Cryin’, Dyin’, or Goin’ Somewhere: A Country Music Reading List

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

There’s an old chestnut that says the older you get, the more you like country music. Even if you don’t relate to the guitar twang or the singers’ white rural experience, age lets you relate to the stories of struggle, heartbreak, and loss.

My dad raised me on old jazz and country, and his talented pianist brother Rick played country music professionally, from the dive bars of Phoenix, Arizona to Waylon Jennings’ touring band. Dad’s family were rural people from Oklahoma farms who moved to rural Arizona, then to the city. No matter how long he lived in Phoenix, he never lost his love of country humor or oration. Dad always said: People in country songs are either cryin’, dyin’, or goin’ somewhere. He also told an old joke: What happens when you play a country song backwards? You get your horse back, you get your wife back, you get your job back, and you sober up.

Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys were his favorite because they had the danceable, upbeat rhythm of jazz, but Dad loved different types of country. He didn’t like Johnny Cash, though. Cash didn’t swing. I’ve always owned old country albums, including Johnny Cash. My rock ‘n’ roll and jazz albums just got more play until time proved the old wisdom. Dad’s been sick for a few years. The blue chords of jazz resonate with me more than the saddest country ballad, but as I lose him in stages, and as I’ve labored and lost through the years, I’ve reached that age where I relate to country’s heartbreak more than I would like.

Country is a rich tradition that deserves an equally rich literary tradition. Collected here are some of my favorite stories that explore and celebrate it. Too many of my favorites do not appear online, like David Eason’s Oxford American “That Same Lonesome Blood,” about singer Steve Young, Barry Mazor’s “Make Me Wanna Holler: Loretta Lynn” from No Depression, and John Biguenet’s “The DeZurik Sisters: Two farm girls who yodeled their way to the Grand Ole Opry.” You can find them in copies of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing anthologies. The online pieces here should leave you shopping for copies.

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Constant Sorrow” (David Gates, The New Yorker, August 13, 2001)

Ralph Stanley was one of the architects of Bluegrass whose band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, revolutionized American vernacular music and took them all the way to Carnegie Hall. Born in southwestern Virginia, the legendary banjo picker still lived out there at age 74 when David Gates profiled him. Gates is a journalist and novelist who used to work for Newsweek, but he’s also a skilled country musician who can stay up jamming into the wee hours. I briefly played drums with his Bennington College country band one semester, and he’s as lively a musician as he is brilliant a music writer. For this story, Gates accompanied Stanley on a tour and joined him at services at Hale Creek Primitive Baptist Church. It’s a fascinating read from a person who loves country music so deeply he wants to understand it from the inside.

A Lone Star State of Mind” (Mitch Myers, Magnet, September 24, 2002)

Texas multi-instrumentalist Doug Sahm was a legend during his 50-year recording career, and he remains a legend now, long after he died. Hailing from San Antonio, Sahm embodied Texas’ multicultural identity, playing everything from fiddle to steel guitar, and honky-tonk to Cajun to 60s psychedelic music. He’s known as a country musician, but his interests and abilities make him more of an American mutt, spanning genre, and bigger than Texas. Writer Mitch Myers untangles the myth from the musician, and finds good reason for the self-destructive Sahm’s enduring stature. Sahm was what Myers beautifully describes as a “redneck-hippie“ and “fast-talking cosmic cowboy,“ back when country musicians could have more fluid identities than the modern, stifling big hat/American flag/pickup truck strictures. Sahm’s body of work is all over the place, and Myers worked hard to make sense of it all. “In a world where American music martyrs like Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons command respect in terms of comprehensive reissues,“ he writes, “there’s no retrospective boxed set being planned for Sahm.“ This story led me to Sahm’s music, which I’m still discovering.

Imagining the Delmore Brothers” (William Gay, Oxford American, April, 2003)

Those who love Southern literature know Tennesse’s William Gay as a singular gothic novelist and short story writer. He published his first book at age 57. I’ve read his collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down multiple times, and I rarely do that. Thankfully he wrote nonfiction about music for the Oxford American, which he rarely did. His 2000 music piece “Sitting on Top of the World“ is not online, but his essay “Imaging the Delmore Brothers“ is equally fine work that imbues the musical past with life, and includes a surprising family connection to these musicians.

There was a great deal of Southern music recorded in the ’20s and early ’30s, until the Depression threw the skids to it. There were string bands beyond counting, and in Mississippi everyone seemed to have a guitar, and the blues seemed to be seeping out of the earth itself. This early Southern music had a common ancestry: endlessly recycled lines of poetry that had become a sort of archetype, or a code you could decipher with a guitar and a little skill.

