Reading Vault

Quite a few posts I’ve written here have involved a lot of research. While Google is certainly a great starting point, truthfully the best information on country music is to be found in books. This page is dedicated to highlighting the books I’ve used in my research as well as ones I recommend for you all to read if you ever get the chance.

Last updated: Nov. 8, 2018
Underlined books indicate ones that I own. Other books are ones I checked out from the library at one point.

encyclopedia of country and western music“The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music” by Rick Marschall

Category: Biography/Autobiography

I say there’s no order to this list, but truthfully I put this here because it’s one of the books that jump-started this journey. I read the entry for Dave Akeman (“Stringbean”) and read about his murder. For me, this was shocking because I had never even heard of him. Plus, the entry for him was pretty tiny, so I read even further online about him which led to one of my first posts here. Overall though, this book has a near complete encyclopedia for every artist associated with country and western music. I wouldn’t say it’s the one you’d turn to if you’re looking for complete biographies, but for well-written, concise, biographies filled with rich details, this is a nice springboard for future research.

oxford handbook“The Oxford Handbook of Country Music” edited by Travis Stimeling with contributions from a countless number of journalists.

Category: Academic, Behind The Scenes, Essay

Of all the books I list here, this is definitely one of the tougher reads out there. The writing is academically focused with contributions from very well-known journalists working within the country music community. I can’t recommend this book enough. If you’re looking for a complete history of the genre, this won’t be the best source for you. If you’re looking for compelling arguments about traditional standards in country or explorations into other studies in country music such as race, sexuality, the “southerness” of country music and more, again, I can’t recommend this enough. Plus, every chapter includes a bibliography at the end (which is how I’ve discovered other books listed here).

country the music and the musicians“Country: The Music and the Musicians From the Beginning to the ’90s” by the Country Music Foundation.

Category: History

In terms of pure history books on the genre, this is hard to beat. True to its name, you really will find out about the roots of country music up until the ’90s explosion. In addition to this, there are also more oddball (but enlightening) chapters such as Paul Hemphill’s reflection on his life as a country music fan and Bill Ivey’s argument as to why industry is important when considering the history of the genre. Since it’s written by the Country Music Foundation too, it’s loaded with rare photos that truly capture moments in time. On a personal level, this is likely my favorite book for now.

reading country music“Reading Country Music” edited by Cecelia Tichi with contributions from a multitude of acclaimed authors.

Category: Academic, Behind The Scenes, Essay

Much like the Oxford Handbook of Country Music, this isn’t so much a complete deep-dive into the genre’s history as much as it is a collection of academic essays that explore under-reported topics in country music. One chapter discusses the star appeal of Dolly Parton while another chapter explores the Gothic elements of bluegrass (one of my favorite chapters on well … anything ever). Again, gender, class and image are also discussed as well. Unlike the Oxford book however, I find this to be a much easier read, bridging the gap nicely between informative and entertaining.

country music the rough guide“Country Music: The Rough Guide” by Kurt Wolff

Category: Biography/Autobiography, History

I love the way this book is formatted. It’s a book that gives a complete look at the history of the genre, but in a cool way. Every chapter has a number of pages dedicated to the movements as a whole (for example, there’s a chapter on the cowboy era, bluegrass, the outlaws … etc.) before switching to an encyclopedia of any artist associated with that timeframe. What’s notable about this encyclopedia is that it’s incredibly thorough. I was especially impressed with how the outlaw movement gave a spotlight to forgotten ones like Tompall Glaser and Steve Young. Overall, this seems to be an overlooked guide, but it’s a darn good one.

will the circle be unbroken“Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America” by the Country Music Hall of Fame and edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash

Category: History

This one shares a lot of similarities to “Country: The Music and the Musicians” only with different facts in certain places (leading to a more complete knowledge) and more knowledge about country music during the 1920s. Plus it also highlights country music up until 2005. Overall it’s another essential add to your collection if you’re looking more for a straightforward history of the country music world … and it has a foreword by Willie Nelson so of course you have to read it.

how nashville became music city u.s.a.“How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A.” by Michael Kosser

Category: Behind The Scenes, History

This is an interesting read. While the aforementioned history books have discussed the genre’s history through the artists and movements, this book describes it more through the business ventures and behind the scenes people (Jimmy Bowen and the Jordanaires for example). If you’re more interested in the business structure of Nashville, this is a really cool, easy read.


the nashville sound“The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music” by Paul Hemphill

