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The Country Music Reader, Travis D. Stimeling, Oxford University Press, Jan 30, 2015
The Country Music Reader, Travis D. Stimeling, Oxford University Press, Jan 30, 2015
The story of Bobbie Gentry has fascinated music fans for decades now. Riding a wave of fame and then, seemingly, suddenly leaving the business never to be heard from again. Well, that’s maybe an oversimplification, but it’s the narrative that has emerged over time and one that Tara Murtha in the newest entry in the 33 1/3 series, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, both confirms and deconstructs this story. The book is an engaging read and a shining example of what the 33 1/3 series should be. Today Tara talked with us about the book:
Music Tomes: What was it that drew you in to Bobbie Gentry’s story?
Tara Murtha: It started innocently enough, with listening to the record and watching the clip of her performing “Niki Hoeky” on The Smothers Brothers Show. I was initially intrigued by the fact that I didn’t already know all that much about her. How could I not know about this hardscrabble but incredibly sexy pioneering feminist country music singer who, after breaking all kinds of records and glass ceilings—suddenly vanished from the spotlight, never to perform in public again? And what’s not to love about that? Then I read an interview from 1974 where Bobbie Gentry claimed that she produced the record Ode to Billie Joe, but didn’t get credit because women just didn’t get credit in recording studios in 1967. The reporter in me couldn’t help tugging on that thread, wondering if the answers there would help illuminate the twin mysteries of the production of Ode to Billie Joe and her disappearance. And I think they do.
MT: You mention that there were a few near misses getting a feeling you might actually get to talk to her. That must have been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. How did that affect your view of Gentry?
TM: I wasn’t expecting to suddenly pick up the phone and hear Bobbie’s voice, but I’d say I kept my ringer on more than I normally would, which is hardly ever. I didn’t approach this project as an excuse to get to talk with her, though. It’s been an investigative pop history all along. I guess the suspense did get to me a little bit, though. One night, I had what felt almost like a lucid dream with Bobbie in it. It was one of those sleeps where it feels like your body sinks down to center earth, like knitting needles are shifting things around in your brain. In the dream, I visited her at a house in Los Angeles, a mansion just off a busy freeway, right in plain sight but set back behind an elaborate garden with ornate fountains and botanical sculptures. Everything was flooded in that golden L.A. magic hour light. The house reminded me of the primordial garden with the dinosaur topiary where Katherine Hepburn’s character in Suddenly Last Summer meets the doctor who is treating Elizabeth Taylor. The Bobbie Gentry I met in my dream was regal, but relaxed. I walked up a staircase to talk with her, then I woke up.
Anyway, I see the book as one part in a larger project, so maybe I’ll get to talk with her yet. Of course, I’d love to hear her take on everyone else’s recollections. And I wonder how connected, if at all, she feels, to the young woman I wrote about and her show biz life. That alone is super interesting.
MT: At one point Gentry says that what was thrown off of the bridge in “Ode to Billie Joe” doesn’t matter, that it was just a device to get to the point, but it also served as a hook that brought in a lot of interview requests with people probably hoping to be the one to get the “real answer.” Do you think that was calculated by Gentry in any way? Or did it just happen to work out well?
TM: Calculated, without question. What interests me is that another edit, the deletion of the girl’s name from the original first stanza, which shifted Gentry’s role from third-party observant narrator to inhabiting the song’ character. She spent the rest of her public life fielding just as many questions about if the story was “true” or not as ones about what happened at the bridge.
MT: Something I appreciated was that you came at this as a fan of Gentry, someone who was curious about her, but it doesn’t turn in to hagiography. You also, skillfully, peeled back some of the layers of her mystique without completely destroying them or making them sound like a deception or detriment. Was that something you found difficult to do?
TM: I appreciate that you noticed that because that was and is my intention. The way I see it, initially, she was very interested in exploring the culture of the South and that part of her identity. Her roots. She called it “regional material.” But like any true artist, she had other interests and territory to explore. I think she tried to take fans with her, but some had a hard time. People were really invested in the rags-to-riches Southern pin-up persona that came with “Ode to Billie Joe.” It was just so American and beautiful and so full of hope, in a way, at a tumultuous time in our country’s history.
