LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The phrase Nashville chrome may immediately bring to mind the big Cadillacs of the '50s - with their shiny fins and trimmings. However, Nashville chrome is actually a sound that changed country music about the time those Cadillacs were on the road. It's also the title of a new novel by Rick Bass, who joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to the program, Rick.
Mr. RICK BASS (Author, "Nashville Chrome"): Hi, Liane. Thanks.
HANSEN: Describe the sound, Nashville chrome, before we talk about who first made it.
Mr. BASS: When I think about the sound, nothing will attach to it. It exists as a silver lozenge in the air that nothing can touch, nothing can be harmed when it's around. It's just a safe, reassuring, comforting sound.
HANSEN: Your novel is based in fact. It is the story of the Browns, three siblings from Arkansas who made hit records in the '50s.
(Soundbite of song, "The Three Bells")
THE BROWNS: (Singing) There's a village and deep in the valley, beneath the mountains high above. And there 20 years thereafter, Jimmy was to meet his love. All the chapel bells were ringing...
HANSEN: In the summer of 1959, this song was Billboard's number one for four weeks for Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed Brown. Rick Bass, what did you know about their story before you began to write the novel about them?
Mr. BASS: You know, I think I'm like, it seems, everyone in the world, nothing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write the novel. They had this life that was amazing; it was like a novel. But what interested me more than the events of their lives was how quickly and totally they were forgotten after having been so incredibly famous.
HANSEN: Yes. I mean, they made some of the mistakes that a lot of groups did at that time. They signed with a promoter who basically held them hostage for most of their career. They were also coming on board just about the time television was coming on board, and they didn't really do too well. They didn't look good on television.
Mr. BASS: The only thing they had going for them is their irreplaceable sound. They had no savvy, they had no luck. I mean, their name, The Browns, I mean, it was the last of an era before entertainment got really media-savvy and commercial and smart. And that purity really attracted me also.
HANSEN: Their father, Floyd, ran a saw mill and when the Browns were children, they grew up with the sounds of logging. Talk about how those sounds influenced their singing, as well as how their musical talents helped the loggers.
Mr. BASS: This part just really gets me. There's this thing called a tempered harmony, and they had trouble explaining it to me. But it's, evidently, the best I can understand, is that it's an echo or a harmony that rides on top of a regular harmony. And only shared bloodlines can produce that kind of tempered harmony. And it's the same phenomenon that you get when you're sharpening a blade, a piece of steel, when it starts ringing. When it's got just the right edge, again, it's a ringing within a ringing, a ringing on top of a ringing, a harmony attached and riding piggyback on another harmony.
And they had it. And their father wanted his saw blades to have that same kind of temper that - and so the saw sharpeners every day at noon would sharpen the blade to make the blade cut better going through the green wood. And the Browns could hear that sound better than anyone. They were attuned to it, incredible, you know, pitch awareness. And so the saw sharpeners would ask them to come -the kids, you know, they were just little kids - to come down and listen while they were sharpening it and to give them a signal when the saw sharpener had found the tempered harmony in the steel.
HANSEN: How much time did you spend outside? I mean, have you been Poplar Creek, Arkansas, their home? Because in many respects, Poplar Creek is a character.
Mr. BASS: Very much so. It was a very intense, short visit going to their home. It's a novelist's challenge: how much research do you do; how much imagination do you bring into your story? And, for me at least, it's one or the other. One comes at the expense of the other. The more I know, the harder it is to imagine. The less I know, the easier it is to imagine.
So, I was there. I experienced it briefly and intensely, and then I thought, you know what, I don't want any more of this. It's too intense. I've got enough.
HANSEN: I'm speaking with Rick Bass. He's the author of the new novel, "Nashville Chrome."
Maxine was the oldest of the three, and she essentially is a focus of this particular novel. She wanted to be a star, and your story tracks her ambitions, her highs, her lows, and it also fast forwards to the present, where she's alone, she's surrounded by memorabilia and she still wants to be famous. Did you start out writing about the group and then the sea changes in music that were happening at the time, in the late '50s and early '60s, and then in a writing sense, were you held hostage by Maxine?
Mr. BASS: Precisely. I mean, that's weird. That's exactly how it was. I thought, OK, I'm going to tell the story about The Browns and then Maxine, this dominant fame-hungerer totally took over. I mean, it just makes you sometimes want to weep. She's so ravenous for fame and yet I have to back off and say, OK, don't judge her. That's who she is; it's what she loves; it's what makes her live.
And this is not some, you know, wannabe. This is someone who played for 100,000 people live in Germany and who Chet Atkins said was his favorite person to record, and who the Beatles tried to learn harmony from and who Johnny Cash admired. I mean, these were the core, the nexus of, you know, new country music sound. They were great.
HANSEN: Did you meet her?
Mr. BASS: Yes, yes. A wonderful meeting. I got to go eat dinner with Bonnie and Maxine. And Bonnie started singing in the restaurant and it was utterly bewitching. I mean, all of the diners - it was, like, in this little catfish cabin. And, you know, diners are just chowing down, you know, shoving catfish and crumbs falling on the floor, everything. And, you know, it's just a high-volume restaurant.
And Bonnie starts singing and it was just - this sound penetrated. She wasn't loud, it was very quiet but something about the sound spread to every little corner of this noisy restaurant and everybody got quiet. And it was just a fragment, a snippet of song and it was just beautiful.
HANSEN: I'd be interested in that first encounter with Maxine when you maybe called her up and said I'd like to write a book about you and your siblings and talk to them. I'm trying to imagine her reaction.
Mr. BASS: Boy, you know, it was backwards of that. I don't know if there's time to get into it here. I'll try and be quick. It was a backwards story.
I was in Nashville. My daughters were teenagers, young teenagers, then and they were smitten with this country pop star, Keith Urban, rock star, great guitarist, you know, handsome Australian/New Zealand, blah, blah, blah, just a, you know, a heartthrob. And my daughters were starting to get at that age where they kind of drift away from me. And I'm thinking, well, I can still be of worth and use in their lives. I'll get a job interviewing their hero and then they'll know notice me again.
So, I went to Nashville trying to get an assignment to interview Keith Urban. It was trying to get an assignment to interview God or, you know, the Pope or somebody - just not accessible. But talking to a publicist, Norma Morris, said I have a client who wants her story told. She wants to have a movie made about her life. And maybe if you write about her in country music magazines, people will see that you can write about country music and then you can work your way up the food chain and get this interview with Keith Urban.
So, that's - Maxine, I had lunch with her and her story poured out and, you know, that was end. I was hooked. And I said yeah, I can't make you a movie - I don't know how to do movies - but I can write a novel. And she said OK. I mean, I have to laugh. You know, she wanted a movie and it's kind of emblematic of her luck, symbolic of her luck. You know, just this is not the way you go about getting a movie is to pick, you know, a literary novelist, you know, to tell an artsy story about your life.
But she was just - I don't mean this critically - she was so hungry for fame that she, you know, she was willing to settle on me. And we're both very pleased with the book. It's, you know, it's a beautiful book about a beautiful life.
HANSEN: Rick Bass. His new novel is called "Nashville Chrome." He joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington. Thank you so much.
Mr. BASS: Thank you, Liane.