The Delmores fused all these elements and brought something new to the mix—a tight, sweet harmony that had never been recorded before.

A long time ago I asked my mother, “What were they like back then?“

“Well,“ she said, “they were just nice soft-spoken country boys. Except when they played music. Then it was like they were…taken over or something.“

Sex, Heartbreak and Blue Suede” (Robbie Fulks, GQ, July 2003)

When Chicago musician Robbie Fulks got invited to play at Nashville’s venerated Grand Ole Opry, the Carnegie Hall of country, he couldn’t figure out why. A self-described “pop-punk-hillbilly obscurity,“ he uses the opportunity to tell the Opry’s story, how this sacred institution shaped American music, diverged from modern mass-market country, and why its culture of authenticity and respect still matters. This is a fun, on-the-ground story about a place whose history is alive and kicking.

LMPC via Getty Images

Push Play” (Chris Dennis, Guernica, April 6, 2020)

Dolly Parton is pure country but bigger than country, because she is bigger than life, and yet, you can’t talk about country music without talking about her. And are more sides to her career and influence than a hundred stories can contain. In this personal essay, one young man looks at his past tastes to explore the role Parton played in his ideas of masculinity and difficult coming out. “I think part of my magic, if I have any at all,” Parton once said, “is that I look totally fake but am so totally real.”

Living with Dolly Parton” (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 16, 2018)

Parton’s music and persona are easy to love, but they are not always easy to love publically, and as our tastes change with time, we often see our favorite musicians’ flaws. Like Chris Dennis in Guernica, professor Jessica Wilkerson reconciles with Parton and her own past fandom, asking difficult questions in this very probing piece: “I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.“

Dolly Parton was one of two women I learned to admire growing up in East Tennessee. The other was Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Volunteers, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. One flamboyantly female, the other a masculine woman. Both were arguably the best at what they did, had fantastic origins stories of hardscrabble lives in rural Tennessee, and told us that with enough grit and determination, we could succeed. Queer kids and nerdy girls, effeminate boys and boyish girls who desired something more than home took comfort in their boundary crossing. From these women they learned that they too could strike out on their own while maintaining both their authenticity and ties to home.

This would be a trio of Parton stories, but Kimberly Chun’s excellent “Touched by a Woman: Dolly Parton Sings ’bout Peace, Love & Understanding” in Creative Loafing is not online, but it deserves a shout out, because it’s fantastic.

Willie Nelson at 70” (Gene Santoro, The Nation, October 30, 2003)

Lots of legends aren’t on this list: George Jones, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff. As with Dolly Parton, you can’t talk country without talking Willie Nelson. I’ve put these three Nelson stories in chronological order, to see him age, though in a sense, Nelson always seemed old to me. The country-stoner legend marked his milestone birthday with the two-CD The Essential Willie Nelson. Musician and critic Gene Santoro took the occassion to assess Nelson’s career, his appeal, and his enduring legacy. This is what the best reviews do: start small and go large, from a timely peg to a timeless exploration. An Austin-based source told Santoro: “Willie is the Buddha. He’s also a duet whore.” “In terms of consistent quality,“ Santoro writes, “he’s right, but Nelson’s duets, which have included outings with Charles, Cash and Dylan as well as U2 and Julio Iglesias, if nothing else do reveal Nelson’s prismatic musical curiosity.“

All Roads Lead to Willie Nelson” (Patrick Doyle, Rolling Stone, September 4, 2014)

The life story of the country music great, now 81. “Over the course of 30 interviews with his friends, family and band members, a lot of the same words come up – generous, charismatic, loyal and, as Keith Richards has said, ‘a bit of a mystery.‘”

The ranch and surrounding area are known to locals as Willie World. Nelson also owns Pedernales Cut-N-Putt, a nine-hole course you can see from his house. Next to that is a recording studio, and condos for friends, family and longtime crew members. Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse, a burger joint full of old Nelson posters and stage props, opened by his late stage manager Poodie Locke, is down the road on Highway 71; Nelson has been known to drop by for a surprise set. Drive to downtown Austin, and you’ll find the new Willie Nelson statue on Willie Nelson Boulevard.

With his youngest kids, Lukas and Micah, grown up and out of the house, Nelson spends his rare nontouring days driving around, listening to his Sirius XM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, sometimes going off-roading and carving out paths. “I’ve thought I was going to die a few times with him in the truck,” says his daughter Paula. “He’s like a kid, doing the whole cowboys-and-Indians thing. It’s his playground.”