Category: Behind The Scenes, History

This book was written in 1970, and yet it still holds up incredibly well today. This is the one history book on the genre that reads out like a novel, making it an incredibly easy, engaging, fun read that is definitely one I’d recommend for anyone just looking to get started with the genre’s history. Again, it’s more focused on some oddball type of stuff such as Bradley’s Barn and the rise of fairly “new” country artist Glen Campbell, but if you’re looking to “100%” your collection on your quest to being a country music scholar, I can’t recommend this enough.

southern music american music“Southern Music/American Music” by Bill C. Malone

Category: Other, History

Ironically enough the first Bill C. Malone book I’ve read is not “Country Music U.S.A.” but instead, this one. It does have a chapter on country music, but for the most part, true to the title, this is about southern music as a whole – blues, jazz, ragtime and more. For those who want a look at the South and how its musical landscape has changed from the early 1800s to where it was in the twentieth century, this is a fantastic read that helps fill in a lot of background that otherwise gets briefly mentioned in country music history books. At only 150-ish pages (depending on if you like to read extra material), this is also an incredibly easy read.

the selling sound“The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry” by Diane Pecknold

Category: Behind The Scenes, History

She contributed an essay to “The Oxford Handbook of Country Music,” but this is essentially an essay in book form. Of all the books I’ve read, enough can’t be said about Diane Pecknold’s scrupulous research. For anyone who remembers my piece on the country music business, this was a large contribution to my own research. She traces country music’s roots as a radio-based barn dance phenomenon all the way to when she declared that country music now competes favorably with rock and pop in the high tech arena of entertainment. It’s an illuminating, eye-opening read. I won’t lie, her academic style of writing can be more that a tad dry at times, but if you’re willing to learn, this is an utterly fantastic book.

bluegrass: a history“Bluegrass: A History” by Neil V. Rosenburg

Category: Other, History

If “Country Music U.S.A.” is the holy bible for country music, this has to be equivalent for bluegrass. From the beginning with Bill Monroe all the way to the ’80s when Ricky Skaggs was on the rise, this book chronicles bluegrass history in ways that country music history books simply can’t. You’ll learn about the pioneers of the genre as well as its birth as an actual genre of music, its famous festivals and the rest of the bands associated with it all. It does take a few detours toward the end that can be a tad dry, but otherwise, everything you could ever want to know about bluegrass is in this book.

Country Music U.S.A.“Country Music U.S.A. – 50th Anniversary Edition” by Bill C. Malone and Tracey E.W. Laird

Category: The book to end all country music books

They say if you want to know everything there is to know on country music, you turn to this book. That’s about the best summary anyone could write for this. This is truly the book you’ll want if you want the full picture of country music’s history. I was honestly surprised to see the outlaw movement not receive a specific chapter (although it is covered), but that’s what makes it all the more interesting of a read – you’ll find lots of little bits of information on country music you never knew no matter how many other books you’ve read. I do wish Tracey E.W. Laird’s contribution covered the last 20 years in the industry a little better, but as it is, if you want to truly be a know-it-all on country music, this is the book for you.

Coal Miner's Daughter“Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn

Category: Biography/Autobiography

If you’re a country music historian looking for that first book to read to start your journey, this may honestly be the best place to start. Loretta Lynn writes this book as if you were sitting in her living room with her listening to her stories. Her story is what country music is all about too – from her upbringing to her struggles and finally to her success, this is a humorous, witty and fun account of one of country music’s best. It won’t take you long to read it either. Trust me, once you pick this up, you won’t want to put it down.

Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville“Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville” by Michael Streissguth

Category: Event, History

As you probably guessed by now, this is the book you want if you’re looking for information on country music’s outlaw movement. The catch here is that the book is pretty much focused on Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, with each narrative bouncing off of one another to weave together the story. With contributions and sections about Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver and others though, this certainly doesn’t skimp the most important details. What’s surprising too is that it also focuses on the scene around Nashville in general during this time as well, from the everyday culture to the business culture and beyond. Overall, this is a very informative, entertaining read.

Johnny Cash: The Life“Johnny Cash: The Life” by Robert Hilburn

Category: Biography/Autobiography

There’s a lot of books on Johnny Cash. There’s a lot of books on Johnny Cash I haven’t read yet. With that said, I feel safe in saying that this has to be one of, if not the best books on the man’s life. Robert Hilburn takes a look at the good and bad of Cash’s life and doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It really paints the picture of an artist who had his fair share of struggles, and the final chapters are some of the finest writing I’ve ever read. At over 600 pages, this book will keep you busy, but if you’re at all interested in Cash’s life or country music history in general, this is essential reading. I’ll close by saying that watching the movie, “Walk The Line” is fine, but if you want the real, complete picture, pick up this book.

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