With just over a month left in 2013, ‘tis the season for taking stock of interesting pieces of art, entertainment and commentary put out this year — or stuffing them into stockings hung by the chimney with care, as the case may be. To that end, we decided to round up notable, new books for your consideration.
Some of these are important takes on enduring objects of fascination. Merle Haggard, for instance, already had an autobiography. Now his music itself has been given the critical interpretation it deserves. And a library’s worth of existing Johnny Cash volumes has finally gained a bio that depicts him as a fully-rounded human being.
There are books that delve further into subjects that haven’t gotten enough attention to date, like country music’s intersections with race, the history of progressive country in Texas and the evolution of popular music criticism. Others fill gaping holes for the first time; at long last, you can get your hands on a comprehensive history of women in bluegrass, a telling of Ricky Skaggs’ life in his own words and a look at how John Hartford made his musical mark.
Here are 10 music tomes in print, on tablet and e-book reader screens and listed in no particular order.
• No matter how many Johnny Cash books you’ve read, Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: The Life will be a different animal — a biography written by a journalist who was actually there to cover the recording of Live at Folsom Prison and interview the Man in Black during various phases of his career. Hilburn fleshes out a Cash who isn’t pure pop culture hero or poster child for any one genre — be it country, gospel, pop, early rock ‘n’ roll or alternative rock — but a deeply-flawed man and a many-sided musician who’s mattered to multiple generations.
• Lest there be any question, David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind is not a biography. You’ll find biographical details in its pages, sure, but they’re there to lend a sense of context to Haggard’s artistic formation. The Hag’s far too often been reduced to the caricature of the reactionary curmudgeon behind “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and Cantwell’s close reading reveals a far richer sense of identity and artistry in his music.
• Other books have tackled the topic of how racial identities figured into the boundaries drawn around musical genres, but Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, a collection of essays edited by Diane Pecknold, does so from fresh angles. Three highlights include her chapter on how Ray Charles’ forays into cutting country songs were received, Tony Thomas’ “Why African Americans Put the Banjo Down” and Charles Hughes examination of the two-way relationship between country and Southern soul music.
• Bluegrass now has a much-needed, encyclopedic volume of its own: Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass. Author Murphy Hicks Henry parlayed her master’s thesis into the book’s first chapter — on Sally Ann Forrester, who played accordion with Bill Monroe — and wraps up with the women of the now-defunct family group Cherryholmes. Henry set out to prove that bluegrass isn’t the all-male domain it’s been made out to be and makes her point quite effectively.
• John Hartford enjoyed the spotlight a time or three — thanks to “Gentle on My Mind,” a role on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and emceeing the O Brother, Where Art Thou spinoff tour. And he’s consistently enjoyed cult status in the world of progressive acoustic music, where his album Aereo-Plain is considered an eccentrically cool classic. In John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, Andrew Vaughan draws on old and original interviews to explain exactly how the picker-songwriter made the “switch from clean-cut TV star to the unrecognizable longhaired and bearded maverick that showed bluegrass and old time music a new way.”
• If you’ve ever seen Ricky Skaggs hold court onstage, you’ll find his memoir, Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music, has a similarly folksy feel. It’s well-stocked with stories, like the one about his first encounter with moonshine on Ralph Stanley’s bus and that time he introduced Bill Monroe to the concept of a music video. The moral of the stories — and there is one in this case — is that Skaggs’ heart remains with his humble upbringing, unwavering faith and bluegrass inheritance, and he credits that with making him who he is.
• Unruly tunes, longhaired styles and larger-than-life personas drew Willie Nelson-and Jerry Jeff Walker-loving hippies and rednecks to the same music halls in Austin decades ago. In Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture, author Jason Mellard unpacks how that movement helped redefine what masculinity looked like in the Lone Star State.
• Phil Madeira’s God on the Rocks: Distilling Religion, Savoring Faith expresses something of the opposite sentiment. Madeira is the songwriter and Emmylou Harris sideman who assembled last year’s ecumenical Americana album Mercyland. In this memoir of sorts, he reflects on how he began life as a Baptist preacher’s kid in New Hampshire and wound up finding spiritual fulfillment in Southern-incubated blues and barroom communion.
• Peter Guralnick’s books have long been considered essential reads, so thorough is his research on the towering and forgotten figures of country, gospel, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. His first two music volumes — Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll, which offers chapters on Charlie Rich, Howlin’ Wolf and Sam Phillips, and Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, which is organized under honky-tonk, rockabilly, outlaw country and urban blues headings — have been reissued as e-books, complete with new chapters and video content.
• The work of early music critics has begun to get the attention it deserves, from an Ellen Willis essay collection to the host of admiring remembrances in the wake of Chet Flippo’s passing this year. In Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism, Devon Powers deftly takes up the deeper question of how popular music, and the geographical scenes and cultural moments that feed it, came to be taken seriously in the first place. It’s especially timely stuff, given how radically and rapidly the journalistic landscape is changing.