I was recently called mid broadcast and was asked by a listener if I could recommend further reading on country music. You bet I could. Man, can not live on Wikipedia alone (though I do love thee oh great and fearsome website, and steal from you liberally!). Of course my thefts have ultimately come from many sources, so let me try to answer the listeners questions while also rendering unto Caesar.
If you do not immediately see your favorite author, who you know I’ve clearly mis-quoted at some point or other, take relief in the ongoing nature of this entry and have faith that more likely than not they will show up.
Nick Tosches. Look at him slouched there in weary glory. St. Nick. What’s a guy from Jersey City know about country music. Plenty, bub. Don’t let the fact he’s been published in Esquire turn you off either. He began with this strange collection of cowboy tales, hillbilly lies, and etymological ruralisms simply called Country. It won’t stand next to his best work, but still stands above most. Now, Hellfire, the definitive Jerry Lee Lewis biography is bawdy and sad and captures the man like nothing outside of his own piano. I can only hope there’ll be a postscript to this one someday. Long live the Killer. Unsung Heroes of Rock N’ Roll is a bathroom read, but no, maybe a record store read and I don’t mean your local CD Hut. This is a road map to those dusty old bins filled with vinyl. I hope you have one in your town like Bop Street, Golden Oldies or Jive Time here in Seattle. Toshes picks up the story of Emmett Miller that he began in Country in his book Where Dead Voices Gather. I’m a firm believer in the cross pollination of music and race, and this book makes a powerful case for it. These next two aren’t about country music, but you won’t be doing yourself any favors by missing The Devil and Sonny Liston and Dino: Living High In the Dirty Business of Dreams. Finally, if you must start somewhere, the deep end is well represented in The Nick Tosches Reader. His pieces on George Jones and Jimmy Lee Swaggert are worth the price of the book by themselves. Thanks Nick and Fuck You.
Charles K. Wolfe. Dr. Country. He was one of those people who’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know. His books on early country music are indispensible. The Devil’s Box is a history of southern style fiddling, culture and lore. A primer of musicians and what to listen to. A sister book, A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry, explores just that, the early years. He wrote the definitive book on the Louvin Brothers, In Close Harmony, and gets in deep. Most artist bios concentrate on the people. Some concentrate on the music. Wolfe’s does both. His biography on Leadbelly is essential to understanding American music as it was and where it went. Finally, and I’m leaving out a ton, he’s authored numerous essays on music, many of which can be found in back issues of The Journal of Country Music. We lost him in 2006, but he built a bridge from us to the musicians and music that are ever in jeporady of fading away.