Best Music Books of 2013

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | December 11th, 2013

It’s that time of year again when we’re making our lists and checking them twice to find out which books have been good enough this year to stuff your and your families’ and friends’ stockings. Making such lists always presents a challenge since hundreds of books about music, musicians, or the making of individual albums fill the shelves every year, and we’ll never be aware of every title published within the year. What’s more, these lists of notable books reflect the eye of the beholder and invariably leave out other titles about which individual readers hold fervently close to their hearts. Yet, the books on this year’s list live as models of passionate journalism, with writing and lives that jump off the page and into our own lives, accompanying us on a journey through discrete, sometimes dark and sometimes shining, musical worlds.

One notable aspect of this year’s list is that university presses dominate the list. In 2012, the University of Texas Press published the first two books in its American Music Series, edited by Peter Blackstock and David Menconi—Don McLeese’s Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere and Menconi’s Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown. This high-octane series launched quickly and forthcoming topics in the series include Uncle Tupelo and John Prine, among others. New in the series, David Cantwell’s book on Merle Haggard tops this year’s list of notable books. In 1972, the University of Illinois Press released the first volume in its now-venerable Music in American Life series, Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal Mining Songs, by Archie Green. This year, Illinois delivered a number of important books, ranging over topics from Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline, edited by Warren Hofstra) to Southern Soul Blues, by David Whiteis. University Press of Mississippi’s American Made Music series launched in 1995 and this year published Quincy Jones: His Life in Music, Clarence Bernard Henry’s story of Quincy Jones’ work as a composer and producer. Duke University Press this year releases Diane Pecknold’s significant edited volume on exploration of the intersections of race and country music, and the University of Massachusetts Press makes another sterling addition to its American Popular Music series with Devon Powers page-turning look at the beginnings of rock criticism at the Village Voice, both of which make this list.

Narrowing the list to ten best books has been difficult this year. Although the top two books on this list are very different—one is a definitive and exhaustive biography, the other contains significant biographical details but uses those details in the service of a critical glance at the artist’s music—and although Robert Hilburn’s biography of Johnny Cash appears as number one, both Hilburn’s book and David Cantwell’s superb book on Merle Haggard deserve top honors. Every other title in the top ten is a must read. The following list features a few outstanding memoirs from roots musicians as well as a number of other books that provide new looks into familiar subject, or first-time looks into subjects long neglected.

grahamnashbook10. Graham Nash — Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life

With the lyrical flights of his best songs (“Carrie Anne,” “Our House,” “Chicago”), Nash carries us along a journey from his often difficult childhood in the industrial north of England and the formation with Allan Clark of the band that eventually became the Hollies to his encounters with Mama Cass Elliott, who introduced him to David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell, the Everly Brothers, and Bob Dylan. While Nash holds back nothing, unveiling his disappointments with his own work and that of others, his love of songwriting and harmony runs as the refrain through his writing: “I am a complete slave to the muse of music.” 

WritingTheRecord9. Devon Powers — Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism

During the early and mid-60s, a group of young music journalists—Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau chief among them—began writing about rock music with the same serious critical scrutiny that earlier critics had written about classical music or jazz. In this mesmerizing account, Powers draws on archival materials and interviews to chronicle the rise of rock criticism in the pages of The Village Voice during these early years.

streissguth outlaw8. Michael Streissguth — Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville

In February 1976, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser and the Glaser Brothers released Wanted: The Outlaws!, creating and building upon each of these musician’s growing stature and the country’s increasing love for the outlaw. Wanted! became the first country album to sell one million copies. Music historian Streissguth tells the well-known story of the struggles between the staid Nashville music scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the dynamic, fresh music filtering into Music City from Los Angeles (Emmylou Harris), Texas (Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver), and South Carolina (Marshall Chapman) in this compulsively readable book. Streissguth uses this one group of musicians to capture not only the rapidly changing music industry in Nashville in the 1970s, he also vividly portrays the social and cultural forces—the Vietnam War protests, the clash of Old South and New South, the Civil Rights movement—that led to tremendous changes in the country music industry at the time.

robertgordonrespectyourself7. Robert Gordon — Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

A masterful storyteller, music historian Gordon (It Came from Memphis) artfully chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s greatest music studios, situating the story of Stax within the cultural history of the 1960s in the South. Gordon deftly narrates the stories of the many musicians that called Stax home from Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and The Staple Singers, as well as the creative marketing strategies—the Stax-Volt Revue and Wattstax—the company used to promote itself. Stax was also notable for its interracial studio band, Booker T. & the MGs, who had their own success with records like “Green Onions,” and launched the careers of guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. The music of Stax permeates our lives and “became the soundtrack for liberation, the song of triumph, the sound of the path toward freedom,” according to Gordon. 

pecknoldhiddeninthemix6. Diane Pecknold (Editor) — Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music

Eminent country music historian Pecknold’s superb edited collection of essays on the intersections of race and country music appeared in a timely fashion, for it was published just after Brad Paisley paired with LL Cool J on the song “Accidental Racist.” The twelve essays—written by recognized country music scholars from Michael Awkward, Adam Gussow, Patrick Huber, and Kip Lornell, among others—explore topics as diverse as how southern soul changed country music; King Records, Henry Glover, and the complex achievement of crossover; and, changing conceptions of the use of “country” in the music of Al Green.

murphyhenryprettygood5. Murphy Hicks Henry — Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass

