Read Nashville Chrome Online

Authors: Rick Bass

Nashville Chrome

Nashville Chrome

Rick Bass

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
Boston
|
New York
2010

Copyright © 2010 by Rick Bass

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections
from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

www.hmhbooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bass, Rick, date.
Nashville chrome / Rick Bass.
p. cm.
ISBN
978-0-547-31726-7
1. Country musicians—Fiction. 2. Country music—Tennessee—
Nashville—Fiction. 3. Nashville (Tenn.)—Fiction. I. Title.
PS
3552.
A
8213
N
37 2010
813'.54—dc22 2010005732

Book design by Patrick Barry

Printed in the United States of America

DOC
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

FOR NICOLE AND BOB

They said that it was no accident of circumstance that a man
be born in a certain country and not some other and they
said that the weathers and seasons that form a land form also
the inner fortunes of men in their generations and are passed
on to their children and are not so easily come by otherwise.

—
CORMAC M
c
CARTHY,
All the Pretty Horses

Prologue

For a little while, the children—Maxine, Jim Ed, Bonnie—were too young to know the weight of their gift, or even that their lives were hard. Their parents had always been poor, but never before had there been such desperation. Never before had there been a time when one's talents—whether hunter or farmer, salesman or tailor—had been insufficient to keep food in the mouths of their family. Now the country was saying the Depression had ended, but where they lived, in south-central Arkansas, not so far from Mississippi—back in the swamps, between the rolling ridges that looked down on Poplar Creek—nothing was different. Things had been bad before the Depression, then got much worse during it, and people were not yet recovering, even though what little news they heard back in the hills told them that everything was better now.

The children's parents, Floyd and Birdie, were still starving, still ravenous—still wondering why they had been put on earth, why they had been brought into the world.

But for a while, the children didn't know this despair. They would have breathed it like the fog vapors that rose some nights from the swamp, would have absorbed it night and day, until it became so wreathed within them that soon enough it would have begun to replace the spirits with which they had come into the world: but not yet, not then. Floyd was drinking hard and logging harder, felling the oaks and hickories with axes and crosscut saws and sledging them out of the swamp with mules and, when the mules were injured, with men too poor sometimes to afford even a cup of fuel for their bulldozers and tractors—and so their gnawings at the old forest seemed as infinitesimal as they were ceaseless. It seemed that the old forest might grow back in just as fast as the men could sledge the logs out.

The places where they worked opened the forest briefly to the sky, let in little patches of white light in which ferns and orchids grew, blossomed, and prospered briefly before the young canopy closed back in over such clearings.

The children, before they knew their calling, sat at the edge of the creek next to one such clearing and watched the slow muddy waters of Poplar Creek drift past. The nearest town, Sparkman, was eight miles away. To them the world was still beautiful, and only beautiful. They sat there quietly, in the last free days before they became aware that they had a gift—not a gift they had asked for or labored toward, but which had been impressed on them from birth—and they waited, one must assume, for the wisps of despair and misery to begin to soak into their skin like the smoke from the burning of the slash piles, blue smoke hanging in sunlit rafts all throughout the forest, as if a great war were being fought, one about which they knew nothing, one of which they were entirely unaware.

THE FIRE

H
ER FIRST MEMORY
is of heroism and stardom, of great accomplishment and acclaim, even in the midst of ruin.

She was five years old, firmly in the nest of her family, at her aunt and uncle's cabin. The adults were in the front room, sitting in front of the drafty fireplace. Maxine was sleeping in the back room on a shuck mattress, Jim Ed was on a pallet, and Bonnie was in her cradle. Maxine awoke to the sight of orange and gold flickerings the shapes and sizes of the stars, and beyond those, real stars.

The view grew wider.

Stirred by the breezes of their own making, the sparks turned to flames, and burning segments of cedar-shake roofing began to curl and float upward like burning sheets of paper.

She lay there, waiting, watching.

It was not until the first sparks landed on her bed that she broke from her reverie and leapt up and lifted Bonnie from her cradle and Jim Ed from his pallet, a baby in each arm, and ran into the next room, a cinder smoking in her wild black hair, charging out into the lanternlight of the front room as if onto a stage, calling out the one word,
Fire,
with each of the adults paying full and utmost attention to her, each face limned with respect, waiting to hear more.

They all ran outside, women and children first, into the snowy woods, grabbing quilts as they left, while the men tried to battle the blaze, but to no avail; the cabin was on fire from the top down, had been burning for some time already while they played, and now was collapsing down upon them, timbers crackling and crumbling. In the end all the men were able to save was the Bible, their guns, and their guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and dulcimers.

There are a thousand different turns along the path where anyone could look back and say,
If things had not gone right here, if things had not turned out this certain way—if Maxine had not done this, if Jim Ed and Bonnie had not done that—none of all that came afterward would ever have happened.

Only once, looking back, it would seem that from the very beginning there had been only one possible path, with the destination and outcome—the bondage of fame—as predetermined as were the branches in the path infinite.

That the greatest voices, the greatest harmony in country music, should come from such a hardscrabble swamp—Poplar Creek, Arkansas—and that fame should lavish itself upon the three of them, their voices braiding together to give the country the precise thing it most needed or desired—silky polish, after so much raggedness, and a sound that would be referred to as Nashville Chrome—makes an observer pause. Did their fabulous voices come from their own hungers within, or from thrice-in-a-lifetime coincidence? They were in the right place at the right time, and the wrong place at the right time.

