Posts Tagged With: Chris Morris

Fifteen minutes at No. 15 on the best-of-2015 list

NDTRRlogoWith Christmas approaching and holiday buying season in full effecthint, hint — yearend best-of lists are beginning to roll in. And I’m happy to note that “Comin’ Right at Ya” has made it onto a really nice countdown alongside some very choice company in No Depression’s book column, “The Reading Room’s Best Books of 2015” as compiled by Henry Carrigan (who was kind enough to include me in another column last month about bookish influences).


“Comin’ Right at Ya” appears at No. 15 on No Depression’s top-40, right between legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty and “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau. Heck yeah, I’ll take that — especially since we quoted a few of Christgau’s “Consumer Guide” reviews of various Asleep at the Wheel albums in the book.

Being at No. 15 also puts “Comin’ Right at Ya” ahead of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir “Reckless” at No. 18; my American Music Series colleague Chris Morris’ “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue” at No. 20; Texas country icon Willie Nelson’s “It’s a Long Story: My Life” at No. 35; and (how about that) my idol Greil Marcus’ “Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns” at No. 39.

As for the books at the top end of No Depression’s list, the No. 1 placement of Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive and much-acclaimed “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” is no surprise. The same goes for Patti Smith’s “M Train” at No. 3 and Kristin Hersh’s gorgeously painful American Music Series title “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt,” plus memoirs by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon at No. 9 and Elvis Costello at No. 10.

I’d also like to note that it’s extremely cool to see my buddy Steve Knopper’s “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” come in two notches ahead of Ray Benson and me, at No. 13 — even though I don’t want him to be getting any ideas about that.


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November brings another first: A two-for-one bonus

October has given way to November, but I’m still regularly checking in on the foursome that I call The Books of October. And while none of them are hitting the toppermost of the poppermost just yet (still waiting, world!), there are some encouraging signs along the amazon.

“Los Lobos: Dream in Blue” is up to 14 reviews on amazon, all of them perfect five-star scores. Enough favorable reviews have amassed for “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” to pull its overall amazon average above four stars. And “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt” is still getting great reviews on and off amazon (even, ye Gods, from Pitchfork — a truly unexpected pleasure).

As for yours truly, Team Benson/Menconi’s “Comin’ Right at Ya” has a half-dozen amazon reviews now, all of them five-star, which is a nice start. And in the process of checking up on it the other day, I noticed a brief interlude when I had not one but two entries in the top-20 of amazon’s country-books chart. It came to pass that “Losering” pulled within a couple of spots of “CRAY” — also in the vicinity of yet another friend, Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer book (which I wrote about in the paper earlier this year).

As you can see below, screen-grabs of such moments are the stuff of cheap-thrill dreams.


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Pulling for friends along the amazon

October’s an exciting month for me, book-wise, because I have a lot of irons in the fire and books to root for right now. I’ve got my own book out, of course, to go with a pair of just-published titles in the American Music Series I co-edit for University of Texas Press — Chris Morris’ “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue,” and Kristin Hersh’s spectacular “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 3.59.21 PMThose three books came out via UT Press on Oct. 1. Five days later, my good friend Steve Knopper published his latest book, “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” (Scribner). It should come as no surprise tht I’ve been obsessively checking amazon every day to follow the progress of this quartet of books. And while none of them are exactly burning up the charts just yet, they all seem to be off to solid starts. How the sales picture will turn out over the long haul, that’s up to the universe. All we can do is hope for the best.

At the moment, however, the most interesting metric to track is not sales positions but reader reviews, which have become increasingly important for us lowly mid-list types struggling for traction in a crowded marketplace. Get a bunch of reviews, and that might help sales along. Morris’ Los Lobos book is farthest along in that regard, already with eight reviews — all of them with the maximum five-star rating. Nice, very nice.

Vic“Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” has just three reader reviews so far (two of them five-star), but I expect that pace to pick up in a hurry. National Public Radio recently reviewed “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” and said it is “not only one of the best books of the year, it’s one of the most beautiful rock memoirs ever written.” I thought the same thing when I read the original manuscript, and reviews like that have inspired UT Press to give this one the maximum push — they’re thinking that 50,000 in sales might be possible. Well, on behalf of the entire American Music Series list…I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, Team Benson/Menconi’s “Comin’ Right at Ya” has just a single amazon reader review so far, but at least it’s of the five-star variety. That takes a little of the sting out of the fact that I recently got my first-ever one-star amazon review, for “Losering” — more than three years after its original publication date. A reviewer identified as “Amelia, Austin Texas” called it “A weird book” in a four-sentence dismissal that questioned if I’d ever actually spoken to Ryan Adams (snicker) before concluding, “This book sucks.” A more generous soul would refrain from noting that this particular reviewer has a “helpful” rating of just 38 percent, but I am not that person. So I’ll just say this: Bless her heart.

