THE READING ROOM: 12 Memorable Music Books From 2023
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Turning the pages slowly, anticipating the final chapter of the challenging, sometimes daunting, and often entertaining narrative of 2023, readers have a chance to pause and to reflect on the highlights of their journeys. While some readers and critics make lists of best books of the year, this column focuses on memorable books of the year, books worth reading and re-reading because of their depth and the attention they bring to a variety of topics in music history. Some of these books are memoirs — though there were very few memorable music memoirs in 2023 and the format grows more tiresome every year — and others focus on individual artists or chapters in history.
In matter-of-fact and clean-to-the-bone writing, Williams bares her heart and soul to us. Readers discover more facets of Williams’ writing and personality and get a glimpse of her relationship with her father, her penchant for the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Southern gothic writers, and her poignant songwriting. Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You stands with the best of music memoirs, and readers will want to listen to her earlier albums as they read through the book. (ND review)
Jeff Tweedy, World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music (Dutton)
Each of the 50 short chapters in the book engages readers in a conversation about the ways that we choose songs and that songs choose us; in short, Tweedy offers his personal take on why that one little piece of music we heard when we were 5 years old has stuck in our hearts and ears and returns to us in moments when we least expect. Every chapter of World Within a Song is a little gem, offering not only insights on the song on which it focuses and the reasons it sang and continues to sing — or not — to Tweedy, but also more depth on what it means to write a song that continues shape listeners’ lives. (ND review)
Holly Gleason, Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press)
In a labor of love, Gleason (Woman Walk the Line) gathers interviews from a wide variety of writers and musicians, including Studs Terkel, Roger Ebert, Cameron Crowe, Robert Hilburn, Ronni Lundy, and Bob Mehr, among others, to offer a many-faceted glimpse of the man who lived his life to its fullest as a friend, family man, musician, social activist, and songwriter. Prine on Prine celebrates the genius of one our most beloved, and sorely missed, songwriters and singers and serves as an excellent introduction to Prine’s career. (ND review)
Jeff Fasano, Americana Portrait Sessions (Vanderbilt University Press)
Photographer Jeff Fasano is looking through his lens for that decisive moment — “a moment I feel in my heart and soul,” he writes — when he is shooting photos of musicians and other artists. Fasano’s exquisite first book of photography, Americana Portrait Sessions, is filled with such moments in photos that capture the essence of roots musicians and bands ranging from Wilco, Elizabeth Cook, Buddy Miller, Aubrie Sellers, Tony Joe White, The McCrary Sisters, and many others. Every page reveals the deep humanity of an artist — in black-and-white and color photographs. (ND review)
Alan Paul, Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s (St. Martin’s)
In 2014, Paul published a definitive oral history of The Allman Brothers, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. While that book covered much of the history of the band, his expansive and captivating new book takes a closer look at the years between 1971, the year Duane Allman died, and 1976, the year the band broke up. Drawing on many never-before-published interviews and other archival materials, Paul offers an illuminating glimpse at the rise and fall of a band whose music influenced so many other bands and launched a style that became known as Southern rock. Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s captures a classic moment in rock history, making his book essential reading for Allman Brothers Band fans and for all fans of rock music. (ND review)
Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel, Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine (Callaway)
This lavish book showcases the treasure trove of artifacts in the Bob Dylan Archive, housed in the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since Bob Dylan contains multitudes, it is fitting that this volume approaches him from a multitude of angles, with essays from 30 writers including music and cultural critics such as Greil Marcus, Amanda Petrusich, Anne Margaret Daniel, Greg Tate; musicians such as Richard Hell and Allison Moorer; and the poet Joy Harjo. Chock full of images and Dylan ephemera, Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine illustrates the singer’s ever-evolving persona and the enigmatic ways he shapes his songs, making it a perfect gift for any Dylan fan. (ND review)
Mark Guarino, Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival (Chicago)
In his monumental new book, Guarino tells a riveting story of the central place that Chicago has played in the development of country and folk music. Every chapter of the book features stories of people (like Patsy Montana, Lily May Bedford, The Coon Creek Girls, Ella Jenkins, Steve Goodman, Jeff Tweedy), places (the Gate of Horn, the Quiet Knight, the Old Town of Folk Music), and events (the WLS Barn Dance, the National Folk Festival) that made Chicago home to a growing and vibrant music scene. Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of country and folk music. (ND review)
The beauty of Easton’s brilliant book lies in its look beyond the superficial biographies of Wynette that seldom probe her abusive marriages or look into why and how Wynette chose her songs and created the persona she did in her performances. Why Tammy Wynette Matters is a tour-de-force work of critical genius, and Easton’s book prompts us to listen once again to Wynette and to hear her performances in fresh ways. Their book is revelatory, offering insightful and illuminating readings of the ways that Wynette’s life and work intersect. (ND review)
David Menconi, Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music (North Carolina)
Drawing deeply on rich archives as well as extensive interviews with artists, Rounder staff, and Rounder founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin, Menconi tells a riveting tale of the birth and growth of an indie record label that shaped the landscape of American music by always putting the music first and letting the business follow in its wake. Menconi’s inspiring book captures vividly the founders’ fervent devotion to this music, as well as their commitment to sharing it with the world. (ND review)
Michael Streissguth, Highways and Heartaches: How Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and Children of the New South Saved the Soul of Country Music (Hachette)
Like Marty Stuart’s straight-ahead rockabilly guitar licks and Ricky Skaggs’ lightning-fast mandolin runs, Streissguth’s tour-de-force music history scampers through the musical landscapes that influenced these two musicians and that they themselves have helped shape. Streissguth’s sparkling prose provides a mesmerizing sketch of these two musicians and the ways they have contributed to the sounds that flow into the raging river of country music. (ND review)
The debut book on Questlove’s new imprint, Sly Stone’s candid, conversational memoir traces the rapid ascent of Sly and the Family Stone, the end of the band in 1975, and Stone’s own descent into drug addiction and personal struggles. At the heart of Stone’s memoir lies his passion for making music that will elevate whoever hears it.
Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the ‘60s Girl Groups (Hachette)
For fans of The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Cookies, Labelle, and other girl groups of the ’60s and beyond. Flam and Leibowitz collect more than 100 interviews with singers, songwriters, managers, sound engineers, producers, and contemporary celebrities, providing a lively history of the making of some unforgettable songs and how the music of these groups shaped soul, rock, and popular music.