Five Best Books on Country Music

From a Wall Street Journal story by Stephanie Clifford headlined “Five Best: Books on Country Music”:

Down Through the Years
By Jean Shepard (2014)

1. Even the slightest of country-music fans knows and loves Loretta Lynn’s 1976 memoir, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and its 1980 movie adaptation. While it’s hard to outdo Lynn, memoirs from some lesser-known female country singers are equally compelling, like Jan Howard’s moving “Sunshine and Shadow” (1987) and Skeeter Davis’s trippy “Bus Fare to Kentucky” (1993). For my deep-cut pick, Jean Shepard’s got the edge.

When she was told “there was no place in country music for a girl singer,” she was determined to change that. Shepard, who started in the burgeoning honky-tonk scene around Bakersfield, Calif., joined Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1955. After her husband died in the plane crash that killed Patsy Cline, Shepard had to balance her career ambitions with raising their two young sons. The sheer amount of hustle she describes is staggering, her grit inspirational. The book is difficult to find but worth the search—it’s unpolished, raw and so direct it feels as if you and Shepard are sitting on her front porch, chatting away about life on the honky-tonk circuit.

Country Music USA: 50th Anniversary Edition

By Bill C. Malone and Tracey E.W. Laird (2018)

2. Bill Malone’s upbringing sounds like that of many country stars: an East Texas childhood, a hymn-singing mother, and hillbilly music always playing on the Philco radio. Mr. Malone, though, went on to college, then graduate school, and this book—which grew out of his dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin—is widely considered the first academic history of American country music. It’s a broad, meticulously sourced ramble.

Mr. Malone’s “romance with country music” is evident as he describes the polyglot art form that draws from jazz, blues, ragtime, the immigrant experience, rural poverty and urbanization. While it can be read front to back, at more than 1,800 pages for the 50th-anniversary edition, that’s an undertaking. My suggestion? Flip to the index, pick a song at random, listen to it a few times—maybe it’s Doc Watson’s “Black Mountain Rag,” or Beyoncé’s live 2016 performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks—then dig into the history of the song and the era that spawned it.

By Charley Pride with Jim Henderson (1994)

3. Today, black singers and songwriters are producing some of the most interesting country music around: Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer—to name a few. They are the latest wave in a long and complicated history of black involvement in and influence on country music, as expertly detailed by Francesca T. Royster in “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions” (2022).

In “Pride,” Charley Pride, the first black singer signed to a major country label, describes his journey in an engaging, funny memoir that will make readers equally awed by him and infuriated by his mistreatment. One of 11 children of a cotton sharecropper in Sledge, Miss., he was chided by his sister for singing “white folks’ music” as a kid. “I sang what I liked in the only voice I had,” he writes. Pride is frank about the ever-present racism he faced in his career, from his label refusing to send out publicity photos of him to the astoundingly derogatory things some of his peers said to his face. He also highlights moments of grace and connection, and stands firm in who he is. When a white country star tells him, “Good for you to be in our music,” Pride responds, “It’s my music, too.”

Producing Country
By Michael Jarrett (2014)

4. What a smart idea for Michael Jarrett to cast this as a song-by-song oral history rather than writing ponderous chapters on, say, acetate production. He includes, of course, great details on the Nashville Sound—the heavily produced era of the late 1950s—along with classic country songs and modern recordings by Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams.

Here is a Sun Records engineer describing the recording setup that allowed for the slapback effect in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon”; here is the producer Jimmy Bowen describing how he sourced songs for Reba McEntire, choosing both hits and others that “could be a great song that you could relate to in your life, but it would probably never get on country radio.” Along with the technical aspects, producers explain how they coaxed the best work out of their often tired and temperamental artists.

Maybe We’ll Make It
By Margo Price (2022)

5. “Singing is not a real job,” a guidance counselor once told a teenage Margo Price. What she shows us in her moving memoir is what a heck of a lot of work it is. She arrives in Nashville as a 19-year-old college dropout. She drinks too much, does drugs, duct tapes a bloody foot because she doesn’t have health insurance—and that’s in her first weeks. Ms. Price is a deeply original singer-songwriter—her sound is influenced by alt-country, folk rock and psychedelic music.

Her songs veer from autobiographical to almost novelistic, like “Lydia,” about a woman at the doors of an abortion clinic. “Maybe We’ll Make It” gives us a glimpse into the life of a touring musician (“small spaces, bad sound equipment, and hordes of drunk folks”) and the rejection she faced (“We are aware of who Margo is and we are not interested,” one label writes). It wasn’t until she was in her mid-30s, and had been writing and performing in Nashville for close to two decades, that she was nominated for the 2019 Grammy for best new artist. Here, you sense, is someone who has fought every day for what she wants to do—and a reminder of how much unseen toil goes into a creative life.

Stephanie Clifford is the author of the novel “The Farewell Tour.”

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