Roundup: Music biographies – the good, bad and just plain terrible

Dolly Parton's Bio

From the unauthorized to the autobiography, books about musicians can be amazingly good reads while others are just a waste of trees. Of course there are several reasons for this varying degree of quality.

The artist may not want to talk to the author which often leads to a book filled with lots of rehashing of common knowledge and a few anecdotes from the kid who sat next to the kid the artist babysat when they were three.

Because they know all about the artist’s innermost thoughts and secrets.

The awful
Gram Parsons – Hickory Wind (Ben Fong-Torres)
Really, they missed the point. And I hate to say that of Fong-Torres because he usually does a very good job. It’s almost like the Grievous Angel DVD. It’s really just a cleaned-up version of Gram’s life that reads like it’s been through the PR censors more than twice while basically ignoring essential characters (Emmylou, Phil Kaufman) and skipping the juicy stories about insane wives and life on the road.

Stevie Nicks – Lady of the Stars (Edward Wincentsen)
It’s not only ancient but even at the time it was written, it was inaccurate. It’s predecessor, Rock’s Mystical Lady is just as bad. From random speculations to stating the insanely obvious (she wears platform shoes and black chiffon AND she was a member of Fleetwood Mac… no… really?) Even the rumors are laughable. If you’re going to gossip at least find something relevant… it’s NOT that hard.

Linda Ronstadt – It’s So Easy (Mark Bego)
Pure, unadulterated sugar-coated gossip. I doubt there’s a single thing in this book that Linda hasn’t freely spoken about at some point or another. For some reason it still glosses over relationships and scandals trying to make them seem like big news the author knows about but isn’t at liberty to share. It’s like a kid on the playground shouting “I know something you don’t know!” Really, I’ve found all of Bego’s biographies (he has one on Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel and so on) to be lacking.

The not so bad…

Carter Family – Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? (Charles Hirshberg and Mark Zwonitzer)
It’s a little slow, but it does a great job giving insight to one of American music’s royal families. All of A.P.’s little quirks are discussed in an endearing way and the scenes are set so that you feel like you’re sitting on the porch watching it all happen. Unfortunately it is a big story to tell in one book and it sort of unwinds in an awkward way. Still it’s informative with lots of cute stories and just about every country music star is represented in some way. Plus there’s some great tales of the little Carters (June, Helen and Anita) growing up.

Fleetwood Mac – Storms: My Life with Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac (Carol Ann Harris)
Really, this book only covers a short period of time, albeit a highly interesting period. Written by Lindsey’s sometimes girlfriend during the Rumours sessions, there’s enough details but it’s important to remember that everyone’s minds were a little clouded back then. Some of it sounds dramatized and both Lindsey and Stevie get a good helping of not-so-sneaky criticisms. It’s an semi-insider’s view of a crazy time. Even with the slanted view it’s interesting enough for a big fan to read and try to decode.

The absolutely wonderful

Loretta Lynn – Coal Miner’s Daughter and Still Woman Enough (Loretta Lynn)
Pull up a chair and enjoy some peanut butter fudge. These books literally feel like you’re sitting down in the back of a bus or hanging out in the kitchen while Loretta tells you every story she can think of about her life. From the Kentucky coal region, married at 12, a mother at 13 and a country music star at 26 she’s not afraid to let down the barriers that many stars surround themselves with. She tells of the embarrassing teenage years, of her difficult marriage to Doo, her mental breakdowns and addiction to pills and just about everything inbetween.

Dolly Parton – My Life and Other Unfinished Business (Dolly Parton)
Like Loretta, Dolly will say just about anything that pops into her head (though she does keep a lot more private than Loretta does). This book also proves that she’s not the dumb blond she’s sometimes accused of being. However the absolute best thing about this book is that it’s available in an audio format with Ms. Parton herself narrating.

Hard Core Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle (Lauren St. John)
Again, what makes this book so good is the truth, no matter how unflattering or unfortunate it may be is told. No tiptoeing or detouring around drugs, arrests and every other aspect of Steve’s life. But because Steve and family contributed, it’s not gossip but more in acceptance that everyone already knows that he’s no Boy Scout.

Kinky Friedman – Texas Hold ‘Em: How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad (Kinky Friedman)
While not purely a musical biography, but it’s close. Plus, it’s funnier than a car full of clowns. There’s a little bit of everything: music, politics, satire, religion and a good helping of Kinky’s escapades with the “Hillybilly Dali Lama,” Willie Nelson.

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