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Booked: How Country Acts Are Using Biographies to Enhance Their Brands

These books may document careers, but in some cases, they might be a step towards other platforms like documentaries.

Country artists typically have a booking agent, but a bundle of singers now have books, too.

At least nine new biographical titles written by artists or by people close to them are hitting the market, providing more insight to their backstory or their art. Some — such as Craig Morgan’s God, Family, Country: A Memoir, penned with Jim DeFelice; Margo Price’s Maybe We’ll Make It: A Memoir; Blake Shelton’s Happy Anywhere, authored by lifelong friend Carol Cash Large; and Kelly Lang’s I’m Not Going Anywhere, featuring a foreword from the late Olivia Newton-John — use a fairly standard chronology to reveal the history of their subjects.

But others take a different tack. Rodney Crowell and John McEuen focus on specific aspects of their work. Crowell’s Word for Word lays out the lyrics to his best material, paired with observations about his life and numerous photos. McEuen documents The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s signature release with Will the Circle Be Unbroken: The Making of a Landmark Album, featuring recollections about the material and its all-star cast — including Maybelle Carter and Roy Acuff — as well as photos from the 1971 sessions, produced by William E. McEuen at Nashville’s Woodland Sound.

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“My brother’s photographs were the impetus for the original idea because for all these years, these photos have been an inch-and-a-half by an inch on the CD covers,” John McEuen says. “It’s a little small. Now they’re bigger.”

Two other titles address male bonding. Willie Nelson’s latest in an expanding line of books — Me and Paul, written with David Ritz — recounts the singer’s wacky, lengthy relationship with drummer Paul English, who also inspired the song from which the book takes its title. And Walker Hayes co-wrote Glad You’re Here: Two Unlikely Friends Breaking Bread and Fences with his neighbor, Craig Allen Cooper, the subject of his inspirational song “Craig.” Hayes and Cooper alternate in the text, each looking at the same events from their own point of view.

“I’ve always held authors to a higher esteem merely because I can finish a product as a songwriter in a matter of hours, and when it’s all said and done, it might be 16 lines of new material that I’ve created,” Hayes says. “I’ve always looked at books thinking, ‘Man, what a wild imagination someone has to have to write a story that detailed and create all this furniture and fill it up — and for it to have a purpose.”

The most obvious purposes for biographies are to burnish a legacy or to capture a bit of history that might otherwise be lost to the ages. Both of those are at work in The Jordanaires: The Story of the World’s Greatest Backup Vocal Group. The late Gordon Stoker, who served most often as a spokesman for the quartet, receives an “as told by” credit, since Michael Kosser and son Alan Stoker organized a series of Gordon’s interviews from numerous sources, including several hours of stories he taped prior to his 2013 death. Those tales are threaded together with biographical detail, insight from other music pros and photos with some of the musicians that the group backed, including Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Rick Nelson and Faron Young. It also fulfills a request that Gordon received numerous times during his life.

“He had these great stories, and everybody would even tell him that ‘you need to write a book’ or ‘you need to hire somebody to write a book on you,’ ” recalls Alan Stoker, who is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum curator of recorded sound collections. “He would always say ‘nobody would want to hear that’ or ‘I don’t have time’ — really, he didn’t have the patience to do it. He was always busy.”

The pandemic, of course, left most artists with unscheduled time off. Lang dug through boxes while cleaning out the garage she shares with husband T.G. Sheppard and readdressed a book she attempted years ago that includes a dive into her battle with cancer.

Meanwhile, Crowell’s lyric book spent less time in development.

“I’d never thought about it before, ever,” he says. “It just popped into my head one day.” Word for Word is chock-full of the original handwritten lyrics to numerous hit songs and key tracks, with line-throughs or blurred ink stains intact. The photos — with Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark and Crowell’s dog from the 1970s, Banjo — provide a visual understanding of his mentors and muses.

“I wasn’t a really good archivist until I started working on Chinaberry Sidewalks,” he says, citing his 2011 autobiography. “Luckily, I had 30, 32 notebooks that I didn’t ditch. In recent years, I held on to scraps of paper. Too bad I didn’t hold on to all those air sickness bags that I wrote down couplets on. That would have been nice.”

A book is obviously a different medium than a song, and comes with a separate set of parameters: rhyming is not required, and authors don’t typically repeat key refrains multiple times in a short space. But good prose often has a rhythm to it — Crowell’s has a distinct cadence — and finding the right voice is a challenge.

“When I sat down at first to write, I felt this insecurity, thinking, ‘I’m going to be an author now. Maybe it needs to be a little more tied up,’ ” Hayes recalls. “Then I realized that people are used to hearing my voice, and I do quite a bit of talking publicly, so [I decided to] ‘just write it like I would say it,’ which was very comforting to come to that conclusion.”

The primary things that readers are looking for are insight on the motivations and details of the artists’ lives and their music. The opening scene in Nelson’s book — involving Nelson, English, a gun and an oddly behaved Jerry Lee Lewis onstage in Memphis the night of Presley’s death — is riveting. Price reveals a life-threatening teenage drinking spree in which she blacked out from the equivalent of 30 shots of vodka. Stoker relates how his repeated mispronunciation of the chorus in Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” drew out the background vocals.

These books may document careers, but in some cases, they might be a step along the way to additional efforts on other platforms.

“I’m hoping this will lead to a documentary, and then maybe to a stage play, and then maybe to a movie,” Alan Stoker says of the Jordanaires book, noting how the Broadway production Jersey Boys stemmed from The Four Seasons’ catalog.

In the case of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band book, it provides an intimate companion to an album that formed an unlikely bridge between a young Los Angeles band of hippies and older, conservative Nashville country singers. Reading it while listening to the album adds extra depth to a project that already felt intimate to several generations of fans.

“Why was I there? That’s what we were all trying to figure out,” John McEuen says. Bandmate Jeff Hanna “was singing with Doc Watson and Maybelle Carter, and [bandmate] Jimmy Ibbotson was playing with Vassar Clements. It was [thrilling], and then we’ve become what we were emulating.”

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