Best Music Books of 2012

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | December 11th, 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Drawing on oral history and Ory’s unpublished autobiography, McCusker creates a moving portrait of this important early New Orleans bandleader, composer, and musician.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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  1. [...] Engine 145 was kind enough to include “Losering” at No. 7 on its 10-book listing of “Best Music Books of 2012,” saying that it “brilliantly chronicles Adams’ rise to [...]
  1. J.R. Journey
    December 11, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for a great list I’m sure I’ll be coming back to for later reference. I’ve read only the Kenny Rogers and Louvin Brothers books here. Rogers was more forthcoming in his old age than I expected him to be. I have Willie’s and Dolly’s books too, but I haven’t started them yet.

  2. Jon
    December 11, 2012 at 11:22 am

    “Young says he feels like he’s massaging his soul when he makes music…”

    Gak. Sounds painful at best.

  3. Eric Banister
    December 11, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with your No. 1.

    I would also recommend “The Chiltin’ Circuit” by Preston Lauterbach.

  4. Jon
    December 11, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Gram Parsons most definitely did not “introduce 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” – well, maybe to musicians “like” them, but definitely not to them. Both of them were semi-professional bluegrass (and therefore, never mind anything else, country) musicians long before they ever heard of, much less met, Gram Parsons. See, and please, help stop the Parsons mythologizing madness.

  5. Eric
    December 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Gram Parsons produced some great country music in his time. Listening to “A Song For You” gives me chills, as do many of his collaborations with Emmylou Harris. His music captures the true wistful essence of the country genre.

  6. nm
    December 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    I especially love the true wistful essence of Parsons singing “I Can’t Dance.” I put it right up there with the true wistful essence of George Jones singing “The Love Bug” and the true wistful essence of Johnny Cash singing “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.” That’s true wistful country, all right.

  7. luckyoldsun
    December 11, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me BEFORE I Die”?!?

    Please–That’s not on Willie’s “bucket list” of things that can’t wait until he’s gone!

  8. Bob Kealing
    December 11, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Thanks for including “Calling Me Home” on your list. The last thing I wanted to do was add to the Gram Parsons “mythologizing madness” or the madness and sadness of Joshua Tree for that matter. This book is about Parsons as a real person and artist, plus the furtive and vastly underappreciated Southern musicians and scenes that informed his music and nurture his undeniable legacy.
    There are dozens of new interviews with people like Roger McGuinn, the late Charlie Louvin(with whom it is an honor to be on the list), and Jim Stafford who agreed to be interviewed for the very reason that this book is NOT hero worship.
    Thanks for giving a small press book a chance.

  9. Eric
    December 12, 2012 at 2:41 am

    To NM:

    I’m not sure if you are criticizing my remark? When I call a song “wistful”, I mean that as a high complement.

    From what I have studied about country music, there have historically been three main categories of country songs: fun songs (e.g. “A Boy Named Sue”), hell-raising songs (e.g. “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man”), and wistful songs that evoke a sense of nostalgia or general longing. As far as I’m concerned, the wistful songs represent the true heart and soul of country music, while the other two types are meant for levity. Critics widely agree that George Jones’s finest songs were “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, two of his most wistful tracks. I will also add “Choices” to that list.

  10. Eric
    December 12, 2012 at 2:44 am

    Also, Gram Parsons made both rock-n-roll and country music. I was specifically praising his work in country. “I Can’t Dance” is not country; it is one of his rock-n-roll songs.

  11. nm
    December 12, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Eric, I’m taking issue with your first characterization of country music as being essentially wistful. It’s like saying that people essentially have blue eyes.

    I also take issue with your contention that country music is either fun, hell-raising, or wistful. That’s like saying that can have blue, green, or grey eyes. People certainly have those colors of eyes, and country music certainly contains those themes. But it contains a lot more: songs of religious devotion, love songs, songs of social comment, songs that are mostly meant to get you up dancing, etc., etc. I think you need to broaden your study a little.

    Oh, and “I Can’t Dance” was written by Tom T. Hall. You can’t get much more country than that.

  12. Jon
    December 12, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Yeah, well, I’m with NM about the whole wistful thing and needing to broaden your study, and I’m not, nor have I ever been, much of a fan of Parsons’ country music efforts, wistful or otherwise. But that’s a matter of taste, and therefore not terribly interesting to talk about.

