With Christmas coming Sunday, procrastinators have an extra day for their last minute shopping. Here are a few noteworthy music books that provide informational and fiscal value, while covering subject matters not always on the usual rock/pop radar.
Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin Circuit and the Road to Rock 'N' Roll (Norton)
The underground network of regional night spots that comprised what some dismissively labeled "the chitlin' circuit" played a key role in the musical revolution that covered the second half of the 20th century. It was a combination training ground and musical laboratory for performers and sounds otherwise ignored and/or deemed irrelevant by the cultural power brokers. Memphis author Preston Lauterbach's vital work covers the artists and era with ample doses of reverence, tact and attention to detail. Insider interviews with such personalities as racketeer/club owner Denver Ferguson, bandleader Walter Barnes, and entertainer Sax Kari shed light on the often shaky or illicit operations and innovative artists that paved the way for the emergence of R&B and rock 'n' roll. He celebrates sites in Memphis, Macon, Ga., and Houston, Texas that haven't gotten the ink given the Apollo or Regal, but were just as critical in terms of discovering and nurturing stars. He also spotlights the disc jockeys and promoters behind the acts, while providing fresh information on otherwise thoroughly chronicled greats like Little Richard and James Brown. Those who grew up in the circuit's cities or witnessed some of the shows and folks Lauterbach recalls will recognize the accuracy of his accounts. Others new to this world will marvel at its flamboyance and flair.
Chuck Eddy, Rock and Roll Always Forgets — A Quarter Century of Music Criticism (Duke)
Longtime music critic Chuck Eddy rightly debunks the notion he's a "contrarian," even though he's often been on the opposite side of conventional wisdom regarding major rock acts. Independent-minded is the best way to characterize Eddy, whose tastes are far wider than his reputation suggests, and whose passion resonates throughout his critiques, reviews and commentary. This collection ranges from year-end summaries and singles' reviews to interviews, profiles and assessments. A large portion is devoted to metal and indie rock, but Eddy's interests extend into hip-hop/rap, various types of Latino rock, disco/dance music, electronica, and pop. Eddy's work attracts interest even when the music or people he's examining aren't your taste. Agreement with his viewpoint isn't necessary to appreciate his analysis. Still, it's frequently intriguing to read pre-chapter segments where he'll acknowledge he may have gone overboard with his rhetoric, or has since changed his mind about a song, album or artist. Chuck Eddy's broad knowledge and willingness to take controversial stands set him apart from the snark-oriented, gossip-driven patter too often labeled music criticism these days, and even his earliest material holds up well.
Jewly Hight, Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs (Baylor)
Here's the inevitable disclaimer. Jewly Hight is a valued contributor and friend. She's also arguably the nation's best writer covering the broad array of influences, styles and sounds grouped under the Americana banner. She's chosen eight women singer/songwriter whose lives and music exemplify the genre's best points in her current book. Whether it's Abigail Washburn's virtuoso brilliance, the diversified approaches of Michelle Shocked and Mary Gauthier, the searing lyrics and stories delivered by Lucinda Williams and Elizabeth Cook, or deft balancing between traditional and contemporary elements contained in Julie Miller, Victoria Williams and Ruthie Foster's songs, the reader always gets a broader understanding regarding these women's motivations and inspirations. Hight's equally interested in the creative process and the toll it takes on their lives, but avoids overly sentimental or maudlin accounts. These are tough, yet vulnerable women, and Right By Her Roots diligently highlights both their struggles and triumphs.
John Swenson, New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For The Survival of New Orleans (Oxford)
Add veteran music journalist John Swenson's gripping New Atlantis to the short list of essential volumes about the Crescent City's battle to regain its footing after a historic disaster. Katrina didn't just devestate the infrastructure, it uprooted thousands of people and fundamentally and forever altered a great American city's balance. Swenson examines this phenomenon through the lens of musicians who either stayed or returned to New Orleans after Katrina. He shows how Dr. John, Trombone Shorty, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Neville Brothers (including Aaron, who stayed in Nashville for an extended period) have made themselves and their music a key part of the restoration effort. He also explores New Orleans' now often toxic climate (extreme violence, racial conflict, gerrymandering, environmental squalor), linking those battles with the problems artists face trying to simultaneously keep alive, modernize and update a glorious culture and tradition. Not all the tales here are happy ones, but New Atlantis proves that rare merger of political analysis and musical coverage that enlightens its audience about both subjects with equal distinction.
Ben Westhoff, Dirty South: Outkast, Lil' Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (Chicago Review)
Anyone around when rap initially exploded onto the mainstream in the '80s can't help but marvel at how a sound once totally dominated by an East Coast cadre has spread across the nation and around the world. Most notably, the South now is not just a player, but a trend setter. Ben Westhoff's lively Dirty South covers the main architects behind the region's hip-hop rise, from 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell to Atlanta's Big Boi, Lil' Jon and T.I., Houston's Scarface and New Orleans' Juvenile. Westhoff doesn't attempt to maintain detachment from his subjects. He clearly enjoys the music and personalities. He makes no apologies for conduct that outrages and scandalizes moralists, as well as those who insist performers should uniformly present"positive" images. Nowhere is this more evident than in his interviews with DJ Smurf, Ms. Peachez, Souljah Boy, Lil' Wayne and Gucci Mane. These are openly materialistic, caustic and flashy types, contemptuous of those who don't share their views or travel in their circles. They are certainly successful, and often contribute to social causes, yet feel no compunction to embrace positions or stances others deem critical to community progress (like voting and attending college). But neither Westhoff or the rappers care what others think, and Dirty South peels back the covers on many intriguing, controversial performers and their lifestyles.
Jeffrey Schwartz, The Rock & Roll Alphabet: Featuring Photos from the Chuck Boyd Collection
Chuck Boyd was a prolific photographer during the '60s and '70s. He loved musicians, but his work sought to demonstrate their humanity rather than their outrageousness. Musician/author Jeffrey Schwartz now manages Boyd's collection (he died in 1991). This book arranges compelling pictures compiled in alphabetical order. Some are black and white, others color. They range from performance to stills, off-stage poses, reflective looks and occasional clowning posture. Personal favorites include Marvin Gaye on bended knee, a red-hot Ike and Tina Turner Revue (with Ike off camera), a carefully coiffed James Brown making certain his hair is in place, and the Beatles with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr sharing a joke without letting John Lennon and George Harrison in on it. Other highlights include extremely youthful depictions of Elton John and Neil Young, the Yardbirds (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton sharing glances) and Mick Jagger alone on stage sticking out his tongue at the audience. The book appropriately ends with a wonderful Ray Charles candid, beaming with his orchestra in the rear. The Rock & Roll Alphabet reinforces the old cliche about a picture being worth a 1,000 words — only these might be worth 10,000.
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