As for authenticity, you can’t explore Bobbie Gentry without acknowledging that the evaluation of a performer’s authenticity is very gendered. Bobbie was really fascinated with Southern culture and mannerisms, but she also regularly explored themes of gender, freedom, femininity, intimacy and independence. All of those themes course through the idea of Southern culture, of course.
Bobbie’s a multi-instrumentalist pop composer sometimes dismissed as a one-hit country wonder. The real story has way more mystique than the flimsy one-dimensional one. She played piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele and vibes; sang in English, Spanish, Italian and Japanese; designed her personal wardrobe and stage costumes; danced; and wrote and composed music. She’s also a talented painter. God knows what else she can do or taught herself to do in the last 30 years.
MT: What was the most difficult part about writing the book?
TM: I thought a lot about how to write the story for three audiences. The first audience is people who hardly know anything about her, or maybe even never heard of her at all. Why should they care? The second audience is people who think they know who she was and what she was about, but have it all wrong based on reading a handful of internet bios full of recycled errors. And the third audience are the fans who get it, who know her catalogue beyond “Ode,” know about the Vegas years, and understand that she was an artist and businesswoman ahead of her time. I wanted to be able to introduce her, dispute the popular persona, and also bury deep new details for super-fans, all in one narrative. It was hard to know where to begin the story. You can’t begin disputing a reputation some readers never heard of to begin with. When I found the videotape of her talking on stage in Vegas about her relationship to her public image, it both confirmed for me that I was on the right track, and gave me my opening.
Logistically, the biggest challenge was time, no question. Researching and writing a book while already working more than 40 hours a week is no joke.
MT: What are you currently working on?
TM: For my Philadelphia book launch, producer and bassist Phil D’Agostino assembled an 11-piece band and they performed the record Ode to Billie Joe in its entirety. It was spectacular. I’m working on figuring out how to get the show to other cities. I’d love to see it done in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. Of course, Mississippi would be amazing.
I’ve also teamed up with Ruth Lietman, a badass documentary filmmaker who has created some of my favorite films, like Lipstick & Dynamite and the cult classic Wildwood, NJ. We’re in the very early stages of developing a companion documentary. We both feel it is tremendously important to document Bobbie Gentry’s pioneering accomplishments, and really, it’s an aural and visual story. I mean you have to see this Elvis tribute.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
TM: I just read the other 33 1/3 book that was released with mine, which is Hole’s Live Through This by Anwen Crawford, and it’s one of the best in the series, hands down. Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh is one of my all-time favorites. I really connect with Hersh’s jagged and winding artistic sensibility. I recently enjoyed Simon Critchley’s Bowie, which weaves philosophical meditations in with recollections of how Bowie influenced him as a kid. I thought about Bowie a lot while writing this, because I see some of Gentry’s later performances, especially in Vegas, as glam rock in that they subvert the pop machine by ripping holes in the facade while succeeding within it. It’s been a while, but I really loved Janis Ian’s Society’s Child for the way it threaded Ian’s life story into a panoramic view of the music industry at the time, and how her feminist lens is just her eyeballs, you know, not treated as some precious monocle that marginalizes her own point of view. Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be by Jen Trynin. Just Kids by Patti Smith, of course. Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis. I used to work with the late Steven Wells, and I think of his work when I’m starting to take myself too seriously, which can happen when I don’t go outside enough. I loved Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography, and got to interview him about it, and he was really funny and cool. I liked Keith Richards’ memoir too, even though it was a bit sanitized. Right now I have Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price, Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! and Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes: Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys on my night table.
No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, Peter Richardson, St Martin’s Press, Jan 20, 2015
The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, Ben Yagoda, Riverhead, Jan 22, 2015
George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door, Graeme Thomson, Overlook, Jan 22, 2015
I’ve been a fan of Michael Buffalo Smith’s work for a long time. As a fan of Southern Rock I’ve always found his interviews with musicians an enlightening read. Now that I’m neck deep in Southern Rock research for my next book, I have a completely new respect for the depth of work he has done on the subject. Simply put, no one has (or ever will) written as deeply and insightfully on the subject as Smith and fans of Southern Rock owe him much for preserving this rich history. Those years of interviews and essay’s build the foundation of his newest work, Rebel Yell: An Oral History of Southern Rock, is that history told by those that lived it. Buffalo was nice enough to talk to us a little about the book and being the Ambassador of Southern Rock.
