THE READING ROOM: Go Backstage With Country Music Writer Alison Bonaguro
Alison Bonaguro is a country music fan who’s lived the life that every country music fan dreams about. She’s shared moments backstage after shows, in bars until closing time, and in hotel lobbies waiting for early morning airport shuttles with the likes of Blake Shelton, Lee Brice, Brooks & Dunn, Luke Bryan, and Miranda Lambert.
Bonaguro, who lives in Chicago but shuttles back and forth to Nashville, writes about country music for CMT.com, Cowboys & Indians, the Chicago Tribune, and Holler Country, among others. In her bio, though, she writes, “I like to think I’m a fan first, and journalist second.” She describes how she started writing about the music she loves as a regular gig: “For the past twenty years, I have been a copywriter at various advertising agencies … And while I was doing all the writing, I was listening to country music. As much as I could get my hands on … First there were the Garth Brooks cassettes in my Walkman. Then I started tuning into country radio stations … The only antidote was to find an outlet for my ramblings about the music. I was blessed enough to find an editor who liked the idea of a fan who could write … The assignments kept coming, and now not a day goes by that I’m not writing, blogging, or shooting something country. It’s seriously the best gig a girl could get.”
In Backstaged: My 15 Years Behind the Scenes in Country Music (Gatekeeper Press), Bonaguro shares some of the stories that didn’t make it into the published stories and interviews she’s done with these artists. The 57 vignettes range over a wide terrain with often humorous titles (though often about not-so-humorous events) such as “The Ups and Downs of Being an Award Show Seat Filler,” “Things That Famous People Have Done in Front of Me,” “Blake Shelton Stays at a Holiday Inn,” “Bathroom Floors I’ve Spent Time On,” “October 1, 2017” (about the shootings at Jason Aldean’s Las Vegas concert), and “I Told Alan Jackson His Music Puts My Kids to Sleep,” among others.
She tells the story, for example, of the day Dierks Bentley played “for a backyard crowd of one.” Early in his career, Bentley held a radio promotion in which one lucky listener could win a backyard Dierks Bentley concert for the listener and their friends and neighbors. As it turns out, the woman who won had neither friends nor neighbors and got Bentley all to herself. As Bonaguro writes, Bentley “acted like playing for an adoring audience of one was right up his alley. I think he even told the woman that he preferred it when he could connect with fans on a one-on-one basis.” Just when Bonaguro’s ready to report that he knows how to bullshit his fans, she watches the ways he builds rapport with the contest winner and changes her mind: “He meant it. Every word. He seriously did not mind playing for even one even though he was used to playing for tens of thousands of fans every night by then … I think he said something to her like, ‘Even having one fan is plenty for me.’”
In “There’s a Country Song for That,” Bonaguro writes that there seems to be a country song that’s “just right for any and all situations.” She points out how much she loves Chris Young’s 2010 song “Voices” because “it’s all about how you hear voices all the time telling you which roads to take and which not to.” She lists a several other topics for which a certain country song, in her mind, is tailor made. Some examples: “You need a lesson in empathy: ‘But for the grace of God go I … Heaven only knows I’ve been blessed with the gift of your love’ (Keith Urban, ‘But for the Grace of God’).” Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks,” Bonaguro writes, is the perfect song to express the feeling of being okay drinking by yourself in a bar, while Jake Green’s “What We Ain’t Got” underscores the nagging feeling that the grass is always greener on the other side but tells us that it ain’t always so.
Bonaguro delivers a long “Love Letter to Songwriters,” in which she thanks Nashville writers including Don Schlitz, Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, and Jamie Lynn Spears, among many others, for the magic they weave with their lyrics and music. She ends the letter with a shout of gratitude to Tony Arata for his song “The Dance”: “I might’ve thrown this memoir in the trash at least a hundred times in the past year, and would’ve spared myself the anguish of rejection. But I stuck it out, because I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”
Backstaged: My 15 Years Behind the Scenes in Country Music invites readers warmly into the behind-the-scenes life of a country music fan whose turned her love of the music and the artists into a life of sharing this love with others.