented international success, rivaled only by their longtime friend Elvis Presley. They had a bona fide megahit on their hands, which topped both the country and pop charts and gave rise to the polished sound of the multibillion dollar country music industry we know today. Mesmerized by the Browns' haunting harmonies, the Beatles even tried to learn their secret. Their unique harmony, however, was only achievable through shared blood, and the trio's perfect pitch was honed by a childhood spent listening for the elusive pulse and tone of an impeccably tempered blade at their parent's Arkansas sawmill.
But the Browns' celebrity couldn't survive the world changing around them, and the bonds of family began to fray along with the fame. Heartbreakingly, the novel jumps between the Browns' promising past and the present, which finds Maxine--once supremely confident and ravenous in her pursuit of applause--ailing and alone. As her world increasingly narrows, her hunger for just one more chance to secure her legacy only grows, as does her need for human connection.
Lyrical and nuanced, Nashville Chrome
hits all the right grace notes with its vivid evocation of an era in American music, while at its heart it is a wrenching meditation on the complexities of fame and of one family--forgotten yet utterly unforgettable when reclaimed by Bass--who experienced them firsthand.
Amazon Exclusive Essay from Rick Bass, Author of Nashville Chrome
A few years ago, when my daughters were a teen and a pre-teen, they were in love with the countryrockpop star Keith Urban
, who would later go on to bend, but not break their, hearts by marrying actress Nicole Kidman. It was the beginning of that wonderful but bittersweet time when they were first starting to go out into the world on their own and were no longer always interested in me tagging along. A time when--in their minds if not mine--my relevance to their daily lives was dwindling. Maybe I can interview Keith Urban, I told them: fathercode for I am still a person of worth in your fast-growing-up lives.
I ran all the usual traps a journalist runs. I knew a bunch of fiction and environmental editors, but nobody at People
magazine, and I can only imagine what those magazines thought when I began trying--unsuccessfully--to crack that beat. I contacted magazines, newspapers, editors, record companies, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and beyond. I was relentless. At some point, I'm sure I must have crossed over the line into stalking in the minds of Urban's managers, but over the years, the closest the girls ever came to him was receiving the archetypal mass mailing of a glossy 8" x 10" signed black-and-white photo, which--though they had far too much tact to point out to me--anybody's old father could have gotten. All their lives, I've preached to them the pleasures and satisfactions of following their hearts--that there are gifts in this world beyond the material--and that one of the benefits of living the penurious life of a freelance writer is the ability to pursue opportunities like this one, and to live with a schedule flexible enough to permit wild goose chases.
And so I kept trying. Eventually, I got hooked up with some movie people who were also angling for a meeting with Keith Urban. I went out to Nashville, where just by chance I bumped into the entirely unrelated but fascinating story of an old woman I'd never heard of, Maxine Brown, who had lived quite a life. I visited with her and her family for a couple of days and the more I listened, the larger the story got. I'd gone east looking for a modern celebrity and had instead found something infinitely rarer: an ancient, all-but-forgotten celebrity, the fast-fading dust of legend.
One can imagine the dismay of the girls.
Maxine and her family had grown up hardscrabble poor in the heart of the Great Depression and had been at the edge of the explosion of new country music: the quantum leap it made from the not-always-accessible high Appalachian sound into the multibillion dollar entertainment industry it would (for better or worse) soon become. Maxine and her sister, Bonnie, and brother, Jim Ed, possessed a haunting harmony that was perfect for the era--sophisticated and smooth, polished like chrome: a sound that allowed America to repress--for just a little longer--all the national troubles that were just beneath the surface at that time. The Browns
were the first group to have a number one hit on both the country and the pop charts (and later on the folk charts--pioneers in the phenomenon of crossover hits) and were the number one selling group in England in 1957.
By the 1960s, however, they had practically vanished, and today, hardly anyone has heard of them or knows who they are--who they were. The novel quickly became an examination about the costs and nature of fame in America. I was particularly struck by how one sister, Bonnie, accepted the return of anonymity with grace and even what seemed to me like relief, while Maxine, the older sister, burned--and still burns, dreaming of fame's return. And I was fascinated, too, by the way the greatness of the era--Johnny Cash
, the Beatles
, Chet Atkins
, etc.--was drawn to the Browns, as if to a source or wellspring. What such springs exist today, and will they dry up, and if so, why?
Fires, floods, bars, and the heartbreak of betrayals--all the stuff of country music, then and now, was braided throughout the Browns' lives, occurring often and with great drama. It's a miracle they survived. In so many ways they were pioneers who blazed a way for the easy road, the silk road of wealth that would attend to talent in subsequent generations. Yet the burden of fame would become no easier--the Browns struggled with it then as entertainers of today still do.
Although I didn't get the story I initially went after (though I haven't given up; what kind of lesson would that be for the girls?), at least there was something that came out of the Keith Urban wild goose chase. A novel doesn’t just come along every day. -Rick Bass
(Photo © Nicole Blaisdell)