Saturday, June 8, 2024

When a Book Needs a Playlist


I enjoy reading about music almost as much as I like writing about music; it always makes me want to listen to more music too. In recent days, I've picked up a variety of books related to music I enjoy. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, the story of the Carter Family had been on my bookshelf for quite awhile, but I took it back down after  Brian Oberlin, mandolinist for the bluegrass band Full Cord, mentioned reading the book while visiting Maces Springs and being inspired to write a song by that same for their current album Cambium.

While most fans of traditional country music know some of the Carter Family story, Zwonitzer and Hirschberg's book goes into such interesting narrative detail. There was much I didn't know about their interaction with other iconic performers. 

I also listened to Lucinda Williams' memoir Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You on a recent road trip. She narrates the book herself, and she includes the book, the bad, and the ugly. Someone told her to be sure to leave out the part about her childhood---advice she ignored. Williams first came across my radar with the 

release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I've seen her perform, twice since the stroke that left her singing from a stool while someone else accompanied on guitar. 

Her father, the poet Miller Williams, wrote some of my favorite poems. (Please read "The Curator" if you haven't. Then search the internet for photos inside the Hermitage Museum in WWII when the paintings had been removed from their frames for safekeeping.) The tensions resulting fro her mother's struggles and her father's remarriage are told in detail, but Williams draws clear lines between her personal life and the impact on her on singing and songwriting. 

Anyone familiar with her music will not be surprised by the book. Lucinda Williams in life and art doesn't flinch from telling her own secrets.

John Cowan's new book Hold to a Dream is part interview, part memoir. The origin of the book traces back to a series of interviews Cowan conduct

conducted for WSM radio several years ago--with some of his former bandmates in New Grass Revival (including Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, as well as other musicians he admired and respected. Some, such as Leon Russell (usually known as a reluctant interview subject, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson. However, he also interviews Gordon Stoker, tenor for the legendary backup group The Jordannaires, Californians such as Chris Hillman and Bernie Leadon, and--tying back to the Carter Family--John Carter Cash, who has taken up the mantle of preserving his family's history.

Even more than the other two, Cowan's book calls for a play list. In fact, he occasionally adds footnotes advising readers to listen if you aren't familiar with certain recordings or performers. What struck me in this book was Cowan's acknowledgement that he came to music--and to these interviews--first as a fan. 

I should note that writer Jimmy Schwartz collaborated on the project, helping to turn the book into something more than a series of interviews, instead encouraging Cowan to weave in his own story and his connections to the people on whom he focuses. At their Parnassus Books launch, Schwartz encouraged readers to start with the Epilogue and then to read the book. I took him at his word.


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