Michael Buffalo Smith: To me Southern Rock is a pivotal link in the rock and roll history chain. It blended elements of country, rock, British Invasion, blues, gospel, R&B, and in some cases, as with The Marshall Tucker Band and The Allman Brothers Band, jazz. And now, Southern Rock has inspired other changes in popular music that may have never occurred had Southern Rock never happened. Today, there are countless country bands and artist who proudly say that Southern Rock was a huge influence – from The Zac Brown Band to Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert – on and on. It amazes me how many Southern Rock and just plain ol’ music fans enjoy reading about the deep history of the bands, the recording studios, life on the road and such. Personally, I feel like I owe it to those who have passed to help keep their legacy alive – not only Ronnie Van Zant, Toy Caldwell and Duane Allman, but all of the friends I have lost, from Jakson Spires to Tommy Crain, George McCorkle – so many.
MT: What you’ve laid out in Rebel Yell is an expansive history of Southern Rock told by those that lived it. In telling it in their own words, you gain a perspective that a straight biography can’t. Did that play in to the decision to do this book as an oral history rather than a straight telling of the history?
MBS: I had long planned a deep history of Southern Rock, but after reading Bill Graham Presents and a couple of other oral histories, I decided this was the way to go. Ironically, right around the time my book came out, Scott B. Bomar’s book came out, and it is a good general history. Very accurate. I know because he used a lot of my past articles and many other accurate pieces to assemble it along with his other research, and his book has amazing color photos. I recommend folks get my book and his, and you’ll have the subject of Southern Rock pretty much covered.
MT: In one of your earlier books, the excellent Carolina Dreams: The Musical Legacy of Upstate South Carolina, there is mention of you working with Marshall Tucker Band front man Doug Gray on his autobiography. Is that something that is still a possibility?
MBS: I hope so. At the time, back around 1998, I had it almost completed, but Doug didn’t feel the time was right because he had so much more to do. He was right. Since then, he has done almost as much as he did during the early years, both personally and professionally. The latest version of the band are all top drawer players, and since I started with that project, he has taken the band to Iraq to play for the troops; played The Grand Ole Opry several times; become the most popular act on the annual Rock Legends Cruise (their all night jams are now the stuff of legend); and that’s just the beginning. I love my brother Doug, and when he is ready to finish the book, I am here. It would be a great story for sure.
MT: You’ve become known as the “Ambassador of Southern Rock” and you continue chronicling the new and old with your digital magazine Kudzoo Magazine. Do you find that people are still continually interested in learning more about that music? Why do you think that?
MBS: Well, at one time, right before the internet exploded in 1996, I used to think that I was alone in this world. I was obsessed with all the details, not only of Southern Rock, but also the lives and adventures of many other rockers, and various musical and acting personalities. After starting Gritz magazine back in 1998, I really came to see how many folks world wide have the same thirst for knowledge. So many, like myself, are simply not content with just listening to the records and going to concerts. We want to know who played what instrument on a song; who produced it; what other records did he produce; what inspired the writer to write the song; so many questions. That’s why I have conducted well over 1000 interviews over the past 20 years.
MT: You’ve written about artists outside of Southern Rock (including a book on being a KISS fan). Do you ever feel like you’re too closely associated with Southern Rock, or that it restricts what you can write in readers eyes?
MBS: Absolutely not. I went through a “phase” of thinking that way, which is why I called my book before this one Prisoner of Southern Rock. I had become a “specialist,” which was cool, but I also love many other types of music. My former editor at Goldmine Magazine, Greg Loescher, gave me tons of assignments during the late ‘90s and into the 2000’s. I became the “go to” guy for Southern Rock, penning cover stories – several that topped 10,000 words- on Marshall Tucker, The Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gov’t Mule (their first national cover story) – but Greg also gave me covers on Kansas, Koko Taylor, Edgar Winter, Ted Nugent – as well as major articles on Surf Music, collecting Alice Cooper records and memorabilia and many, many others. Southern Rock rules, but variety is the spice of life!
