The best books about American roots music and why I love it

The Books I Picked & Why

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

By Peter Guralnick

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

Why this book?

When my wife and I moved to Nashville, I was stunned to realize that most forms of American popular music had been born within 500 miles of our new home, in an arc from New Orleans (jazz) to the Mississippi Delta (blues) to Memphis (rock ’n’ roll) to Nashville (bluegrass) to Bristol (country). 

I began reading eagerly about American popular music, and my reading led to writing—most recently my novel about the birth of country music, Lord of the Mountain. This list gives you some of my favorite books.

The best of these is also one of my favorite biographies of any kind, Peter Guralnick’s magnificent Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of his essential two-volume story of Elvis Presley and the birth of rock ’n’ roll.


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Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music

By Mark Zwonitzer, Charles Hirshberg

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music

Why this book?

Several years ago, my editor, knowing how much I love biography and music, sent me this book as a present. 

What a wonderful story! In my imagination I bounced along dirt roads with the Carters in 1927 as they traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, for the recording sessions that became known as the “big bang” of country music. After the sessions, I hitched a ride with A.P. Carter and his African American friend Esley Riddle as they drove into the hills and hollers, seeking songs for the Carter Family to record. 

By the time I returned from my travels, I was determined to write a book about these people and the music they created. The result was Lord of the Mountain. 


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Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

By Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins

Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

Why this book?

You can’t tell the story of rock ’n’ roll without diving into the life of the crazed, flamboyant musical entrepreneur Sam Phillips and his Memphis recording studio, Sun Records. There he discovered rock ’n’ roll pioneers Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison, and recorded blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, and Rosco Gordon. 

When you finish the book, though, I think you’ll agree that his greatest creation was Sam Phillips. 


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It Came from Memphis

By Robert Gordon

It Came from Memphis

Why this book?

In Memphis during the 1950s, there was Black and there was White, but the two rarely met. One of the few places where they did was in clubs and recording studios, and the sparks they struck started a fire that came to be called rock ’n’ roll. 

In this wonderfully rich stew of a book, author and filmmaker Robert Gordon walks the streets of Memphis, exploring the sights and sounds and smells of a unique, endlessly fascinating world. 

As Gordon’s publisher says, “This is a book about the weirdos, winos, and midget wrestlers who forged the rock ’n’ roll spirit.” As Rolling Stone says, “If you haven’t read this book, do it now.”


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Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

By Barry Mazor

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

Why this book?

You’ve probably never heard of him, but as much as any one person, Ralph Peer created American popular music. 

A student of early musical genres, Peer traveled the country with a couple of new-fangled gadgets called a microphone and a recording machine. He sought out and discovered music that had been considered low-brow, and he carved it into the grooves of records for the wider public to enjoy: country, blues, jazz, polka, folk music of all kinds. 

For two weeks in the summer of 1927, he engineered perhaps the most famous recording sessions of them all, the Bristol Sessions, the “big bang” of country music.


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