Books that Ought to Be
The tavern floor is littered with the detritus of year-end lists, torn up in disgust or frustration or mild disagreement. What’s next? What comes to take the place of the short-lived glory of the books that sit on shelves unopened after a first reading, or maybe never opened at all? Where are the books we really want to read? It’s likely that those books have not been — nor may ever be — written, and exist only in our whiskey-laced, eggnog-fueled dreams of a world where everyone tells her or his story to anyone who will listen (or plunk down $24.95 for a book). Since the time for making resolutions and wishes looms over us like the blade of a guillotine, let’s play a little book drinking game before that razor-sharp edge separates illusion from truth.
Here’s a list of the books we wish folks would write, or that they would have written, since some of them are no longer with us. Some of these books are in the works — Mary Gauthier is working on a book about songwriting for Yale University Press; Bonnie Bramlett is writing her memoir — and others may never be written, but that doesn’t stop us from casting a few coins in Calliope’s fountain, wishing that some of these folks will take up pen and tablet in the coming years.
Garth Hudson, I’m with The Band, Too — Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm have told their stories, and others have looked from the outside in to provide critical explorations of the music of The Band, but Hudson has remained silent about his own life and music, including his years with The Band. Perhaps he’s content to allow his music to tell his story, but we wish he’d speak up, just as we wish Rick Danko and Richard Manuel would speak to us from beyond.
Van Morrison, It’s Never Too Late to Stop Now — Will Van Morrison ever allow an authorized biography? Better yet, will he ever sit down and write his autobiography? Maybe it’s too late to care anymore, but wouldn’t we love to hear some stories about his songwriting and the ways he sees the world?
Stephen Stills, Déjà Vu: Loving the Ones You’re With — Stills is reportedly working on his autobiography; in fact, when a reporter asked him if he was going to use a ghost writer, Stills replied emphatically that he didn’t need such help; why in the world would he, he asked, since he’s been writing such great work all these years?
John Mayall, Looking Back: A Hard Road — Who doesn’t want a book from John Mayall? Who doesn’t want to hear the stories of that group that spawned — by virtue of the stellar talents who took a next big step from the Bluesbreakers — Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the grittiest of The Stones’ albums? I mean, tell us about Peter Green, in some ways a better guitarist than Eric Clapton. And what about Clapton? Mayall is still going strong, and his music still stuns; so, how about a book now?
Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers — Rick Hall has told his side of the Muscle Shoals story (The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame); let’s hear from the guys who wrote many of the most famous songs to some out of FAME studios and who played on those records. Each one of these authors has his own book in him, but a collaborative project — that could also easily include others — would bring us an illuminating, multifaceted portrait of those days.
Vince Gill, Guitarslinger — Okay, so this is the title of one of his recent albums, but it’s hard to imagine Gill without a guitar at hand, ready to sprinkle a few just-right riffs to whatever songs on which he is playing, whether one of his own or one by the Time Jumpers. Gill’s a pretty humble guy, though, often preferring to let others shine while he adds his magic from the background, so we may not see a memoir from him. We might, though, see a book about his guitars.
Loudon Wainwright III, Life with Father — Onstage these days, Wainwright often retells the columns that his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., wrote for Life magazine. As he spins out these columns to the music he has written for them, he brings to life the words his father wrote about everyday situations such as the death of the family dog and his father’s love for the pet. I’ve encouraged him to write this book a couple of times — either as a memoir or as a republication of his father’s columns with Wainwright’s own reflections on them — and maybe one day we’ll see the book.
Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl: My Life from Boulder to Birmingham — Harris has a rich story to tell — and some rich stories — and we’d all welcome hearing tales of her days with Gram Parsons, her early days playing in the DC folk clubs, her insistence on always pushing forward musically and integrating tradition and innovation. She’s been a guiding light for many, so perhaps one day she’ll share her stories.
Eddie Stubbs, It’s Been an Anointed Night — WSM’s late night DJ — he’s been the DJ on the 7 p.m.-to-midnight slot for 20 years now, the station’s longest-running DJ in that time slot — Stubbs came to Nashville to play fiddle for Kitty Wells, following a stint in The Johnson Mountain Boys. As an interviewer, he brings out the best in his guests, allowing them to tell their stories and engaging them with questions whose answers he thinks his listeners will enjoy and from which they will learn. When an interview has gone especially well and touched the hearts of all, he calls the evening an “anointed night,” which he also calls an especially dynamic and heart-touching night of music at the Opry. He and Marty Stuart are close friends and bring out the devil in each other; so, Stuart would be an interesting biographer of Stubbs, if Stubbs doesn’t want to write his own stories.
Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Decoration Day — Shires is writing her own book as a fulfillment for her MFA at the Sewanee School of Letters, though it’s fiction. Can you imagine what a book by these two might look like, though? Filled with narrative power in the creation of characters and their worlds, it doesn’t much matter the subject, and we can imagine that we’d all benefit from the insights of Isbell and Shires.
Jeff Hanna, Fishin’ in the Dark — We’re still waiting for a good book on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They were forerunners to what we now call Americana music, but not only that, their inventiveness led other bands who heard them to go off in fruitful directions. Hanna is a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor. Now that the band has been together 50 years, it’s time to tell the story, and Hanna has the chops. Of course, we may well get books by various members of the band, which would give us even more insight into the circle that remains unbroken.
Mavis Staples, People Get Ready — A Curtis Mayfield song, but a great title for a book by a woman who has been at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement and whose very music has evolved over the years to illustrate that, with Mavis Staples, you always get the new grounded in the traditional.
There are many others titles to add to this list:
Rosanne Cash: Will we get another volume of memoir? Will she publish another volume of short stories? Maybe she has a book that moves out from her most recent album, The River and the Thread? Cash is one of our most articulate writers, so we look forward to seeing a book from her again soon.
Rodney Crowell: Another memoir that follows up the poignant and humorous Chinaberry Sidewalks? Maybe a book on songwriting with Mary Karr?
Steve Earle: He’s surely working on either another volume of stories or a book on songwriting.
What’s on your wish list?