NASHVILLE SKYLINE: An Illustrated History of Country

It's the Most Gorgeous Book About Country Music Ever

There’s actually some good news around these parts. What must be described as the most gorgeous book ever printed about country music has been published by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Great Britain’s DK Publishing. Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America has been out for a couple of weeks and is getting good notices.

The book was edited by country music authorities Alanna Nash and Paul Kingsbury and written by a distinguished bunch of country scholars, observers and critics. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of the book’s chapters). Willie Nelson wrote the foreword, and there are contributions from George Jones, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash, Travis Tritt and several other artists.

The book is an invigorating journey through country music and American history. But I must say the illustrations and photographs are spectacular, starting with Jim Sherraden’s stunning pieces of artwork. Sherraden is curator, manager and chief designer of Hatch Show Print, the poster shop on Nashville’s lower Broadway that began in 1879 and continues to turn out hand-designed and hand-printed posters, mostly for show business entities. Hence the name, Hatch Show Print.

The cover of Will the Circle is a Sherraden monoprint, as are the double-page chapter intros in the book. His monoprints are in color and are one-of-a-kind posters made by overprinting multiple images. One example is the monoprint for the “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” chapter, which repeats 12 stark black-and-white headshots of Waylon Jennings in full, dramatic Che Guevara pose, laid over a juxtaposition of his “Flying W” logos and the large displaced pastel-colored letters “WAYLON.”

The “When Two Worlds Collide” chapter monoprint shows three repeated grainy black-and-white images of a gaunt, jug-eared, insecure-looking, younger Johnny Cash over repeated images of a show poster huckstering “The Fabulous Johnny Cash Show,” over a jarring red-and-yellow pattern.

And the “All Shook Up” chapter features the stark raving Elvis from the cover of his self-titled 1956 debut album. Here, Elvis is overlaid on a Hatch financial invoice from 1956, listing some of Colonel Parker’s bills from Hatch for posters for Elvis’ shows that year. The bill shows that Parker would usually order anywhere from 10 to 400 two-color posters for each Elvis show at total prices ranging from $12 to about $60.

I am no art critic, so please take my word for it that these monoprints are riveting.

The many photographs in the book are a combination of the Hall of Fame and Museum’s archive photos and pictures of memorabilia from the museum’s collections, such as costumes, sheet music covers, instruments and cars.

I have never before seen the striking photo of Shania Twain in a skin-tight (and equally skin-revealing) black-and-silver Empress Ming or Catwoman outfit — with a diamond choker and dangling cowboy-boot diamond earrings. That is some real country history.

Country music continues to be the most visual of pop musical forms. And it maintains a very healthy sense of its history.

And the text here makes good use of that theme. The main chapters provide an interpretative history of country from its early days up to the present. And there are numerous sidebars and side notes, including a map and chronology of Hank Williams’ last ride, a quick history of the record charts, explanations of different musical styles, artist profiles and guides to classic country songs and the like.

Although I haven’t yet taken my magnifying glass to all the text, what I have read tells me that we have a lovely new survey book of country music, well illustrated and backed by solid scholarship. You can’t ask for much more than that.

One of the things I love about country music is that it is a sort of river flowing through our lives, but one that leaves solid touchstones we can return to.