Best Music Books of 2012
Making year-end lists of best books is an exercise at once exciting and frustrating. Listing the best books of the year helps recall fondly those great books that revealed new information about an artist or his or her music or drives you to pick a again a book that you didn’t want to end the first time you read through it. Making such a list is also frustrating when you must choose the “top ten” from the hundreds of books published; you also hope that you haven’t overlooked a diamond in the rough along the way. Yet, making these year-end lists simply provides a springboard for conversations about favorite books, why they’re good, and why we’ve come to love them; we hope that such lists will also introduce readers to books they’ll want to pick up and read in the coming months.
2012 has been a banner year for music books covering all genres, and it’s been an especially rich year for music memoirs, which range from the good to the bad to the ugly. Pete Townshend’s Who Am I (HarperCollins, $32.50, 538 pages) and Carole King’s A Natural Woman (Little, Brown, $27.99, 488 pages) sit at the top of the heap, for they graciously invite us into the darkest corners, as well as the sunniest rooms, of their lives and compel us to listen to their tales told in voices as moving, expressive, and touching as their most poignant and raucous songs. The following top ten 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.
10. Waging Heavy Peace. Neil Young. Blue Rider Press, 502 pages
Young says he feels like he’s massaging his soul when he makes music, and he makes some of his finest music in this lyrical masterpiece, massaging our souls by hitting just the right chords with his beautiful words.
9. My Cross to Bear. Gregg Allman, with Alan Light. Morrow, 400 pages
Allman lays bare his soul in this rambling and rambunctious, and fiercely honest, memoir of growing up with his brother, Duane, his life on the road, the illness that almost killed him, and his many loves.
8. Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz. John McCusker. University of Mississippi Press, 176 pages
Drawing on oral history and Ory’s unpublished autobiography, McCusker creates a moving portrait of this important early New Orleans bandleader, composer, and musician.
7. Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown. David Menconi. University of Texas Press, 222 pages
Drawing on early interviews with Adams, prominent music critic Menconi brilliantly chronicles Adams’ rise to fame, focusing especially on the albums Strangers Almanac and Heartbreaker.
6. Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock. Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida, 256 pages
Kealing rehearses Parson’s familiar story, but he draws upon dozens of new interviews with Parsons’ family, friends, and fellow musicians, as well as previously unseen letters and photographs provided by his Parsons’ family and the celebrated photographer Ted Polumbaum to offer a compulsively readable and intimate portrait of a young man who introduced the pure strains of country stars such as the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard to musicians like Bernie Leadon of the Eagles and Chris Hillman.
5. The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and Music. Alan Lomax. With an essay by Tom Piazza and introduction by William Ferris. Norton, 136 pages
Between August 1959 and May 1960, the great folk music archivist Alan Lomax made what has become known as his “Southern Journey.” During that trip, Lomax sought not only the folk music of the region in prisons, on farms, and in churches, he also took photographs of the musicians themselves. Largely unpublished, these essential photographic documents collected in this book provide a stunning portrait of the lives of the musicians.
4. The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires. John Dougan. University of Massachusetts, 144 pages
A moving story of five African American prisoners who made the trip from the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville on June morning in 1953 to Sun Studios in Memphis to record “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” later made famous by Johnnie Ray and numerous others.
3. Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir. Josh Graves. Edited by Fred Bartenstein. Illinois, 184 pages
A very welcome memoir by the late, great Graves, who introduced the Dobro to bluegrass music and inspired generations of musicians.
2. The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. Frank M. Young and David Lasky. Abrams, 192 pages
Country music meets the comics in this humorous and entertaining graphic novel. Affectionate and admiring, the book captures the family’s rise to success through numerous struggles as well as the enduring power of music and love.
1. Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers. Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer. IT/Igniter Books (HarperCollins), 320 pages
The Louvin Brothers influenced a wide range of music, of course, and Charlie’s rambunctious, humorous, and moving memoir recalls the sad story of his brother, Ira, as well as Charlie’s recollections of a life in music.
Other Notable Titles
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Sylvie Simmons. Ecco, 576 pages.
Bruce. Peter Ames Carlin. Touchstone, 480 pages.
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. RJ Smith. Gotham Books, 456 pages.
A Woman like Me. Bettye LaVette with David Ritz. Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 272 pages.
Luck or Something Like It: A Memoir. Kenny Rogers. Morrow, 432 pages.
When I Left Home: My Story. Buddy Guy, with David Ritz. Da Capo, 288 pages.
Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere. Don McLeese. Texas, paperback, 222 pages.
Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From The Road. Willie Nelson. Morrow, 176 pages.
Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You. Dolly Parton. Putnam, 122 pages.
No More Nice Girls. Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press, paperback, 304 pages. [This collection of essays and Willis' collection, Beginning to See the Light, are now back in print from the University of Minnesota Press, bringing back the important voice of this late, great music critic.]
The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. Stephen Wade. Illinois, 504 pages.
Conversations with Greil Marcus. Greil Marcus. Edited by Joe Bonomo. University of Mississippi Press, 218 pages.
Saved by Song: A History of Gospel and Christian Music, new revised edition. Don Cusic. Mississippi, paperback, 502 pages.
Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music. Douglas Harrison. Illinois, 228 pages.
Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics. Loretta Lynn. Knopf, 240 pages.
Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music. Henry Horenstein. Norton, 144 pages.
This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song. Robert Santelli. Running Press, 256 pages.
Pete Seeger: In His Own Words. Pete Seeger. Selected and edited by Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal. Paradigm Press, 376 pages.
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- Country fan: Merle is one of the greatest talents in music.