NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Best Music Books of 2011

Tales of Music and Life From People Ranging From Shania Twain to Keith Richards

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

Here are some worthy books by or about music and musical artists that were published in 2011 that I have enjoyed and think might be good Christmas gifts for your music-loving friends and family members. Or for you.

From This Moment On, Shania Twain In a very intense, frank and engrossing book, Twain lays out the saga of her often disturbing life story. As a child, Eilleen (her birth name) sang in bars from the age of 8 and as a teenager lived alone as a squatter in a vacant building in Toronto. She subsequently raised her four siblings by singing in a lounge after her adoptive parents were killed. Superstar success and marriage and motherhood and a devastating divorce and recovery still lay ahead.

Composed, Rosanne Cash She lived through a troubled childhood in California with her fiery mother Vivian Liberto Cash and her then-pillhead father, fledgling country star Johnny Cash. Better days lay ahead for young Rosanne, and through all the ups and downs of the years since, she has created some great music.

Chinaberry Sidewalks, Rodney Crowell The great singer-songwriter takes the reader on a walk through his often-chaotic childhood upbringing in a thoroughly working class neighborhood in Houston in the 1950s. It’s gritty and sometimes unsettling but ever so gripping and ultimately uplifting.

All That Is Bitter and Sweet: A Memoir, Ashley Judd
This is a very graphic reminder — in case you need it — that the country music milieu has produced some truly horrifying and Dickensian childhoods. Judd survived a childhood choked with sexual abuse and virtual abandonment and later severe adult depression and went on to become a movie star of the first order. She has since devoted most of her efforts to alleviate suffering and abuse throughout the world. She tells her story unflinchingly and you will identify with her.

I Love You a Thousand Ways, David Frizzell Lefty Frizzell was and always will be one of the greatest country singers ever. With this compelling biography, his younger brother, country singer David Frizzell, tells the saga of Lefty’s difficult struggle to succeed and his equally troublesome bouts with the bottle. He died of a stroke in 1975 at age 47. He had decided earlier that year to get off the road and stay home in Nashville and just write songs. Frizzell was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982.

Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, Diane Diekman
Marty Robbins was a major country artist that I never had the privilege to meet. He remains a cipher to many music fans who know some of his best songs like “El Paso” but know little about the man himself. Like so many other country artists of the era, Robbins was a product of a deprived childhood and was a school dropout, in this case in rural Arizona. He overcomes and becomes a NASCAR driver and a country star, as well. He died of a heart attack shortly after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, at the age of 57.

House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash, John Carter Cash The only son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, John Carter Cash takes the reader on a memorabilia and memory-packed stroll through his father’s life and career. Johnny Cash’s harsh childhood and upbringing were forever marked by the horrible accidental death of his older brother in a sawmill accident.

Best Music Writing 2011 (compilation)
I must confess that one of my Nashville Skyline columns is included in this anthology of the best music writing of 2011. But, that aside, this is a book well worth your time. It’s a fascinating walk through virtually every musical genre. I love traveling through offerings through some of my favorite writers, such as Kelefa Sannah of the New Yorker, Nancy Griffin and Joe Hagan.

Paper Angels, Jimmy Wayne and Travis Thrasher
Country singer Jimmy Wayne was an orphan himself and lived on the street as a child. Not long ago, he took a long walk across part of the nation to call attention to the plight of abandoned children. This novel was a result of that long march. It’s the story of a man who achieves insight by aiding an unfortunate child through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree project.

Diary of a Player: How My Musical Heroes Made a Guitar Man Out of Me, Brad Paisley A very folksy recounting of his upbringing and his entry into music and his entire career. You will especially enjoy his warm memories of his music idol Buck Owens and his revealing the secrets of how he wooed his wife-to-be. Paisley, unlike most country singers, had a very happy childhood.

I’ll Be There in the Morning, Brian T. Atkinson
What’s left to be written or revealed about the late, great Townes Van Zandt, the best of the best Texas songwriters? Plenty, according to Atkinson, who interviewed some 40 songwriters about the life and work of Van Zandt. Writers from Guy Clark to Lucinda Williams weigh in on his influence and legacy. Townes remains endlessly fascinating as we trace his fatalistic plunge into self-destruction, as he all the while leaves great songs in his wake. (Note: The book’s publication date is now Jan. 1, 2012.)

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle He does nothing halfway, and this first Steve Earle novel hurtles headlong into the Hank Williams myth and legend and what all that has done to all those in its orbit. A plot summary is impossible. It’s a heady, atmospheric plunge through the underclass of the ’50s and all of its attendant flotsam and jetsam. Morphine addiction, abortion, ghosts, hoodoo — it’s all there.

A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival, Harvey Kubernik and Kenneth Kubernik
The Monterey International Pop Festival may have been the apogee of rock music. During the so-called summer of love in 1967, the greatest rock musical festival ever took place in Monterey, Calif. The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield and more were unleashed upon the world at large. The festival’s history and impact are traced by recollections by its major players. This is a truly gorgeous coffee table book with many, many photographs and posters, album covers, ads and a generous sprinkling of ’60s flower power dust.

Life, Keith Richards
The best music book of the year. Period. The guitarist and heart and soul of the Rolling Stones lays it all out about his long and turbulent life and the strife-filled and yet triumphant Rolling Stones’ history, warts and all. Keef’s pointed remarks here about Mick Jagger’s anatomy are why the Stones will very likely never perform together again. It’s a long read but ultimately is a very ripping yarn. Every sort of scandal you can imagine. But also every musical landmark.