MT: What are you currently working on?
MBS: Wow, that’s a loaded question. I am working on a book called Southern Accents which collects my weekly colums called Southern Accents that were syndicated in newspapers and magazines between 1989 and now. The book also features my liner notes from various albums including Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker and others and other short articles, many on Southern Rock, but not all. I am working on a fiction novel about two South Carolina familes during the 1960’s, as well as a collection of fictional short stories. I am working on two more two more “self-published” collections of interviews – Outlaws, Rebels & Renegades Vol. 3 (Southern Rock) and Hippies, Heritics & Rockabilly Rebels- interviews with stars from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s like Delaney & Bonnie, Peter Frampton, Leon Russell, Ted Nugent, Dash Crofts (Seals & Crofts) and more. Also another indie press collection called My Kind of Country, with my interviews with folks like Bobby Bare, Cowboy Jack Clement, Jerry Reed, John Carter Cash, etc. Whew! And then, I am writing two movie scripts with a fellow screenwriter, and three children’s books. Those are the 2015 titles and I have about five other books ready to write in 2016. I need more hours in the day! I would like to mention that my Rebel Yell book signing tour begins in Spartanburg, SC on January 30th, and over the next three months we will visit Greenville, SC; Asheville, NC; Atlanta; Savannah; Nashville; Jacksonville and Sarasota, Florida and end up in Macon, Ga with a signing and all-star concert. Many of our Southern Rock friends featured in the book will be showing up at some book signings to meet fans and sign my book, and most stops will feature a Southern Rock Q & A with me and whomever may be my guest. The dates and venues are being ironed out. Keep an eye on the “Tour” tab at michaelbuffalo.net, and I sincerely hope to meet many of you at one of the stores! Support independent record and book stores!
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
MBS: Oh yeah. I am an avid reader. If you want to write, it’s usually because you love reading. The aforementiond Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock, by Scott B. Bomar is awesome. The quality, the content, the glossy paper and bright colored photos. Love it.; Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father by Galadrielle Allman, about her Dad, Duane Allman is just excellent. I have read it twice (so far.); Alan Paul’s One Way Out, history of the Allman Brothers is the best ABB history to date; Johnny Cash FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About The Man in Black, by C. Eric Banister, is chock full of great info on my hero Johnny Cash, with great photos I had never seen; Good Rockin Tonight: Sun Records and The Birth of Rock and Roll By Colin Escott. One of my all-time favorites is The Uncensored History of Rolling Stone Magazine by Robert Draper. I love to read! Thank you for the interview Eric. I love your website! Happy New Year!
Kepp up with Michael Buffalo Smith at his Official Website: michaelbuffalo.net or his Goodreads Page: www.goodreads.com/author/show/6231633.Michael_Buffalo_Smith
Journey to the Centre of the Cramps, Dick Porter, Omnibus Press, Jan 12, 2015
Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone, Marky Ramone and Richard Herschlag, Touchstone, Jan 13, 2015
With his new book, The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC,Jesse Fink goes beyond a band biography to focus on the brothers, Angus, Malcolm, and George, that power the group that has become a hard rock staple. The Youngs delves into the relationship between the trio and those around them as they have built the band to superstar status. Jesse took a few moments to talk to us about the book.
Music Tomes: In the beginning of the book you talk about the heart wrenching circumstances in which you reconnected with AC/DC. How did that vulnerable state allow you to hear the band differently?
