The phrase Nashville Chrome may bring to mind big Cadillacs from the '50s, with their shiny fins and trimmings, but it actually describes a sound that changed country music when those Cadillacs were on the road. It's also the title of a new novel by Rick Bass, who describes the sound as "very safe, reassuring, and comforting". Based in fact, the novel tells the story of The Browns: three siblings (Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie Brown) from Arkansas that made hit records in the '50s. Weekend Edition Saturday Host Liane Hansen talks with Bass about his encounter with The Browns and how he wrote his novel.
Growing up to the sound of logging at their father's saw mill, the three developed an ear for what's called 'tempered harmony', which Bass says is "an echo or harmony that rides on top of a regular harmony. It's the same phenomenon you get when you're sharpening a blade or piece of steel, when it starts ringing and you have the right edge." Bass goes on to explain that this sound can only be produced by people of shared bloodlines.
The Browns siblings mastered this sound in their music, which became the defining characteristic of Nashville Chrome. Consequently, this Grammy-nominated vocal trio went on to make a profound impact on the world of music, influencing celebrated acts such as The Beatles and Johnny Cash. Yet despite their famed smooth harmony, The Browns dropped out of the limelight as quickly as they had entered it. "What interested me most is how quickly they were forgotten after having been so incredibly famous," Bass says.
The group that once had numerous hit records and performed for crowds of over 100,000 people around the world is now a name recognized only by a select few. When asked what he knew about the group before writing his novel, Bass says that he knew "what seems like everyone in the world [knew]: nothing".
Bass says that the reason for their prompt departure had less to do with their sound than it did with their savvy. "The only thing they had going for them was their irreplaceable sound and purity. They had no savvy… They had no luck. It was the last of an era before entertainment became more media savvy and smart," says Bass, adding that "It's a beautiful book about a beautiful life."