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

Who am I?

From my earliest days I was surrounded by music, from Friday night family band to our musical Christmas card on a bright red record to trumpet trios played with my dad and brother. I went to the University of Southern California on a trumpet scholarship, then took a detour from music and tried writing. I liked it. To this day, one of my favorite things is combining these two interests to create novels, stories, and plays about music. Since moving to Nashville, I’ve immersed myself in American popular music and have loved returning to my roots. 

I wrote...

Lord of the Mountain

By Ronald Kidd,

Book cover of Lord of the Mountain

What is my book about?

This is the story of a fictional character, thirteen-year-old Nate Owens, who witnesses one of the seminal events in American music, a series of 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, where the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and other mothers and fathers of country music were first discovered. 

Nate’s family has a secret, and it’s wrapped up in a song. But his preacher father hates music, and when he catches Nate in Bristol with the Carters, he comes down hard on him. So Nate sets out in search of himself and the song he thinks will heal his family. Set during the “big bang” of country music, Nate’s journey of self-discovery parallels that of a region finding its voice for the first time.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Last Train to Memphis

By Peter Guralnick,

Book cover of Last Train to Memphis

Why did I love 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.

By Peter Guralnick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Last Train to Memphis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Written with grace, humor, and affection, Last Train to Memphis has been hailed as the definitive biography of Elvis Presley. It is the first to set aside the myths and focus on Elvis' humanity in a way that has yet to be duplicated.

A New York Times Notable Book

Winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award

"Elvis steps from the pages. You can feel him breathe. This book cancels out all others." --Bob Dylan

From the moment that he first shook up the world in the mid 1950s, Elvis Presley has been one of the most vivid and…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Mark Zwonitzer, Charles Hirshberg,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first major biography of the Carter Family, the musical pioneers who almost single-handedly created the sounds and traditions that grew into modern folk, country, and bluegrass music.

Meticulously researched and lovingly written, it is a look at a world and a culture that, rather than passing, has continued to exist in the music that is the legacy of the Carters—songs that have shaped and influenced generations of artists who have followed them.

Brilliant in insight and execution, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is also an in-depth study of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter, and their bittersweet story…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Good Rockin' Tonight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Memphis, Tennessee. The early 1950s. The Mississippi rolls by, and there's a train in the night. Down on Beale Street there's hard-edged blues, on the outskirts of town they're pickin' hillbilly boogie.

At Sam Phillips' Sun Records studio on Union Avenue, there's something different going on. "Shake it, baby, shake it!" "Go, cat, go!" "We're gonna rock..."

This is where rock 'n' roll was born-the record company that launched Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. The label that brought the world, "Blue Suede Shoes," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Breathless," "I Walk the Line,"…

It Came from Memphis

By Robert Gordon,

Book cover of It Came from Memphis

Why did I love 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.”

By Robert Gordon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked It Came from Memphis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Vienna in the 1880s. Paris in the 1920s. Memphis in the 1950s. These are the paradigm shifts of modern culture. Memphis then was like Seattle with grunge or Brooklyn with hip-hop―except the change was more than musical: Underground Memphis embraced African American culture when dominant society abhorred it. The effect rocked the world. We’re all familiar with the stars’ stories, but It Came From Memphis runs with the the kids in that first rock and roll audience, where they befriended the older blues artists, the travails of blazing a rock and roll career path where one had not existed (nor…

Book cover of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

Why did I love 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.

By Barry Mazor,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2015 Belmont Book Award Winner

This is the first biography of Ralph Peer, the revolutionary A&R man and music publisher who pioneered the recording, marketing, and publishing of blues, jazz, country, gospel, and Latin music, and this book book tracks his role in such breakthrough events as the recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” the first country recording sessions with Fiddlin’ John Carson, his discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the popularizing of Latin American music during World War II, and the postwar transformation of music on the airwaves that set the stage for the dominance of R&B,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in rock music, Elvis Presley, and music?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about rock music, Elvis Presley, and music.

Rock Music Explore 205 books about rock music
Elvis Presley Explore 31 books about Elvis Presley
Music Explore 557 books about music