There was never a day in their childhood when they did not know fire. They burned wood in their stove year round, not just to stay warm in winter but to cook with and to bathe. In the autumn the red and yellow and orange leaves fell onto the slow brown waters of the creek, where they floated and gathered in such numbers that it seemed the creek itself was burning. And as the men gnawed at the forest and piled the limbs and branches from the crooked trunks, they continued to burn the slash in great pyres. The smoke gave the children a husky, deeper voice right from the start. Everyone in the little backwoods villages sang and played music, but the children's voices were different, bewitching, especially when they sang harmony. No one could quite put a finger on it, but all were drawn to it. It was beguiling, soothing. It healed some wound deep within whoever heard it, whatever the wound.

The singers themselves, however, received no such rehabilitation. For Jim Ed and Bonnie, the sound passed through without seeming to touch them at all, neither injuring nor healing. They could take it or leave it; it was a lark, a party trick, a phenomenon.

Where had it come from, and when they are gone, where will it go?

THE BRIDGE

T
HE SUMMONS HAD
to have emerged randomly, there on the banks of Poplar Creek, and merely passed through them. It had to be a freak of nature, a phenomenon, a mutation of history. As if some higher order had decided to use them as puppets—to hold them hostage to the powerful gift whose time it was to emerge; and as if that gift, that sound, had finally been elicited by some tipping point of misery, hunger, squalor, and yearning into a finer metamorphosis. No work is ever wasted, and all waiting is ultimately rewarded.

Their father, Floyd Brown, had a relationship with the bottle, there could be no denying that, and this, too, was surely one of the little pieces that built their sound, sharpening their ability to temper and moderate their voices, each in accordance with and adjusting to the others', even midnote, each of their three voices writhing and wrapping around the other two until a swirling, smoky sound was created. Each listening to the other keenly, with a sensitivity trained in part by trying to assess quickly—immediately—with but the faintest of clues the status of Floyd's moods. He had already lost one leg in a logging accident and was mortally afraid of losing the other, but that was not why he drank now; he had started long before that.

The Browns would not be the first to be shaped to greatness by living in the shadow of an alcoholic parent. But their sound did not come from Floyd, or from their mother, Birdie. The sound was so elemental that it could have chosen anybody.

Early on, in the days before they came to suspect that they had been burdened with something rare—that they had been chosen to carry it—the world nonetheless would have been preparing them for their journey, would have been teaching them, in the crudest of lessons, the paths their lives would take.

There was an old wooden bridge that spanned Poplar Creek, down where one hollow closed in on another. The Browns lived in one of those hollows, and the moonshiners from whom Floyd bought or bartered his whiskey lived in the other. Anyone approaching the moonshiners' hollow had to go across that one bridge, so that there was no possibility of a surprise visitor, only the regular clientele.

Floyd usually drank his supply down to almost the last drop—sometimes he took it all the way to empty—before gathering up enough coins, or eggs, or a load of prime lumber, and driving across the bridge to make his next purchase. When it was time to go, it didn't matter if they were coming home from church, or on their way to Saturday-night music over at his brother's, or en route to town for groceries: when he needed a drink, he needed a drink.

They were all seven in the car the time that the Browns learned about bridges—had the lesson of bridges blazed indelibly into their young minds, in the architecture of myth or destiny.

Floyd had finished his last drop and had made a run over to one of the local distillers, taking along the entire family for one reason or another. It was springtime and had been raining for a week without stopping. The woods were too muddy to log, and he didn't have any fuel to run the mill anyway. He'd been drinking for all of that rainy week, finishing the last of the last, and so when he came to the bridge, the fact that the bridge was now underwater did not deter him in the least. He could still see the trace of the bridge beneath the swollen current, the ripples indicating its approximate location; and with his family still loaded in the Model A, he eased forward, the rain coming down in sheets. Birdie fussing in the front seat, holding the baby Norma, with Maxine, Jim Ed, Bonnie, and Raymond crammed into the back.

It was dusk, and Floyd forged on, navigating by feel alone, the tires groping for the wood that lay invisible beneath a foot of shuddering current. The creek was twelve feet deep in the center. Floyd said that they had to cross now or never, that the water was only going to get higher, and if he didn't make it now it might be a week before he could cross.

He had not made it even halfway before he lost his way and the car tipped, spun halfway around, and angled downstream. The passengers were spilled from the car.

There were children everywhere, bobbing and floating and grabbing for whatever parts of the car they could reach: a door handle, an open window frame, a headlight. Steam rose from the radiator as if from the blowhole of a whale. Rain lashed their faces. Birdie was screaming, grabbing Norma by the nape of the neck as if she were a kitten. Only Floyd stayed with the car, gripping the steering wheel as if temporarily befuddled, but still anticipating success.

The car continued to lie there, swamped sideways with but one tire gripping the raised center boards of the bridge, shuddering in the current. The current was spinning the free wheels, as if the car were laboring, like a wounded animal, to resume its travels.

Their first task was simply to hold on, but they could not hold on forever. Floyd had begun to realize the situation—the river was up to his chest—and he reached out and began pulling the children back into the flooded car one at a time. The children were creek-slick, and from time to time they would slip from his grasp, and in his grasping for the slipping-away one, the others would come temporarily unbound and he would have to sweep them all in again. Other times, the slip-away child would grab the outstretched hand of one of the other children, so that for a while, extended in the current like that, they would appear as a kite tail of children; and no one who might have looked down upon the scene would have given them any chance of coming to a good end.

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