Before the avalanche of big fall books slides over us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the best books of the year so far. Winter and spring are traditionally not big seasons for publishers, but there have been a handful of gems released since January, so here’s a reminder of what’s worth going back to read if you’ve missed them.
Bill C. Malone and Tracey E.W. Laird, Country Music U.S.A. (Texas) — Malone’s book turns 50 this year and what better way to celebrate this auspicious anniversary than with a newly revised edition, with a new chapter on “the new century” by Laird. Simply stated, in the words of the late, great Chet Flippo, this is “the bible for country music history and scholarship.”
Robert Hilburn, Paul Simon: The Life (Simon & Schuster) — Hilburn’s Paul Simon: The Life offers a sprawling, sparkling narrative of a songwriter who has shaped the canon of popular music with his inventive, sometimes playful, and discerning poetry. Simon emerges from Hilburn’s absorbing biography as a restless genius, always tinkering with songs, listening intently to all kinds of music to find new and interesting combinations, continually evolving as a songwriter.
Questlove, Creative Quest (Ecco) — Drummer, bandleader, and culinary entrepreneur Questlove follows his own peripatetic creative genius to address these and other questions by focusing on models of creativity such as George Clinton, David Byrne, D’Angelo, and others. Questlove’s gently rambling, affectionate style encourages openness, reflection, discovery, and experimentation. Imaginative and provocative, Creative Quest opens doors and windows to our ongoing journeys into creativity.
John Lingan, Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) — Journalist Lingan’s engaging book tells a captivating tale of the characters that put Winchester, Virginia, on the map, including Patsy Cline and Jim McCoy, the local DJ who gave Cline her first chance to sing on his local radio station when she was 16. This is a story about country music, but it’s also an important story about the power of place and the role of music in shaping and preserving it.
John McEuen, The Life I’ve Picked (Chicago Review Press) — String player extraordinaire McEuen tells his story and the story of his 50 years in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in this entertaining memoir. The Life I’ve Picked is chock full of humorous, sad, and poignant stories — the death of his sister Maureen, his playing at Earl Scruggs’ funeral, his breaking down over having to put the family dog, Teddy, to sleep, his prank on Marty Stuart of dressing in June Carter’s nightgown and lying next to Stuart and watching him jump higher than any non-athlete he knew, the making of the Circle album, his raising his children as a single father, his meeting and marriage to his wife, Marilyn — and every one of them reveals a thoughtful, compassionate, witty man who embraces every aspect of life. It’s a compelling autobiography that deserves to be read widely among fans of the NGDB and of roots music.
Jorma Kaukonen, Been So Long: My Life and Music (St. Martin’s) — Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Kaukonen sits down to tell the stories of his life and music in this entertaining autobiography. Kaukonen’s illuminating stories and lilting prose carry us on a lyrical journey through the hills and valleys of a man who is one of the five best guitarists playing today.
Robert Gordon, Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown (Bloomsbury) — Gordon so brings to life his subjects that the best way to experience this book is to quote from almost every page. Each interview or essay, and Gordon’s introductions to them, brilliantly shines, illuminating the corners and the shadows where blues, soul, and rock have lived, and live, in Memphis. In his own way, Gordon comes to us as a priest of words, inviting us to sit down at a feast he’s prepared, delivering to us the elements of this mystical, magical communion of music that turns the earthly moments around us into an indescribable moment when nothing around us any longer looks the same.
Gregory Alan Thornbury, Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent) — Norman, who died in 2008, might well be a forgotten name now, except among a small group of folks who grew up struggling to reconcile rock and roll and Christian music. Thornbury had full access to Norman’s personal papers and archives, and he offers a vibrant picture of this father of Christian rock, never shying away from Norman’s struggles to straddle the worlds of the church and rock and roll.
... And a Few Others to Pick Up and Read
Florence Dore, Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll (Columbia)
Chris Stamey, A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories (Texas)
Dick Spottswood, The Blue Sky Boys (Mississippi)
Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir (Illinois)
Brian Ward and Patrick Huber, A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (Vanderbilt)
Ryan Walsh, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin)
Steven Hyden, Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey St.)