Jesse Fink: Yes, I make the point in the author’s note that good music “immortalises those beautiful, private moments of existential clarity” and “makes us embrace life and its vicissitudes.” I think what I went through – seeing my wife of 10 years leave for another man, experiencing unremitting loneliness, enduring years of depression, raising a young girl amid all this darkness – made me mentally stronger and more determined to dig myself out of the trough I was in. I found music helped me more than anything else and still does. Whenever I feel vulnerable or emotionally weak in some way I listen to music to give me that lift and make me focus on what I need to do to be a better person. Just listen to the lyrics to “It’s a Long Way to the Top”, for example. It’s a great code for living. You want to get anywhere in this life you need to work your hide off and never lose sight of your goal. Those guys in AC/DC inspired me and they continue to inspire me. They’re a living example of what hard work, self-belief, talent and mental fortitude can do. I take my hat off to them.
MT: What surprised you in your research?
JF: The story Mark Evans told me about the Young brothers having considered terminating the employment of Bon Scott. That was something I didn’t see coming at all. Also drummer Tony Currenti’s role in so much great Australian music, including “High Voltage”, the band’s unforgettable 1975 single, and Stevie Wright’s “Evie”. Tony is now working in a pizzeria in Sydney. He’s a musical treasure. It’s been wonderful to see him finally get some recognition from fans. He’s never got it from people inside the industry, that’s for sure. Another thing that surprised me was the number of important people who had lost contact with the Youngs. AC/DC are wildly successful, but a lot of people helped them along the way. Arguably those people deserved better treatment.
MT: You touch on the fact that a lot of the band’s critics come off as a bit classist when looking at the band. Why do you think the band connects so well with blue-collar, everyday people?
JF: They’re not trying to be too clever but of course they’re unbelievably clever. They just want to rock. And – it’s a point I make strongly – there’s nothing wrong with just wanting to rock. The lyrics don’t have to be Dylanesque for the music to be significant. Don’t tell me “Back in Black” isn’t one of the greatest moments in 20th century rock. It’s timeless; an epic song with so much emotion underpinning it. Bon Scott is also an icon of blue-collar, everyday people around the world. He lived life on his own terms, never apologised to anyone, and left us with some of the greatest rock songs of all time. Bon was a superb writer and a real wit. Those early songs reflect a lot of “everyday” life, especially the songs on Powerage. That’s why it’s my favourite AC/DC album.
MT: Have you heard from anyone within the AC/DC camp since the book has been released?
JF: Yes, many people who have worked with the band. Mike Fraser, their engineer, is a friend. Ross Young, Malcolm’s son, is a friend. Mark Evans, Tony Currenti, Doug Thaler, Tony Platt, Jerry Greenberg, David Thoener and many others who are AC/DC luminaries past or present have said very positive things about the book. I’ve had no direct word from anyone currently inside the band but Ross told me his parents enjoyed the book and that his mum loved it. I take that as a huge compliment. The fact Mark Evans thought it was the best book he’d ever read about the band was really unexpected and one of the highlights of my career. There are aspects of the book that are critical of AC/DC but above all it’s written with great love and affection for them – and I think smart readers recognise that.
MT: What are you currently working on?
JF: I have just written proposals for two music biographies: another AC/DC-themed book (there’s a lot more to this band) and a really exciting book on one of the most unknown tales in Southern rock. I’d like to write both of them. I’m also very keen on the idea of turning one of the chapters in The Youngs into a film and adapting the Southern rock idea into a biopic. The first is perfect for Will Ferrell and the second is tailor-made for Matthew McConaughey and Vince Vaughn. So I’m looking to connect with the right people and see these projects come to life, either as books or films or both. I think Southern rock deserves a great movie.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
JF: Recently I really enjoyed Rick Springfield’s Late, Late at Night. Props to the bloke for his honesty and his humour. He’s a very good writer. Wasn’t expecting it at all. Also Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business by Fredric Dannen (1991). What a book. It’s a classic about the venality of the American music business.
Aside from music books, the other thing I love to read are comic books. I’ve been reading them since before I discovered music biographies or criticism. As a matter of fact, when I took a break from Music Tomes I started Derby City Comic Con. So my love of the medium runs deep.
One of the creators I met during that time was Chad Lambert. Chad is a writer who has written several independent releases as well as writing Ape Entertainment title Kung Fu Panda. Now he has a new publishing venture and a comic on the cult classic WKRP in Cincinnati. Today Chad talked to us about the project.
