THE READING ROOM: Books That Reconnect with People We’ve Lost in 2020
Despite a few glimmers of hope in the last few weeks, 2020 nevertheless continues to lurch and shuffle like the infamous twirling black-clad figure that leads the line dance of death in The Seventh Seal. As the year staggers toward the door, it leaves the floor littered with bodies, with the thin veneer of unity and confidence in human nature’s innate goodness cracked and tarnished. This year we bade farewell with a deep sadness to a number of artists we loved and who profoundly shaped our music. When we learned of their deaths, we pulled out their albums, and we’re still playing them today. Alongside their musical legacy, many musicians we lost in 2020 were the subject of books that can bring them into our lives again and offer new insights. Here are a few of them:
John Prine, Beyond Words (Oh Boy) — This is the closest Prine ever came to a memoir. The 2017 book contains lyrics of his songs, photos, and his reflections on, and the stories behind, the songs themselves. As he points out, “these songs are not just words, and these photographs are not just pictures. They are my memories and more … beyond words.” And, indeed, words can’t describe the beauty of these photos, if only because Prine revealed facets of himself and his music in the poignant and often hilarious comments on the songs and photos.
Eddie Huffman, John Prine: In Spite of Himself (Texas) — Huffman weaves biographical details into close listening of Prine’s songs and albums, providing a luminous glimpse into Prine’s life and music.
Charley Pride, Pride: The Charley Pride Story (William Morrow) — Pride was a cracking good storyteller, regaling his listeners with tales of his life in the music industry and his days playing baseball. He told stories with a twinkle in his eye and candor in his voice. In his candid autobiography, Pride shares his stories of navigating the sometimes-tumultuous waters of an ever-changing country music industr and offers glimpses into his friendships with Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, and many other country stars. Pride also provides the stories behind his many songs, including hits such as “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Pride’s memoir remains one of the best reads in country music autobiography and biography.
Peter Cooper, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music (Spring House Press) — While Pride plays a small part in journalist Cooper’s collection of reflections, Cooper tells the story of Cowboy Jack Clement’s discovery of Charley Pride and his recording Pride at RCA Studio B.
BILLY JOE SHAVER
Billy Joe Shaver, Honky Tonk Hero (Texas) — Shaver looks back on his life in this rollicking and candid memoir, including the story of an English teacher whose encouragement set him toward a life of songwriting, the loss of two fingers and part of third on his right hand in a sawmill accident, and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. Shaver pulls no punches in Honky Tonk Hero, and he bares his heart, even as he tells his stories with his typical humor.
Courtney Lennon, Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver (Texas A&M, June 2021) — Based on in-depth interviews with Shaver and a host of notable singer-songwriters, this book reveals and celebrates the saint and the sinner, the earthy intellectual and the hard-drinking commoner, the poet and the cowboy.
Charlie Daniels, Never Look at the Empty Seats (Thomas Nelson) — If you’ve been a lifelong fan of Charlie Daniels, pick out your favorite Daniels albums and put it on the turntable as you listen to his voice though the words in his memoir. As in his life and music, Daniels tells it like he saw it and, for him, as it is. We see every side of Daniels, who was never afraid of sharing his opinions with politicians, members of the military, and his fans. Reading Never Look at the Empty Seats, fans will learn from and enjoy Daniels’ wit and wisdom and discover why, as Aaron Tippin said, “He was an amazing man, musician, songwriter, and entertainer.”
David Kirby, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum) — Drawing on interviews with Little Richard’s relatives and friends in Macon, Georgia, as well as others, Kirby traces the rise of the flamboyant musician who shaped rock and roll and who perfected a stage show that owed as much to the fervent performances of gospel singers in church as it did to Richard’s own stylistic innovations.
Marc Ribowsky, The Big Life of Little Richard (Diversion) — Ribowsky’s absorbing and engaging biography explores Little Richard’s musicianship, his family life, his lifelong struggle with his religion and sexuality, his leaving rock and roll behind for a few years to go back to the church, and his enduring international reputation as the “King and Queen of Rock and Roll.”
Billy Vera, Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story (BMG) — An enthralling story of the record label that put Little Richard on the charts with hits “Tutti Frutti,” Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
JERRY JEFF WALKER
Jerry Jeff Walker, Gypsy Songman (Duane Press) — Much as you’d expect from Walker, this is a rambunctious memoir, published in 1999, of his collaborations with musicians such as Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson and the writing of his songs.
Craig E. Clifford, Craig Hillis, et. al., Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas (Texas A&M) — This collection of essays ranges over singers-songwriters the contributors refer to as “ruthlessly poetic.” All songs require good lyrics, but for these songwriters, the poetic quality and substance of the lyrics are front and center. Walker is included in an essay that considers the poetic in the lyric, message, and musical Method in his songs as well as those by Steven Fromholz and Michael Martin Murphey.
Jimmy Capps, The Man in Back: The Autobiography (England Media) — In many ways, Jimmy Capps was a guitarist’s guitarist. He played on iconic studio recordings including Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and for 60 years he was the guitarist on the Grand Ole Opry. In addition to sharing his own story, 50 artists — including Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Charlie Daniels, Connie Smith, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Marty Stuart, and Bill Anderson — share their stories of Capps’ playing on their songs.