In an illuminating and groundbreaking biographical and cultural history, banjo player Murphy Hicks Henry and founder of Women in Bluegrass offers the first-ever book about women pickers. Her must-read book chronicles the lives, music, and history of more than seventy women from Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion and sang with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946, to Wilma Lee Cooper, Roni and Donna Stoneman, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis, Missy Raines, and Rebecca Frazier. If you read only one book about bluegrass this year, this should be the one.

lindaronstadtsimpledreams4. Linda Ronstadt — Simple Dreams

In her memoir, Ronstadt artfully weaves together an album that carries us from her musical upbringing in Arizona through her rise to stardom in the Southern California music scene and beyond, revealing details of her relationships (though this is not a tell-all) with a diverse range of figures from Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris to Nelson Riddle and Kermit the Frog. Ronstadt revealed the news of her Parkinson’s following the publication of the memoir, and such news makes reading her book both a sad and celebratory moment.

rickyskaggstraveler3. Ricky Skaggs with Eddie Dean — Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music

Skaggs is as cracking good at telling stories as he is at singing high, lonesome melodies and letting his fingers fly across the frets of guitars and mandolins, and he delivers an entertaining, frank, and inspiring tale of his boyhood and youth in rural Kentucky, and his early days playing with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys to his days with J.D. Crowe and the New South, his work with Emmylou Harris in her Hot Band, and his rise to fame with his first album, “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine,” in 1981. Refreshingly forthright, Skaggs declares that he would have never made it to where he is today without the deep love and care of his family, his wife, Sharon (herself a member of the well-known bluegrass and gospel group, The Whites), and his faith.

haggardcover2. David Cantwell — Merle Haggard: The Running Kind

Esteemed country music critic David Cantwell takes us on a revelatory journey through Merle Haggard’s music and the life and times out of which it came. Cantwell’s writing floats above the page like a great musical composition; he’s pitch perfect as he explores the making of Haggard’s songs and his albums. This is music criticism at its best, for Cantwell’s un-put-downable book drives us to drop the needle again, or for the first time, on Haggard’s albums.

roberthilburncash1. Robert Hilburn — Johnny Cash: The Life

A decade after his death, Cash still towers over the musical landscape, a legendary figure whose work with figures as diverse as Bob Dylan, Cowboy Jack Clement, Kris Kristofferson, and producer Rick Rubin illustrate Cash’s embrace of musical eclecticism and his deep devotion to finding that musical moment when tune and lyrics blend to make a great song. Former LA Times music critic Hilburn draws on previously unpublished interviews with Cash as well as previously unseen materials from the singer’s inner circle in this definitive biography. At the center of Hilburn’s portrait stands an iconic singer who struggled with addiction at the same time that he was driven by a deep Christian faith, a man who struggled to balance the dark forces of violence and disloyalty with the light of his love for family, their love for him, and his love for music. As Cash’s son, John Carter, says of his father, “his most enduring legacy is that his message continues to spread.” With his definitive biography, Hilburn does the same for Cash.

 

Other Notable Titles:

Buck Owens and Randy Poe Buck ‘Em: The Autobiography of Buck Owens

Jason MellardProgressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture

Paul ReesRobert Plant: A Life

Terry TeachoutDuke: A Life of Duke Ellington

Don HunsteinKeeping Time: The Unseen Archives of Columbia Records

Robbie Robertson, Jim Guerinot, Jared Levine, and Sebastian Robertson — Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music that Changed the World

Bill JanovitzRocks Off: 50 Tracks that Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones

Mark KurlanskyReady For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America

Stanley CrouchKansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan — 1963: The Year of the Revolution: How Youth Changed the World with Music, Art, and Fashion

 

 

  1. mrsandydog
    December 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Interesting. I didn’t care for Hilburn’s Johnny Cash biography. Maybe I’ve read too many of them. But the PR promised lots of heretofore unknown biographical details, yet the most explosive “revelations” — about Cash’s return to drug use, marital strife with June Carter and final illness — have been published before in the Streissguth and Turner biographies. A glance at the notes confirms Hilburn relied heavily on previously published works — so how can there be much new here? There was no saving this book for me once Hilburn repeated an ugly rumor published post-mortem in the National Enquirer about Cash and sister-in-law Anita Carter having an affair. The rumor is neither confirmed nor refuted, merely repeated. Once you use the National Enquirer as a source, you can’t regain your biographer’s credibility.

    The Haggard book is my top choice. Beautifully written and masterfully weaving Hag’s life story with analysis of his finest songs, this is how a music biography should read.

  2. David Johnson
    December 21, 2013 at 3:06 am

    Very good list. I would urge readers to check out Bob Kealing’s Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, and my biography of Carter and Ralph Stanley, Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers. The Web site is http://www.lonesomemelodies.com.

  3. Henry
    December 21, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Thank you, David.
    Bob’s bio of Gram was on last year’s version of this list, and it is a great book.
    My deep apologies to you, though for not mentioning your excellent book. My copy has a December 2012 pub date on it, and this list covers books released in 2013.
    David is too modest to say this in his note, so let me encourage you to pick up his excellent and biography of the Stanley Brothers. His book is compulsively readable, and Johnson deftly weaves interviews with the Stanley’s’ family and friends with his own assessments of their live and music to create a colorful narrative that covers the work and times of these great musicians.

  4. David Johnson
    February 22, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Henry, thank you for your kind words about my book. I want to let you and your readers know there is a new paperback edition of Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers.

    The hardcover was published February 1, 2013, though one on-line seller had it on January 23. The publication date of the paperback is March 1, 2014, though the same seller already is selling the book.

    I encourage folks to check with their favorite local bookstore as well as the large on-line sellers. Specific information about sellers and prices is on http://www.lonesomemelodies.com. Thank you for your support.

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