    On the other hand, the notion – embodied in the statement to which I objected – that Parsons was the only, or the most important, or the best, or whatever dude to bring an interest in, appreciation for and knowledge of country music into rock circles is so monstrously wrong as a matter of plain, objective fact that it serves as the quintessential instance of mythologizing run amok, and therefore as something that needs to be clearly addressed and disposed of each time it rears its ugly head.

  13. Henry
    December 12, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Thank you, LuckyOldSun, for pointing out the error of my ways, and apologies to Willie. It’s now fixed.

    Eric: I agree that “The Chitlin’ Circuit” is a great book, but it was published in 2011, so I left it off this list. Since the paperback did come out this year, I could have included it with “other notable books,” so I thank you for mentioning it.

    Bob: Your book is terrific, and you’ll know that from my review of it in Bookpage, from which review my little blurb is taken. Jon wasn’t criticizing your book, I don’t believe, but chiding me for my mistake of fact in my last sentence. As my review makes clear, your book is not hagiography and works very hard not mythologize Parsons, which has been done endlessly.

    Jon: I thank you for setting me straight; Hillman is the one who introduced Parsons to McGuinn and others. What I would have better off saying would have been something to the effect that Parsons had heard some strains of a music–country–that he wanted to introduce to the folk circles and rock circles in which he was playing at the time. Since this is the early 1960s, he was playing in the Shilohs, and he wanted to move beyond the music he was playing with them, and over the next five years he began to run into folks like Leadon–whose music I still admire very much and in my mind is undersung; the Eagles were never the same after he left, in my mind–and Hillman who took Parsons under their wing, so to speak, and the rest is history. However, I never meant to say, or to imply, that Parsons was the only dude who brought an interest in country music into rock circles; I don’t believe that myself, for I am aware that the you can go back much earlier to find the powerful influence of various styles one upon the other, and Parsons certainly doesn’t stand at the fount.
    I’d agree that the Parsons myth is powerful, though, I suppose because here’s a doe-eyed, handsome young dude, singing some, but not all, songs wistfully–whether they’re wistful songs or not–inserting himself into what comes to be called country-rock in its early years and then dying mysteriously in a remote location that Parsons’ adorers turned into a religious shrine. The Eagles even sang his eulogy in “My Man” in 1974. Does all this justify the myth-making? Of course not. The great thing about Bob’s book is that he presents Parsons as a person who never really found his way in life; Bob’s portrait of Parsons is not a pretty one, and certainly doesn’t romanticize Parsons.

    Thanks, Jon, for your words. By the way, very nice piece on Roland White in the Bluegrass Station.

  14. Eric Banister
    December 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Henry – Ack! I stand corrected. My apologies.

  15. Jon
    December 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    “What I would have better off saying would have been something to the effect that Parsons had heard some strains of a music–country–that he wanted to introduce to the folk circles and rock circles in which he was playing at the time. ”

    Exactly. And I agree that finding a balanced portrayal is, for a variety of reasons, a challenging job.

  16. Bob Kealing
    December 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks for the nice comments Henry and again for including “Calling Me Home” in your top ten.
    One of the points I make early on in the book is all the mythologizing nonsense about the sad events at Joshua Tree are often used to obscure and diminish Parsons undeniable legacy as a pioneering visionary. He, along with Gene Clark and a handful of others were the first to fully embrace the blending of disperate genres so commonplace today.
    Arguably, Gene Clark is the most trailblazing of all and a brilliant songwriter.
    I chose to write about Gram to spotlight the immense talent pool that came from what I call central Florida’s “youth center circuit” and the influence of underappreciated Southern musicians like the Louvins and Fred Neil.
    Thanks for making that point so clearly in your review.

  17. luckyoldsun
    December 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    No problem.
    I think you had Merle on your mind–(or maybe Gram!)
    “Sing Me Back Home Before I Die.”

  18. Jon
    December 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    So, if there were these other folks – like Hillman, like Leadon, like Dillard, like Clark, like McGuinn, like White, like blah blah blah – then it seems to me that his early death isn’t used to obscure and diminish *his* legacy, but rather it’s used to obscurge and diminish the legacy of those other folks, all of whom arguably made contributions at least as big as Parsons’. Isn’t his renown in large part an ongoing dividend from the fact that he talked a good and long line about blending disparate genres while others were actually getting the work done?

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