Author Rick Bass has told the remarkable story of the Browns, a country music trio with a brother and two sisters. Bass takes the reader into the world of Maxine, Jim Ed, Bonnie, and their family—alcoholic father and hard-working, selfless mother, younger brother tragically killed in an accident. Maxine, the oldest, is the one with the drive, while Jim Ed and Bonnie are swept along in her wake. The heyday of their success takes place in the 1950s when Elvis Presley was a contemporary and dated Bonnie, and an unscrupulous manager kept them in indentured servitude until they bought their freedom. Their glory days are interspersed with Maxine in the present day—a recovering alcoholic and almost legally blind, she dreams that they’ll be rediscovered and posts an ad in her local Piggly-Wiggly, looking for a filmmaker to document her life. She gets a response, but from an unusual source.
Nashville Chrome is an absorbing if slightly uneven read. Maxine is center stage, where she wishes to be; Bonnie, in her relationship with Elvis, gets some narrative of her own; and Jim Ed places a distant third in the story. And yet this works as Maxine’s appetites drove their success and as that was her world, despite husband and children, she had more to lose when they ceased touring and recording. Bass is as adept at creating the Browns’ always-moving world in the 1950s as he is contrasting it with Maxine’s painfully constricted life in the present day. She is often not the most sympathetic of characters but she is very real. Much to my surprise, the acknowledgments at the end of the book reveal she was real—the Browns were an actual country act, although Bass notes that his book is “a work of the imagination.”