Nashville Chrome is a fictional treatment of the lives of the Browns, a 1950s country music trio whose sudden success was as inexplicable and meteoric as their subsequent disappearance.
They were once the biggest thing in country music—the first group ever to have number one hits in both country and pop charts and the Beatles’ most admired American group. They were confidants of Johnny Cash and the closest friends and mentors to a young Elvis Presley. The key to the Browns’ success was a mysterious “tempered harmony” that could come only from shared bloodlines. The smoothness of their sound helped usher in the more commercial Nashville music industry.
As fascinating as their story is, I was struck most by the question of why the Browns, and not any other group or individual, emerged out of that time and place and almost singlehandedly altered the course of American music. So stark and dramatic was their success that it seemed their sound might as well have come from a venthole in the earth—as when the earth’s plates slide over rifts of volcanic activity—and that from that hotspot, new life and land was formed. Was their own genetic drift that random?
But that question proved unanswerable, and so I decided to focus on a new heart of inquiry, less scientific and less metaphysical: wondering not so much why fame had chosen the Browns, but rather, how they each dealt with it after it went away.
This book is far less an environmental parable than any I’ve ever undertaken, and yet in thinking about the parallels in this story—the creation, as if from a garden of innocence, of something amazing, and then the bittersweetness of the wonderful thing’s slow going away—there seems to be a larger metaphor for our times. The success of the Browns’ sound came in part from a taming of the old Appalachian nasal caterwaul—rough and raw as a cob—that rendered a new, smooth, chrome-like sound more accessible, and more marketable. I wonder if part of the book’s unspoken, haunting regret—like the Browns’ sound itself—comes from a subconscious awareness of some of the costs and losses involved in this trade.
As cultural spokespersons for the 1950s, the Browns hold intriguing clues to how we once were as a country: a product of our landscape and our fears and hungers, and of complicated circumstances that could no more hold steady than could a river stop in mid-flow. For a little while, the Browns changed the world—but just because they changed it did not mean they controlled it, or that the world was obliged to stop for them. Of the two sisters, one realized this, and retreated to anonymity with grace, while the other—Maxine, the oldest—burns, and waits still for that river to return. It’s a fascinating story, and I’m grateful to the Browns for living it.
RICK BASS is the award-winning writer of many works of nonfiction and fiction. His new novel, Nashville Chrome, considers the sudden rise and fall of the country music trio The Browns.