MJStill, that’s nothing compared to what’s happened on amazon thus far to Steve’s Michael Jackson book, which is being savaged by hyper-protective Jackson partisans who will not tolerate anything less than 100 percent glowing praise of their hero. So even though “MJ” earned a Booklist starred review that called it “very powerful” as well as an excerpt in Rolling Stone (where Steve has been a contributing editor for many years), four of his six amazon reader reviews are one-star takedowns accusing him of slander and bias.

Steve is one of the most all-around fair-minded people, let alone writers, I’ve ever known. But given what a fraught subject Jackson continues to be, I was afraid something like this might happen, after the amazon-reviewer reception given to 2012’s “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson” by Steve’s Rolling Stone colleague Randall Sullivan. “Untouchable” drew so many anonymous one-star slams from Jackson partisans who didn’t appear to have even read the book that the New York Times cited it as a prime example of books victimized by orchestrated campaigns of bad amazon reviews as “attack weapons.”

After the attacks subsided, “Untouchtable” eventually picked up enough decent reviews to bump its overall average (for 389 total reviews) up above three stars, which is at least respectable. I hope a similarly kind long-term fate awaits “MJ” — and also success, whatever that means nowadays, for all four of these books.

ADDENDUM (9/17/2016): Well how about that — another of Steve Knopper’s books comes in at No. 44 on a great list to be on.

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…And a time to publish: Los Lobos

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 3.59.21 PMMeanwhile, the American Music Series rolls on as we strive to achieve critical mass (we hope!). Eddie Huffman’s “John Prine: In Spite of Himself” is officially published as of this week; and here is the cover for another of our upcoming titles, “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue” by Chris Morris. That will be out in October from University of Texas Press, at the same time as “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt” by Kristin Hersh.

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Hello in there: More From UT Press

PrineEddie“Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown” was published in the fall of 2012 as the second book in University of Texas Press’ American Music Series (following Don McLeese’s “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”), and it’s taken a while for us to get it going. As originally envisioned, we’re supposed to be putting out four AMS titles a year — two every spring, two every fall. Some right fine books have come out on Merle Haggard in 2013 and the Flatlanders in 2014, but we haven’t been able to maintain that schedule. Finally, however, we’ve found our footing enough that the pace of publication is about to pick up.

First off, the next American Music Series book coming out will be “John Prine: In Spite of Himself” by my fellow North Carolina music journalist Eddie Huffman. The official publication date is March 15, and it’s our series’ first book to come out in a hardcover version (also, it’s the first with an actual photograph of the subject on the cover). I was one of this book’s primary editors and the process wasn’t always easy. As Eddie writes of me in the book’s acknowledgements, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “He and I are probably both glad he won’t have to ask me ‘How are the rewrites coming?’ next time we cross paths at Cat’s Cradle or the PNC Arena.”

UTPressLogoBut my peskiness and his hard work paid off with a book we’re all quite proud of. And so far, the early pre-release response has been gratifying indeed. “In Spite of Himself” picked up a very fine review in Publishers Weekly, which also named it one of this spring’s most-anticipated books. Kirkus weighed in with a nice review, too, and there are a number of other reviews and reading-type events in the works as well. Eddie’s blog will be the place to keep up with all of that, so bookmark it. I think Eddie did a fantastic job on this book, and I hope you’ll like it.

Beyond that, here’s what else is on the AMS schedule so far:

October 2015

“Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt,” by Kristin Hersh
“Los Lobos: Dream in Blue,” by Chris Morris

Spring 2016

“Madonnaland,” by Alina Simone
Mary J. Blige (title to come), by Danny Alexander

Fall 2016

T-Bone Burnett (title to come), by Lloyd Sachs

Spring 2017

Chrissie Hynde (title to come), by Adam Sobsey

To be scheduled

Tom Jones (title to come), by Jon Langford

The book on the list I’m most excited about is “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt” by Kristin Hersh, leader of the band Throwing Muses and one of Chesnutt’s closest friends. I was blown away when I saw her manuscript because it’s spine-tinglingly brilliant, the best book of any sort I’ve read in years. Seriously, it gave me chills. I’m thrilled to be a part of that one, and I can’t wait for everyone else to read it.

Meanwhile, you might notice that yours truly is not on the AMS schedule anywhere. But I do have a book coming out on UT Press in October, one I think turned out really well. It’s called “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel,” which I co-wrote with Asleep at the Wheel founder and guiding light Ray Benson. I’ll have more to say about this project later, but for now there’s a bit more about it here.

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News about the American Music Series, and me — I’ll be Asleep At The Wheel

So “Losering” is still semi-current and getting some attention here and there; I’m curious to see whether or not the next Ryan Adams album (whenever one emerges) might generate some more interest. But the book has been out there for more than six months, which means it’s high time to move along to the next thing. I’m happy to have some news about that, as well as the University of Texas Press American Music Series.

