I call January my reading month. To be clear, I do of course still scan words and decipher syntax throughout the remaining 11 months that fill the calendar, but I always seem to start and finish the most books in the first month of the year. I don’t think it’s because I have a romantic notion of what my new self will be like in this new year – always reading and writing more or doing xyz to “better” myself (though if I’m being honest, that’s probably part of it). Rather, I think it’s more so that in the hangover of the holidays, when the gatherings are over, and there are months of dreary winter to look forward to, I take comfort in the ability to transport myself to another time or place, or simply get lost in someone’s thoughts for hours at a time.
This community, as much as any, understands the import of passing stories on – allowing a new generation to take the torch and keep honored traditions burning while evolving its culture and extinguishing the shameful parts of its priors. That’s why we at BGS compile notable books that tell the stories by or about these genres’ songs and songwriters and the scenes, places, and events that made them.
Maybe you’re like me, looking for ideas of books to get lost in this winter, or maybe you are looking for a way to turn the page on the calendar and become your most “badass self” (we’ve got a book for that). You might be here looking for a last minute gift idea for that special music-loving person in your life. In all those cases, you’ve come to the right place!
We’ve got a book by an esteemed songwriter who waxes poetic on the art form he loves. We’ve got titles about how certain times in certain places scenes have blossomed and sub-genres formed so palpable that listeners can identify a song by its roots. We’ve got biographies of famous musicians, and some of whom have looked back at their own lives and careers. Find all that and more in our list of reading recommendations, organized by categories below:
Sense of Place
Night Train to Nashville: The Greatest Untold Story of Music City, Paula Blackman
Drawing on stories from her grandfather, E. Gab Blackman, a 30-year radio executive at WLAC, Paula Blackman shares the story of how the Nashville radio station became a pioneering source for Black rhythm and blues music in the 1940s and ‘50s. Seeing the opportunity to reach a more diverse audience – not, as Paula notes, to be a “white savior” – Gab teamed up with disc jockey Gene Nobles to play “race records.” In Night Train, Blackman also profiles William Sousa “Sou” Bridgeforth, the owner of New Era Club, a prominent Black nightclub in Nashville that blossomed as a result of the new artists being spun on WLAC airwaves, many of whom were introduced to Gab by Sou. Fitting that the story of Nashville, in the time leading up to the civil rights era, is told through the music played on the AM radio speakers throughout the city.
This Must Be the Place: Music, Community and Vanished Spaces in New York City, Jesse Rifkin
Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival, Mark Guarino
In Their Own Words
World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music, Jeff Tweedy
Wilco frontman and New York Times bestselling author Jeff Tweedy follows up on Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) and How To Write One Song with a gushing love letter to songs. In it, Tweedy dedicates chapters to many (but clearly not close to all) of the songs that have resonated deeply with him for one reason or another. From Bob Dylan to Billie Eilish, from The Clash to ABBA, Tweedy sheds any and all pretense of what might be considered “cool” in his selections.
Wayward: Just Another Life to Live, Vashti Bunyan
In Wayward, Vashti Bunyan, an English singer-songwriter, recounts her early career in the mid ’60s leading to her debut release, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970. Disillusioned by its lack of success (at the time) and the fact that her songs, life, and career were all dictated by men, she left the music industry entirely before re-emerging in the early 2000s. Pick this up for the story of what happened in between, how she reclaimed her life, and is taking her second act in music on her own terms.
Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir, Lucinda Williams
3-time Grammy award-winning songwriter and now New York Times best-selling author, Lucinda Williams, recounts her upbringing and bumpy ride to fame. Once getting feedback from a record company who said her music was “too country for rock and too rock for country,” Williams stayed the course, and became one of the greatest and most influential songwriters of our time.
On Banjo: Recollections, Licks and Solos, Ben Eldridge
Born in Richmond, VA, Ben Eldridge fell in love with roots music watching WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance. In this memoir-meets-tablature book, he recalls his path from upbringing to moving to D.C. to become a mathematician, and ultimately going from jam sessions to forming a group that would change bluegrass henceforth – the Seldom Scene. This conversational book with pictures that set the scenes even comes with licks and transcriptions for banjo playing fans.
TransElectric: My Life as a Cosmic Rock Star, Cidny Bullens
This book starts with a bang! And I’m not even talking about the foreword from Elton John. As just a 24-year-old Cidny (then referred to as Cindy) had shown up uninvited to a live recording session for Dr. John at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, and eventually found himself starting an impromptu jam with Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and Joe Cocker. This retrospective traces his arc from a backing vocal career in the drug-fueled ’70s for the likes of Elton John and Rod Stewart, and having trouble finding his footing as a solo artist who had expectations of how a woman could behave and perform. Bullens settled into the life of a typical suburban mom, experienced a personal tragedy, and eventually found his true voice.
Nashville City Blues: My Journey as an American Songwriter, James Talley
Biographies & Histories
Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s
George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle, Philip Norman
Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music, David Menconi
Oh Didn’t They Ramble chronicles the comprehensive history of the quintessential folk record label for the last 50-plus years. With extensive access to Rounder artists, staff, and founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin, BGS contributor David Menconi is able to tell Rounder’s story, from its humble but audacious and idealistic beginnings to becoming one of the most influential record labels in the history of recorded music.
The Downhome Sound: Diversity and Politics in Americana Music, Mandi Bates Bailey
Light Beams: A Workbook for Being Your Badass Self, Valerie June
Like I mentioned, this workbook/journal might be coming just at the right time as you resolve to become your most “badass self.” But even if you’re reading this well into the new year, then there’s no time like the present! Published on Jack White’s Third Man Books, Valerie June’s Light Beams offers its readers “contracts and agreements, self-healing wishes and spells, and maps and prescriptions in exercises” on a journey to self-love and waking up with a promise of choosing kindness and shining like a “badass.”
Y’all Eat Yet?: Welcome to the Pretty B*tchin’ Kitchen, Miranda Lambert
How To Produce A Record: A Player’s Philosophy For Making A Great Recordings, Pete Anderson
Western Chill, Robert Earl Keen
As a set that features a double sleeve album, a DVD with music videos for every song, a graphic, illustrated novel that explains the writing process, and a songbook with lyrics, notes, and chords so the purchaser can play along, this title certainly belongs in a category of its own.