Music Tomes: You use your own story to bookend the story of WKRP in Cincinnati. What was it about the show that inspired you to get in to radio?
Chad Lambert: During the era of WKRP, deejays mattered. On-air personality mattered. As a child of the 70s, I found it intoxicating that you could sit alone in a room and talk directly to thousands of people. It’s more intimate than other mediums. I used to listen to Gary Burbank on 700 WLW growing up, and he could make you feel like you were sitting in the studio with him and Doc, laughing and having a good time with the BBC cast of thousands. There aren’t many personalities like that anymore. Bob and Tom still carry the spirit of comradery with their listeners. I miss that. But, back then, it was amazing to hear, and WKRP beautifully captured a time and place that I wanted to be a part of.
MT: The show has grown such a big cult following over the years. What is it about the characters that people identify with so much?
CL: The show was actually about its characters. Every episode was built around some type of character dilemma. You don’t see that in sitcoms very often. The Big Bang Theory reminds me a little bit of WKRP, because it’s about stories that only its characters can tell.
The plotting device of WKRP also made it more character-centric. They dropped Andy Travis – a normal guy – into the chaos of a failing radio station populated by crazy (ish) people. Andy served as the viewers’ tour guide though all the laughter and the insanity. In the first season, he reacted to situations as you would have. Once you got to know everyone (like Andy did), it became more of an ensemble show.
That show certainly prepared me for the real world of radio. Every station I worked for was a dysfunctional family of characters. Sadly, there were far more douche bags in the real world of radio than there were on the television version. But there were also some AMAZING people that I still love to this day.
MT: How did this project come about?
CL: Jaymes Reed has been my Letterer of choice for the last eleven years. He had pitched a biography series to Bluewater about legends of comedy and asked me to edit the first few issues he’d written. I was amazed at the quality of the work he’d done, so I signed on. Our first three issues were George Carlin, Lucy and the Three Stooges. I later pitched him the idea of adding television shows that had an impact on comedy, so our fourth issue was Saturday Night Live. At some point I casually mentioned WKRP and how I became a Cincinnati deejay because of it, and it became an obvious choice.
Somewhere around the release of SNL, we decided to self-publish our series so we could have more creative control. Nothing against Bluewater, but they aren’t exactly known for high-quality biography books. Our stuff was getting lost in all that “Celebrity of the Moment” crap, and we wanted to stand alone. That’s why we formed Levity Biographies.
MT: What are some of the advantages of working in a visual format like comic books?
CL: I absolutely love collaboration. I’m a storyteller, but it’s so cool to bring in visual storytellers to help tell the same story. Illustrators bring so many gifts that you can’t capture in prose. I love this medium because it doesn’t rely on just words. It’s a marriage of different disciplines all doing the same thing with the same goal.
MT: What are you currently working on?
CL: Levity is really close to finishing our next book, which covers the life and times of Redd Foxx. Jaymes wrote a great script, and I was honored to edit it. I’ve also been honored to contribute to this series, because I am such a fan of comedy. I get as much joy editing this series as I do occasionally writing for it. I hope we can do this series indefinitely. There’s certainly no lack of subject matter.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
CL: Well, my WKRP comic is pretty good (laughs). In all seriousness, I’ve been enjoying Jim Peterik’s new book Through the Eye of the Tiger: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Life of Survivor’s Founding Member. I am unapologetic in my fandom for such uncool bands as Survivor, but their story pretty amazing, and Peterik is an underrated songwriter, too. He was a hit machine for a couple of decades. I’m fascinated by the music industry, so it’s great to read a book that goes into the more unknown nooks and crannies of the business.
