NASHVILLE SKYLINE: From Hank Williams to Elvis to Keith Richards

Music Books and Boxed Sets to Dream About for Christmas Gifts

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Sometimes, for some special people, there is no better Christmas present than a book about music or a collection of music. Here are a few I am enjoying.

Rosanne Cash wrote one of the two best music memoirs of 2010. In Composed: A Memoir, she traces her musical and personal life and growth. With equal parts of wit and grace, Cash portrays the joys and pain of growing up in her father Johnny Cash’s giant shadow and trying to emerge with an identity and a life and career of her own. Which she has managed to do splendidly, even with a detour to undergo brain surgery.

Keith Richards penned the other great music book of the past year. In Life, the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones tells a big, sweeping, sometimes astonishing, sometimes moving epic story. Along the way, he writes the history of rock ’n’ roll. It’s from his perspective, of course, but that’s a pretty wide and personal view. I was fortunate enough to be around Keith and the Stones during some of the periods in this book, and I can tell you flat out that he remembers it exactly as it happened. Warts and all.

Alanna Nash has peeled the last remaining veils from the life of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Her Baby Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him is a meticulously-researched, well-written saga of the women in Elvis’ life. And there were plenty of them. Ann-Margret. Nancy Sinatra. Raquel Welch. No Tiger Woods coffee shop waitresses for Elvis. Mary Tyler Moore, who co-starred with Elvis in the movie Change of Habit, has perhaps the best quote in the book: “Elvis has said on the record, ’I slept with all my leading ladies except one.’ Well, I don’t mean to bust anyone’s cover, but I know who the one is. And what was I thinking?”

Two beautiful coffee table books deal with Southern California music. The Eagles: An American Band, by Andrew Vaughan, is a lavishly-illustrated compendium of photographs and history of the group. An overlapping book is Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon. The beautiful Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles has long been a musical incubator, giving birth to such artists as the Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Doors, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. Laurel Canyon devotee Harvey Kubernik wrote the text, and the Henry Diltz photographs are especially memorable.

Over the years, singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman has asked dozens of country singers and personalities about why they came to Nashville and why they stayed. The results are collected in They Came to Nashville, with stories from Kris Kristofferson, Miranda Lambert, Willie Nelson and many more.

In her book, Sign of Life, Hilary Williams eloquently describes her courageous return from very nearly dying in a horrendous car wreck. She is a daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams. In 2006, she and her fellow singing sister Holly were en route from Nashville to Louisiana for the funeral of their mother’s father when their SUV went off the road and rolled several times. After 23 surgeries, she is now back to a near-normal life. As with Rosanne Cash, Hilary writes about wrestling for years with growing up with the Hank legend and the realities of life within that bubble.

Hands down, the Hank Williams boxed set is the best and most significant music release of the year. Not just in country music. In music, period. Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus! is a breathtaking musical document that was almost lost to history but fortunately now survives in an elaborate cathedral radio-shaped box set. In 1951, Williams — then at his musical peak — and his wife, Audrey, and his Drifting Cowboys band performed a daily, live, early-morning 15-minute show on Nashville radio station WSM. These are the surviving morning shows he recorded to be broadcast when he would be on the road. The sound fidelity is astounding, the previously unheard Hank material is very revealing and the overall impact of finally hearing an icon as the real person that he was is overwhelming.

I fully realize that Willie Nelson’s One Hell of a Ride CD boxed set actually dates from 2008. But you might have missed it. Plus, it has 100 mostly-solid songs you will play many times. Besides, the poor guy may yet need more bail money and perhaps even more cash to hire some good dope lawyers following his recent arrest in Texas.

Finally, for unique gifts ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars, you cannot do better than Nashville’s Hatch Show Print. From Elvis posters to concert fliers to large woodblock prints to T-shirts, holiday cards, postcards and the like, you can find something for everyone at Hatch. Available at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and at Hatch’s printing plant and shop on Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville.