In 1959, despite his service in the army, Elvis Presley still managed to have 10 Top 40 hits. Impressive, certainly, but he wasn't the only household name on the charts. Back then a little family trio called The Browns—Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie—gave their old friend Elvis a run for his money with their own successes, among which included a number one hit on both the country and pop charts. "The Three Bells" was a melancholy and sweet ballad that had originally been recorded by Edith Piaf in the early 1950s. It was a perfect match for the harmonizing folk trio and the song would catapult them to some degree of international success. Unlike Elvis, however, The Browns were not especially sexy; they were neither cutting edge in their music nor particularly tragic in their lives. Their music was simply pitch-perfect, which is probably why they are mostly forgotten today.
It's The Browns' story that Rick Bass chronicles in his new novel Nashville Chrome, which is being inexplicably hailed as Bass' "return" to fiction. Within only the last five years, Bass has published a novel (The Diezmo, 2006), a collection of short stories (The Lives of Rocks, 2007) and, only a few months ago, a novella (The Blue Horse, 2010). Nashville Chrome, however, does represent unchartered territory for the author who's most prominently known as the environmentalist champion of his beloved Yaak Valley. Here, though, he tells the sweet and arresting story of three siblings from Arkansas who became major players in the country music scene of the 1950s and into the 1960s, the turbulent decade during which the smooth harmonies of the trio could not find a place.
Though told in the omniscient voice, the novel focuses often (and most successfully) on the eldest of the three siblings, Maxine Brown, who not only commandeered the trio during its most successful years but who felt the group's inevitable break-up in the mid-1960s as an amputee might feel a missing limb for years to come, ubiquitous and forever painful. Perhaps because of her ferocious ambition, Maxine would become the most frustrated among her siblings: Jim Ed would go on to a modestly successful solo career that would morph into a still-running Nashville radio program, and Bonnie, with no small amount of relief, would marry a doctor (for whom, if we are to believe the story as Bass tells it, she dumps Elvis) and live a happily married life in the Ozarks. Despite her siblings' relative happiness, Maxine remains miffed, shuffling about on her slow-to-heal broken hip wondering why in the hell The Browns have been so bloody forgotten and how her siblings, Bonnie in particular, can be so damn happy with the middling success life has bequeathed to them.
I gotta admit, I kinda dig old Maxine Brown. When she decides her big comeback will be the biopic about her life ("Everyone else has a movie...A movie at or near the end of one's career or life is simply de rigueur in country music. Where's her movie?"), I have to admit further that the old bird sort of has a point, not to mention some panache. With neither agent nor publicist, Maxine tacks up an ad at the local Piggly Wiggly for someone to help her make a movie about her once-famous self.
Surprising and moving, even quirky, the chapters that focus on the lonely yet still hungry old woman are easily the best parts of the novel. Unfortunately, the other parts of the novel, compelling though they could have been, just don't match up. For one, Bass employs an overly self-conscious narration that fawns too heavily over its subjects. He describes The Browns as "the epicenter and nucleus" of the Nashville music industry; they were "predetermined" to be "burdened" with "something rare—that they had been chosen to carry it—the world nonetheless would have been preparing them for their journey." Bass describes their voices as a "summons," "as if some higher order had decided to use them as puppets." Knowing and clearly lamenting the reality that his readers may not have heard of The Browns, Bass goes to great and ultimately self-defeating lengths to tell us—over and over and over again—that The Browns could sing mighty prettily. What we could have appreciated for ourselves, Bass muddles with cloying force.
Furthermore, it would have served Bass well to have taken a few lessons from the storytellers of country. Rather than simply telling a story close-up, with all the tools any storyteller has at hand (dialogue, conflicts, scene, etc.), Bass pulls his narrative camera way back and chronicles the story almost as though he were an essayist, rather than a novelist. As a result, there's lots of exposition here, but very few actual scenes, resulting in static chapters that feel like set-pieces.
In the song "The Three Bells," The Browns told the story of "Little Jimmy" simply, letting little details provide the luster and the sentiment. It's a lesson Bass could have taken to heart.
Rick Bass reads from Nashville Chrome at Shakespeare & Co. Monday, Aug. 23, at 7 PM. Free.