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This is my list of the best country music books for anyone who thinks country music is all big hair and straight white men. Below is proof that country music is way more than that and anyone pushing or still believing that view is just peddling nonsense.
But first, a little background on my love for country. Unlike many other fans, I grew up in an American suburb far from any country music destinations. I also grew up in a time long ago when you couldn’t take your music with you everywhere in your pocket. You had to listen to things that other people chose for you, particularly on this old timey thing called a radio. Being from a city that only had one country music station as far as I knew, I don’t know how I thought I didn’t like country music. I probably had little to no exposure to it to begin with.
However, I distinctly remember being one of those people who would say, “I like a lot of music but not country.” Ugh! I hope you will forgive the ignorance and stupidity of youth. As an aside, I also thought I didn’t like Billy Joel, and for the record, I was wrong about that as well. Thanks for hearing my confession; I feel much better now that I have unburdened myself.
Given where I grew up and my ridiculous prejudices, I might have stayed ignorant of the beauty and richness of country music. However, I ended up working somewhere that had one radio (remember, I grew up in the dark ages when this was normal). That radio was tuned only to two things ever: country music and baseball. Since it was the boss’s radio, I didn’t have any say. She liked those two things and dang it if I didn’t end up listening to a lot of both. Sadly, I never gained an appreciation for America’s National Pastime. However, I did develop a deep love of country music that has only grown over the years. Hence my list of books for others who would like to deepen their love or are at least curious about this kind of music.
Put some spurs on your sneakers because we’re about to jump in.
Black Country Music by Francesca Royster
This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking read with a country music fan who also happens to be female, Black, and queer. I feel like her book is somehow coming out at just the right time and is also overdue in some way. I found Royster’s explanations to be very accessible and moving, and I would happily read more from her. I hope her work is widely read now and in the future by country music fans from all kinds of backgrounds. I was happy to see this book reviewed in so many places so that others can find it too.
Pride: The Charley Pride Story by Charley Pride and Jim Henderson
Charley Pride set out to be a baseball player, and the world is pretty lucky that he didn’t end up making that dream happen. By the time he passed away in 2020, he had recorded some of the most famous country songs of all time and become one of the genre’s superstars. If you appreciate his music, you should definitely get a copy of this book. It covers so much of his life and most of it is pretty fascinating. The little bits that aren’t — like some failed business deals and the like — probably won’t bother most readers, since he lived through so many interesting places and times in American life.
Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story by Ray Charles and David Ritz
This book has a very personal tone and feel to it. If you like to read things where you feel like you’re getting it “straight from the horse’s mouth,” as we say, and don’t mind cursing, then this will probably work well for you. I enjoyed Charles’s stories about his childhood and was very moved by his reaction to the loss of his mother, who died when he was just a young teenager. The discussion of his and other’s sex lives was much less interesting to me but I think this book is still a decent place to start reading about another one of country music’s biggest stars.
She Come By It Natural by Sarah Smarsh
I first read Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth and was just blown away. So of course when I saw that Smarsh had also written about Dolly Parton’s music, I was really interested in getting a copy of this. However, it is not a straight forward biography or even a fan’s appreciation of Parton’s music. Instead, it’s more of a thoughtful analysis of what Dolly Parton’s life and work has meant to Smarsh and others around her. A must read for sure. And if you haven’t picked up her book Heartland, then you should read that too!
Queer Country by Shana Goldin-Perschbacher
This is another analysis-heavy book. However, unlike Smarsh’s more journalistic tone, this has a much more academic feel. If you’re not sure what I mean, consider this sentence, “Chapter 1 explores the centrality of sincerity to country music and the problem of sincerity’s ties to essentialism (the notion that aspects of self are inherent).” Goldin-Perschbacher writes in a way that will make total sense to you if you also have a PhD in a humanities discipline. However, even if you don’t, you might be interested in thinking about some of the same things she is. Be prepared for the presentation to be different and give her book a try if you want something more “chewy.”
Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music by Nadine Hubbs
This is also one of the more “academic” books of this list, and for some readers, that may be exactly what they are looking for. If you want a lot of analysis with your music, then definitely get a copy of Hubbs’s book and chew on it a bit. There is a lot going on here to digest and I think those who like Queer Country will also find Rednecks to be an interesting and worthwhile title to dig into.
Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile
Carlile’s memoir is a fast and fascinating read. I knew vaguely that Carlile had grown up in the Pacific Northwest, but I really did not know much more until I started reading this. Likely no surprise to anyone familiar with her music, she is a gifted storyteller. She locks you in from the first pages and you’ll feel like you need to see where all this is going. Enjoy the ride, and if you aren’t already a fan of her work, there is a lot of good music online that you should also explore as you read about her childhood and beyond. I’m not a wedding person but I still enjoyed reading about her various weddings (you’ll have to read the book to figure out what I mean). Here’s wishing her and her wife many happy years to come.
Country Music: An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns
Before you ask, no, I haven’t watched my way through the Ken Burns’s documentary that this is a companion volume for. Yes, I know I’m probably missing out. However, if you can’t quite get yourself to watch 16 hours, you may want to take a look at this book anyway. As someone who hasn’t watched it yet either, I still found this to be an interesting read to dip in and out of. I particularly liked the illustrated part of it since the other books above tended to have far fewer photographs and things that help you see what some of the performers and settings were like.
And that is it, folks. I hope this list will get you started on the vast richness that is country music and its many stars. There are so many more incredible books I haven’t included above an I have yet to get my hands on. To name just two that look like I’d enjoy them: Her Country: How the Women of Country Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be by Marissa Moss and Kelefa Sanneh’s Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (which isn’t only about country music of course, but has a section devoted to it).
If you still need more, give me a few months to catch my breath and maybe I can come up with a second list. Keep your fingers crossed for me. For now, I’m off to listen to some Mickey Guyton or Rissi Palmer or Dolly Parton or…you get the idea.
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