Even though the summer solstice has just peaked over the horizon and the pages of the books of summer have not yet wilted, the books of fall are already littering the ground with tales of sex, drugs, and wretched excess (it’s rock and roll, after all). Memoirs and biographies shine the brightest, and, of course, have the highest first-print runs. Yet, some of the best fall books offer smart and canny insights on music as it reflects human nature. Here’s a handful of fall titles (more to come in a later installment), in no particular order, to put on your reading list:
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, David Yaffe (FGS, August) — Joni Mitchell has been on our minds over the past year, as she’s dealt with health issues, so Yaffe’s biography is timely. He draws on dozens of in-person interviews with Mitchell and her friends, and he provides insightful analyses of her lyrics, their imagery and style, and what they say about the woman herself.
Joni: The Anthology, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Picador, October) — Hoskyns gathers album reviews, features, and interviews with the artist that span Mitchell’s career, roughly from 1968 to 2007. There’s one long biographical sketch — excerpted from Before the Gold Rush, Nicholas Jennings’s history of Canadian music — and the review of her albums cover her career from her first, Song to a Seagull, to her later work, such as Taming the Tiger and Shine. It’s a nice introduction to listeners new to Mitchell.
Rickie Lee, Rickie Lee Jones (FSG, November) — The rock and roll artist shares her journey of nomadic vaudeville childhood, years as a teenage runaway, her beginnings at L.A.’s Troubador club, her tumultuous (and private) relationship with Tom Waits, her battle with drugs, and her experience of motherhood as a touring artist.
Gold Dust Woman: A Biography of Stevie Nicks, Stephen Davis (St. Martin’s, November) — Just in time for the bicoastal wretched excess tour of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac opened for the Eagles in the '70s), Davis’ compulsively readable biography draws on his interviews with Nicks to give us a glimpse of the vulnerable, brilliant songwriter and singer who arguably took Fleetwood Mac to the stratosphere of rock in the late-'70s.
Sweet Baby James, James Taylor (St. Martin’s, November) — A pop-up book that brings to life the lyrics of Taylor’s classic hit “Sweet Baby James,” with each spread dedicated to a single stanza.
Devotion, Patti Smith (Yale, September) — Offers a detailed account of Smith’s own creative process, inspirations, and unexpected connections. Whether writing in a cafe or a train, Smith generously opens her notebooks and lets us glimpse the alchemy of her art and craft. Here’s an excerpt:
“Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras had her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite … We must write, but not without consistent effort, and a measure of sacrifice. To channel the future, revisit out childhood. To rein in the horrors of the imagination and lay it out for a pulsating race of readers.”
Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, Ann Powers (Dey St., August) — In one of the season’s most anticipated and compelling books, NPR music critic Powers explores the intersection of American popular music (spanning from the 1800s to 2016) and sexuality — telling the stories of artists as diverse as Florence Mills, Dorothy Love Coates, the Beatles, Madonna, Jim Morrison, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, among others — to illustrate the ways that popular music often expresses American culture’s hopes and fears.
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, Will Friedwald (Pantheon, October) — Music critic Friedwald surveys 57 albums that capture their artist at his or her best, from Marilyn Maye’s Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye and Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee to Fred Astaire’s The Astaire Story and Ella Fitzgerald’s Lullabies of Birdland.
What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man, Art Garfunkel (Knopf September) — Garfunkel tells his side of the Simon and Garfunkel tale, his early years of singing, his love of reading (he shares lists of books he’s read over the past 30 years), his love of his wife, and his lists of songs on his iPod. Fans of Garfunkel will love this; his publishers expect it to be big, since they’re doing a first printing of 100,000.
Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, edited by Holly Gleason (University of Texas Press, September) —Gleason gathers a splendid collection of personal essays by diverse women writing on the female country artists that have inspired them. The table of contents reveals the wide-ranging approaches to women in country music:
- Maybelle Carter: The Root of It All by Caryn Rose
- Lil Hardin: That’s How I Got to Memphis by Alice Randall
- Wanda Jackson: When She Starts Eruptin’ by Holly George-Warren
- Hazel Dickens: The Plangent Bone by Ronni Lundy
- June Carter Cash: Eulogy for a Mother by Rosanne Cash
- Brenda Lee: Rare Peer by Taylor Swift
- Bobbie Gentry: Let the Mystery Be by Meredith Ochs
- Loretta Lynn: The Pill by Madison Vain
- Dolly Parton: Long Island Down Home Blues by Nancy Harrison
- Emmylou Harris: Common Ground in an Uncommon Love by Ali Berlow
- Barbara Mandrell: Lubbock in the Rearview Mirror by Shelby Morrison
- Tanya Tucker: Punk Country and Sex Wide Open by Holly Gleason
- Rita Coolidge: A Dark-Eyed Cherokee Country Gal by Kandia Crazy Horse
- Linda Ronstadt: Canciones di Corazon Salvage by Grace Potter
- Rosanne Cash: Expectations and Letting Go by Deborah Sprague
- The Judds: Comfort Far from Home by Courtney E. Smith
- k.d. lang: Flawless, Fearless by Kelly McCartney
- Lucinda Williams: Flesh & Ghosts, Dreams + Marrow by Lady Goodman
- Mary Chapin Carpenter: Every Hometown Girl by Cynthia Sanz
- Patty Loveless: Beyond What You Know by Wendy Pearl
- Shania Twain: But the Little Girls Understand by Emily Yahr
- Alison Krauss: Draw Your Own Map by Aubrie Sellers
- Terri Clark: Better Things to Do by Amy Elizabeth Mccarthy
- Taylor Swift: Through the Eyes of a Critic, of a Mom by Elysa Gardner
- Kacey Musgraves: Follow Your Arrow by Dacey Orr
- Rhiannon Giddens: A Gift Past the Songs by Caroline Randall Williams
- Patty Griffin: Remembering to Breathe by Kim Ruehl
Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things, Loudon Wainwright III (Blue Rider, September) — A few years ago I talked to Wainwright about turning his show into a memoir; we had a couple of follow-up conversations, and he told me he was in touch with an agent. So, it’s nice to see that he’s releasing this memoir this fall. Wainwright writes poignantly about being a son — a status that dominates many of his songs — but also about being a parent, a brother, and a grandfather. His lyrics are featured throughout the book, amplifying his prose and showing the connections between the songs and real life. Wainwright also includes selections from his father’s brilliant Life magazine columns — and, in so doing, reestablishes his father as a major essayist of his era. A funny and insightful meditation on family, inspiration, and art, Liner Notes will thrill fans, readers, and anyone who appreciates the intersection of music and life.
Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, King of Bluegrass, Barbara Martin Stephens (Illinois, August) — Jimmy Martin recorded dozens of bluegrass classics and co-invented the high lonesome sound. Barbara Martin Stephens became involved with the King of Bluegrass when she was 17. Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler tells the story of their often-tumultuous life together.
Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow (UNC, October) — We all know the legend of Robert Johnson’s going down to the crossroads and trading his soul for extraordinary power as a blues guitarist. By looking at over 125 blues songs, Gussow illustrates that the devil stands at the center of the black Southern blues tradition as a figure that sows trouble, wrecks love, but also gives power.