To get a copy of the book, go here
Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary, Richard Carlin, Routledge, Nov 3, 2014, Paperback Edition
The Alternative Jukebox: 500 extraordinary tracks that tell a story of alternative music, BBC 6 Music, Cassell, Nov 4, 2014
Beatles: Here, There, and Everywhere, Nancy J. Hajeski, Thunder Bay Press, Nov 4 2014
Live Dead: The Grateful Dead Photographed by Bob Minkin, Bob Minkin, Insight Editions, Nov 4, 2014
Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, Adam Lerner, Princeton Architectural Press, Nov 4, 2014
True Love, Jennifer Lopez, Celebra, Nov 4, 2014
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Terry Teachout, Gotham, Nov 4, 2014, Paperback Edition
Going Platinum: KISS, Donna Summer, and How Neil Bogart Built Casablanca Records, Brett Ermilio and Josh Levine, Globe Pequot Press, Nov 4, 2014
I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era, Greg Kot, Scribner, Nov 4, 2014, Paperback Edition
Into the Black: The Inside Story of Metallica (1991-2014), Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, Da Capo, Nov 4, 2014
LIFE Unseen Tony Bennett, The Editors of LIFE, Time Life, Nov 4, 2014
Starting at Zero: His Own Story, Bloomsbury Publishing, Nov 6, 2014, Paperback Edition
Arctic Monkeys: Pretend Memories: A Biography, Rob Jovanovic, Red Planet, Nov 7, 2014
Cliff Richard & the Shadows: A Rock & Roll Memoir, Royston Ellis and Cliff Richard, Tomahawk Press, Nov 7, 2014
Today Henry Carrigan talks to me (Eric Banister) about my new book Johnny Cash FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Man in Black:
Eric Banister: There’s kind of a two-fold answer for that one. First, the opportunity to write a book in the FAQ series presented itself. The first artist I thought of was Cash. So the honest answer is that the timing was mostly serendipitous. But that’s not to say I wasn’t passionate about the subject matter. You have to be passionate, in at least some way, about any subject you dive deep enough into to write a book.
MT: How long did it take you to write the book?
EB: I wrote the book in a year. The advantage I had that enabled me to write it so quickly was that I’ve been a Cash fan since grade school. I had already read nearly everything that had been released on Cash. I had collected articles and info on him for years. I had or had heard nearly everything he had released. That gave me an advantage in getting the book turned around quickly.
MT: Your book arrives just about one year after Robert Hilburn’s monumental biography, Johnny Cash: The Life. What distinguishes your book from his?
EB: They are really completely different books. In fact I feel like Johnny Cash FAQ is an excellent companion to Robert’s book. The Life, while it talks a little about the music, focuses on Cash’s personal life (sometimes a little too much, but that’s my opinion) and digs in to the personal relationships that he had throughout his life. There’s a good amount of time spent on his romantic relationships and whom he may or may not have slept with. That’s all well and good, and I don’t mean to take anything away from the book because I did enjoy it, but in the grand scheme of Cash’s legacy, it’s not what will be remembered.
What will be remembered is the music. Johnny Cash will always be remembered as one of the greatest artists of all time, and that’s because of the music. My whole purpose was to look at Cash’s catalog, examine the songs, the song choices, the performances, and put them into a historical context to properly examine them. I spent a lot of time looking at contemporaneous reviews of his albums as they were coming out to see what writers were saying in the moment rather than through the lens of nostalgia.
MT: What three new things (and I’m sure there are more than three) did you learn about Cash while you were writing this book?
EB: Well let me see if I can narrow this down. Where I found a lot of fascination was in his work in the 1970s, which are often overlooked, so I’ll focus there. First, I found it very interesting how he developed as an artist throughout those years. He wrote fewer songs than he did prior to that, but he put together the House of Cash publishing company so that he could not only keep up with the best new songwriters, but also help their careers in some way. Having those songwriters around also fed his own creativity, which is reflected in several of that periods albums.
The second thing was that, while I knew Cash was a very spiritual person, it was interesting to learn how much he leaned on Gospel music throughout his career, particularly when he was recording other projects that he might not have had his whole heart in, like John R. Cash.
Lastly, I found it infinitely fascinating the depth of myths surrounding him and how much both he and his fans were, and still are, willing to go along with them. A quick example that I didn’t get to go into in the book was his relationship with the Grand Ole Opry. The story goes that he was kicked off the Opry for smashing out the footlights. But in every account of it, only one, Marshall Grant, pinpoints a timeframe! So I got with Opry historian Byron Faye and we looked at the appearances during that time and none of them lined up. So why does it keep getting retold? Well, I think in the beginning, it put him in the same outlaw image that was being crafted for Hank Williams. There were articles even early in Cash’s career that tried to draw parallels. It was also a good story for illustrating a division in what was perceived as bastion of traditional country and what people like to think Cash stood for.
