Nashville Chrome opens on a logging town in ’40s Arkansas, where the bleakness of the economic climate is made all the more dispiriting by the fact that the Great Depression is officially, if not effectively, over. Rising above the ever-present whine of the sawmill blade is the “tempered harmony” of the Brown family’s Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie, a trio of singers who blazed a trail through traditional country music into a tuneful territory that combined slick pop production and honky-tonk to create what would come to be known as the Nashville sound. In this third novel by O. Henry award-winner Rick Bass, his usual subjects of threatened ecosystems and endangered animals are pushed to the background, but the foregrounded human relationships never come close enough, as Bass is content to treat the Browns as vessels for greatness instead of individuals with agency. He fictionalizes and dramatizes, recreating their lives in broad, mythic strokes that, unfortunately, never amount to a convincing facsimile.
Some of that distance is by design, but where it was problematic for Bass’ Where The Sea Used To Be, it’s damning here. The Browns signed with an abusive, exploitative manager, Fabor Alexander, who refused to wire them money for food or lodging while they were on tour. They battled with alcoholism and the corrupting power of fame, and they produced hits like “The Three Bells” and “I’ll Take The Chance,” winning high-profile fans like The Beatles, Chet Atkins, and Elvis Presley, who figures heavily in the story as Bonnie’s one-time love interest. It’s a tale with incredible dramatic potential, but the abstract tone squanders it by skimping on the dialogue and details that would make the story resonate. Instead, Chrome comes off like the novel equivalent of a biography written without proper access to its subject.
Part of the problem is the book’s hiccuping, plodding structure, which makes its 250 pages feel twice that. The chapter devoted to the private-airplane death of labelmate “Gentleman” Jim Reeves, or the one detailing a disastrous recording session at Fabor’s palatial estate and the resulting move to RCA are engrossing on their own, but each story feels isolated from the others, and together, they’re incapable of generating any momentum, intercut as they are every few pages with the modern-day struggle of an elderly, now sober Maxine Brown. E.L. Doctorow has said that history tells us what happened, and fiction tells us what it felt like. Nashville Chrome’s attempt to accomplish both aims for harmony, but produces mostly dissonance.