Monday, May 24, 2010

Top 5 country music biographies

List by Tosca

“Country music has always been the best shrink that 15 bucks can buy.”
- Dierks Bentley

For as long as I can remember I have loved country music. There's something both haunting and plaintive about this fusion of Celtic, gospel and folk music. Thanks (or no thanks) to my dad and his weird taste in sounds, whether it was American country music or New Zealand country music, you could guarantee it had lots of airtime in our household. A lot of friends (and siblings, truth be told) will wince because, traditionally, the music has been of the 'my dog died, my girl ran away with my best friend, my car's broken down and I can't afford to fix it' variety, which is a huge part of what I enjoyed. Some of it's so silly you've just gotta like it. And some of the artists are so talented that I'm amazed more people don't listen. Somewhere along the way, though, my tastes branched out into bluegrass and zydeco but my first love was country, and a girl never forgets her first love.

My alltime favourite country musician would have to be Johnny Cash. It may seem cliché but it's the truth What about him in particular? His unusual voice, his method of storytelling/singing, his guitar playing, his looks - in short, everything. Some of that is probably part-crush and the other part is pure admiration for his talent. It was such a pleasure to visit Memphis, Tennessee last year and spend time touring the Sun Studio, where a lot of his early music was recorded. I even got to hear some of his early songs, and that experience was truly beyond words. Admittedly, most of the group touring the studio at the same time were there to hear about Elvis (my dad was a big Elvis fan but I can't say that it did much for me) but for me, the highlight was definitely learning more about Cash. My next trip to the States would have to include a trip to either Kentucky (the home of bluegrass music) or Nashville (to see the Grand Ole Opry).

My final selection of country music biographies wasn't as hard to narrow down as I thought it might be. Probably because we don't have a whole heck of a lot, but what is there, is really good stuff. I did have two books that didn't quite make the end list and they are:

Honourable mention:

Below is my Top 5 country music biographies - feel free to disagree or discuss by leaving a comment below. ALL comments are welcome :)

I walked the line : my life with Johnny Cash / Vivian Cash with Ann Sharpsteen
'I Walked the Line is a chronicle of first love, long-kept secrets, betrayal, forgiveness, and the truth--told at last by Johnny Cash's first wife, the mother of his four daughters. It is a book that had the full support of Johnny Cash, who insisted it was time for their story to be told, despite any painful revelations that might come to light as a result. Many myths and contradictions regarding the life of Johnny and his family have been perpetuated for decades in film and literature. Vivian exposes previously untold stories involving Johnny's drug addiction, his fraught family life, and their divorce in 1968, as well as the truth behind the writing of two of Johnny's most famous songs, "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire." Supplemented by a never-before-published archive of love letters and family photos, I Walked the Line offers a deeper look at one of the most significant artists in music history.' -- Publisher description.

Tosca's note: When I first read this memoir I felt like a voyeur: it is deeply personal, it is appallingly intimate, it paints Johnny Cash in a not-so-great light and, on some level, reading it made me realise I had quite blithely undermined Viv Cash's importance in her husband's life. She is never simply 'Dear Vivienne' she is always: My baby, My darling, My sweetheart or even My wife to be. The letters themselves cover the important and mundane details of their lives - the disagreements, insecurities, jealousies, boozing and so on - but it's how they do it! They're lyrical, amusing, poignant and raw in their honesty. All in all, it makes for a truly heartbreaking (but well worth it) read. One of my favourite Cash cds is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison - a brilliant, live recording.

Lovesick blues : the life of Hank Williams / Paul Hemphill
'Hank Williams, the quintessential country music singer and songwriter, died alone in the backseat of his cadillac on New Year's day 1953. He died much as he had lived - drunk, forlorn, suffering from a birth defect, wondering when the bubble would burst, having sprouted out of nowhere, like a weed in the wilds of South Alabama, he was gone at the age of twenty-nine. With this definitive biography of the man and his music, Paul Hemphill takes the reader on a journey through Hank Williams's life and times.' -- Publisher description.

Tosca's note: What would this list be without a little Hank Williams? Hemphill's biography is a really good, factual look (it doesn't really delve into the 'why' and 'how' of Hank's life so much as it sticks to the facts) at the man behind the music. My favourite Hank songs would have to be: All my exes live in Texas; I'm so lonesome I could cry (punk covers band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes do an exceptional version that uses bagpipes); Cold, cold heart; Your cheating heart - and all of these are on Hank Williams Gold cd.

Redneck woman : stories from my life / Gretchen Wilson Country
'Music personality Gretchen Wilson offers up her rags-to-riches tale with the same storytelling that fuels her songwriting and inspires millions of fans to both celebrate and identify with this self-styled Redneck Woman.' -- Publisher description.

Tosca's note: If Johnny Cash and Hank Williams epitomise my love of early country music, then Gretchen Wilson sums up everything modern I enjoy about it. She's independent, sexy, smart-mouthed and larger than life - all of which this book manages to capture extremely well. My favourite Gretchen Wilson cd will always be Here for the party.

Still woman enough : a memoir / Loretta Lynn
'The celebrated country singer discusses her turbulent relationship with Doo, the man she married at the age of thirteen, revealing a woman whose loyalty, spirit, and determination allowed her to triumph in the face of adversity.' -- Publisher description.

Tosca's note: This choice I put down solely to Sissy Spacek's Oscar-winning portrayal of Lynn's life in the film 'Coal Miner's Daughter.' Dad used to watch it all the time so her music kinda stuck in my head, although certainly her life story (married at 14 and mother to 4 children by 20) made it an interesting choice on its own. This title is an entertaining and chatty follow up.

Willie Nelson : an epic life / Joe Nick Patoski
'Willie Nelson's music was what mattered most, through all the struggles, all the stories, and all the years. That's what has kept Willie Nelson going down that road, steady as a mountain stream, night after night. Music was the muse that took him down tough roads to work tougher gigs after a Depression-era childhood picking cotton. And music was the path for a boy who learned to play the guitar at age six, wrote his first song at seven, and established himself as a bona fide Nashville country star at age twenty-eight before he chucked it all to reinvent himself as a genre-bending music maker and Hollywood darling. Willie Nelson has spent the last thirty-five years on that higher plane where he embodies almost as many roles as he's lived years. From country traditionalist to rock and pop influence, from Texas outlaw to national treasure, he's been a movie star, disc jockey, door-to-door encyclopedia and vacuum salesman, Zen Bubba, honky-tonk king, wizened philosopher, articulate poet, hard-core gypsy, mellow pothead, spiritual healer, unrepentant hippie, committed road dog, eager benefit fund-raiser, staunch friend of the family farmer, and champion of the common man - a true American icon.' -- Publisher description.

Tosca's note: Much like Hank Williams, how could this list not include Willie Nelson? At a staggering 567 pages, this book is definitely not for the faint of heart, but it more than makes up for it with a brilliant look at an extremely talented man. I've always liked listening to his rather unusual voice and, recently, checked out his album Legend : the best of Willie Nelson, which served as a great reminder all over again why I associate his music with wide open spaces and empty roads.

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