MT: Why does Cash continue to command such persistent attention from music historians?
EB: I think it is because he is such a complex figure. It’s easy to look at him and see only one facet, but there are so many layers. Sometimes those layers seem to contradict themselves, but that’s something every person deals with. But with Cash, some of those contradictions were created by his own self-mythologizing, which adds to his complexity.
Speaking strictly musically, Cash was able to create an instantly identifiable sound that he was able to maintain for a large portion of his career. Even when he varied it, it remained recognizable.
Those two things—the music and the myths—combine to draw people in. The fact that he kept creating right up until his death adds to his mystique as an artist. He’s one of the few artists who have created in the public eye from his early twenties to his death. A career of that span has a lot to look into.
MT: After writing this book, in what ways did your view of Cash change?
EB: I wouldn’t say change, but definitely my opinion of him as a creative artist deepened. No matter what was going on in his life, he continued to create. He didn’t limit himself in creative expression, either. He was a songwriter, a singer, an actor. He dabbled in comedy, though he was often the straight man. His second television show, which consisted of six weekly episodes, was heavy on comedy and featured June, Steve Martin, and Jim Varney. Cash was the one who got to set up many of the jokes and you could tell he was having a great time.
MT: Do you have a favorite Cash song? Album?
EB: My favorite song is still the first Cash song I ever heard, “I Walk The Line.” Favorite album is a little tougher. I’d say that the two albums I’ve returned to the most are Any Old Wind That Blows and Gone Girl. Both of them show Cash stretching a little, but not so much that he sounds uncomfortable.
MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
EB: I hope readers will take away a better appreciation of Cash’s career beyond the Sun years, the prison records, and the American years. I hope they’ll use the books as a launching pad to discover Cash tunes and albums that they haven’t heard before. There is so much there that is great, but criminally overlooked.
MT: What’s next for you?
EB: I’m currently writing my third book. It’s part of another series, the Counting Down series by Rowman & Littlefield. I’ve taken on the task of writing about the 100 best songs in Southern Rock. After that, I’ve got a few other books ideas percolating.
Beyond books, I’ll keep looking for ways to expand Music Tomes.
MT: What are some of your favorite music tomes?
EB: I read so many music related books a year, both for research and for Music Tomes, so this is hard to narrow down. I’ll just toss out a few from the last couple of years that I really enjoyed. Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings by Michael Jarrett shows a different perspective on the creation of country music through the years. That probably my favorite book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to Barry Mazor’s book, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music.
If you’re new to digging in to music related books, I love everything from Peter Guralnick and Charles K. Wolfe, and recommend anything by them. Also, if you’re a fan of music writing, there needs to be a copy of David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind on your shelf. Incredibly insightful and well written. As David’s writing always has, this book really pushed me when looking at the vast work of Cash.
Henry Carrigan writes about music and music books for Engine 145, American Songwriter, No Depression, Publishers Weekly, and BookPage.
Chicago Blues (Images of America), Wilbert Jones, Arcadia Publishing, Oct 27, 2014
Excess All Areas: A Lighthearted Look at the Demands and Idiosyncracies of Rock Icons on Tour, Sue Richmond, BackBeat Books, Oct 28, 2014
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Rick Bragg, Harper, Oct 28, 2014
On the Road with Janis Joplin, John Byrne Cooke, Berkley Hardcover, Oct 28, 2014
Tom Petty: Rock ‘n’ Roll Guardian, Andrea Rotondo, Overlook, Oct 28, 2014
Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre: A Biography of the Doors, Mick Wall, Orion, Oct 30, 2014
Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, Barry Mazor, Chicago Review Press, Nov 1, 2014
The Strat in the Attic 2: More Thrilling Stories of Guitar Archaeology, Deke Dickerson, Voyageur Press, Nov 1, 2014