Trigger” (Michael Hall, Texas Monthly, January 21, 2013)

Since buying it in a Nashville guitar shop in 1969, Willie Nelson has played the same Martin N-20 classical guitar. He named it Trigger. “Trigger’s like me,” Nelson told reporter Michael Hall. “Old and beat-up.”

Willie became the guitarist he is by playing this instrument, which he has worn and shaped with his own hands, working his very personality into the wood until it sounds like no other guitar on earth. Most nylon-stringed guitars have a rich, round tone, and they are difficult to tell apart. Trigger is so distinctive—low tones that thump like they have mud on them, high ones that chime like glass—that you can hear one or two notes on the radio and know immediately whom you’re listening to.

No guitar is as beloved—or as famed. On Trigger’s face you can see the topography of modern music, the countless hours Willie has spent playing country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, swing, folk, reggae, thirties pop, forties pop, and eighties pop. Trigger was there at the very beginning of outlaw country. He was there at the first Farm Aid. And he was there when Willie serenaded President Jimmy Carter. He has shared stage and studio with Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. He has hung from Willie’s neck as tens of thousands of fans sang along to “Whiskey River.” And he has sat in Willie’s lap as Willie comforted friends, such as the time the two of them played “Healing Hands of Time” to Darrell and Edith Royal in their home after their daughter’s death, and then again nine years later after their son’s death.

Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton backstage at the 53rd annual CMA Awards, 2019. Robby Klein/Getty Images for CMA

Come Here My Song” (Aaron Gilbreath, Longreads, June 11, 2015)

The first story I ever wrote for Longreads was about country music. It uses a night at Trout’s, the last original honky-tonk in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley, to explore the unique sound and origins of California country music, particularly Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. I’d traveled to Bakersfield to do some reporting for a book about the region, and I started my two-week reporting trip at Trout’s. Instead of living country music history, I found a tightknit, fun-loving community of karaoke singers who revealed as much about this evolving region as it did about country.

Branded Man” (Andy McLenon and Grant Alden, No Depression, November 1, 2003)

Speaking of Bakersfield: When you sing ”Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys,” let’s never forgot Merle Haggard. Yeah yeah, this song’s not about him, but country wouldn’t be country without him. For No Depression, the magazine that celebrated outlaw and underground country, two writers celebrated California’s rural poet, the son of cotton pickers, who brought a lot of poetry and rebellion to country, and made California a place for serious country music, as much as others had made it a place for pop songs and folk tunes. Here writers Andy McLenon and Grant Alden make a serious case that, in their words, ”Merle Haggard is our greatest living singer and songwriter. Country singer and songwriter, if you must limit him. Just do not argue the point.” Take that, Waylon and Willie.

For Women Musicians, Maybelle Carter Set The Standard And Broke The Mold” (Tift Merritt, NPR, August 13, 2019)

“If Maybelle Carter — mother of country music, without whom country and rock and roll guitar would not exist — can’t make the great guitar player list, how can women musicians expect to be seen at all?”

Despite her many decades in the business and so many records sold, Maybelle Carter hardly received any honors during the peak of her career. Today, decades later, many, many more women are on the road; I imagine that would make Maybelle deeply happy. Women managers, women running production, sound and lights, women booking venues, women playing bass, women drummers, women rocking, women raising children on the road: We are Maybelle’s spiritual granddaughters. In the next 20 years, we will continue to bloom in music. But more and more, the world listens to music without context, without credits — no players, no provenance, no lineage — despite that information being readily accessible to us all. Social media allows everyone their own center stage; self-aggrandizing without depth perception — without a deeper sense of context in the present or in the history that has come before us — is an accepted way of moving through the world. This makes it even more essential to note how deeply the work of Maybelle Carter contributed to the music that follows her — for both women and men. Acknowledgement for the work of women — seen and unseen— is the only way to push this story forward for the daughters to come.

The Story of Country Music’s Great Song Writing Duo” (Dylan Jones, Longreads, September 2, 2019)

Every genre has its iconic songs. Country has countless. One of them is called ”Wichita Lineman.” Although the title suggests football, the lineman in this song worked on electric lines along a highway. Written and recorded by Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, this is one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century, surprising as that sounds, and author Dylan Jones wanted to understand why, and how it came into being. The book he wrote about the song, Wichita Lineman, tells an incredible story of hard work, musical brilliance, and pure luck. We ran an excerpt.