RayBensonMy next book will be co-writing a memoir with Ray Benson, founder and guiding light of the Western swing band Asleep At The Wheel, and it’s a project I could not be more excited about. I grew up in Texas during the ’70s progressive-country era, and I wrote my UT Master’s thesis about the Armadillo World Headquarters. I’ve always had a soft spot for that era’s icons, and as icons go Ray is one of the best — a fantastic musician and raconteur who, as the saying goes, has been around the world twice and talked to everybody at least once. This should be a raucous good time.

So that’s what I’ll be working on for the next year or so. While the Benson book is also for UT Press, this one won’t actually be part of the UT Press American Music Series. But work there continues apace. As mentioned previously, David Cantwell’s “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” is next up, out in September, to be followed by John T. Davis’s “The Flatlanders: One More Road” in 2014. I’ve been asked to keep mum about several other titles in the works, but here are the ones in the pipeline that I can tell you about:

Los Lobos, by Chris Morris
John Prine, by Eddie Huffman
Vic Chesnutt, by Kristin Hersh
Ray Charles, by David Cantwell
Mary J. Blige, by Danny Alexander
Madonna, by Alina Simone

Obviously, the last two names are what jump off that list, possibly leaving you to wonder what the heck is going on here. Thus far the American Music Series has had an Americana focus, which is not surprising given that it’s an outgrowth of No Depression magazine. But the series is still developing an identity, and the truth is that we were always going to have to broaden it in terms of both styles and approaches to make it work. Thus, Mary J. Blige and Madonna.

UTPressLogoNow it’s certainly possible that American Music Series might eventually come to mean just “books about music.” Nevertheless, even though Blige and Madonna are both outliers (and probably as far as I’d care to go in this direction), I think you can build a case for both being a better fit than they might seem at first glance. Blige, The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, is firmly grounded in the r&b tradition, and I’ve always thought of her as more soul than hip-hop. A decade from now, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she were singing straight-up gospel because such an evolution would make perfect sense.

That brings us to Madonna, who is admittedly more of a stretch. But I think the real draw here will be Alina Simone, one of the most exciting new writers out there. I first met Alina a few years back when she lived in Chapel Hill and was playing intriguingly dark indie-rock along the lines of Cat Power and PJ Harvey. She really found her voice on 2008’s Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware, a tribute album to the late “Yanka” (Soviet-era punk icon Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva, who is Russia’s answer to Patti Smith). Sung entirely in Russian, Beware is a fascinating album with an even-more-fascinating back-story; you can read some of it here or here. Better still, read Alina’s wonderful 2011 memoir “You Must Go and Win.”

If Steve Earle, Jon Langford or another writerly Americana icon wanted to write a book for our series, I think we’d jump at the chance even if the subject they proposed fell outside the Americana universe. While Alina doesn’t have as high a musical profile as those two, she’s still part of this century’s indie-rock flock — someone that No Depression probably would have been reviewing if the magazine were still publishing when Beware came out. I think Alina’s idiosyncratic take on a cultural icon like Madonna will make for a great book. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with, and to be a part of sharing it with you.

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More on the American Music Series and UT Press

UT Press and I had agreed on Ryan as a subject at South By Southwest 2010.When the next SXSW rolled around in March 2011, I met again in Austin with my then-editor, Allison Faust, as well as UT Press marketing director Dave Hamrick and No Depression magazine co-founder Peter Blackstock. I hadn’t gotten very far with writing by then; in fact, I wasn’t much past the “Preface” and I was still nervous about making the Sept. 1 deadline. But I kept that to myself. Instead, the four of us brainstormed ideas for the series.

It was a very productive meeting, yielding up a long list of possible subjects and authors. That meeting also resulted in me coming on-board as series co-editor. Some things have changed about the series over the past year and a half, including the name. It’s the American Music Series now, and the primary UT Press editor is Casey Kittrell. As co-editors, Peter Blackstock and I get some input on artists and writers (although UT Press still has the final say).

The first AMS title came out in March 2012, “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” written by the estimable Don McLeese. My book “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown” is the second in the series. The Aug. 31 issue of Publishers Weekly magazine included a piece about music-related books under the headline, “The Music Didn’t Die.” Alas, it takes a subscription and password to see the whole thing. But here’s the part that pertains to the American Music Series, which comes at the very end of the story:

In 2005, the University of Texas published “The Best of No Depression,” an anthology of articles from the hip alt-country magazine, No Depression. Working with the magazine’s co-founders Peter Blackstock and David Menconi, Texas’s sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell grew excited about these two editing a possible series. Austin City Limits promoted the first book in the American Music Series, Don McLeese’s “Dwight Yoakam,” when Yoakam played on that stage. This season Menconi chronicles the rise to fame of alt-country star, Ryan Adams, in “Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown” (Sept.), and forthcoming topics include Merle Haggard, Uncle Tupelo, and John Prine, among others. Kittrell says that the series plans to publish “musical biographies about important American musicians and that eventually it will edge into genres beyond alt-country and feature books by musicians and literary writers.”

For the record, Allison Faust was the first UT Press editor to work on the series, before Casey Kittrell; and while I was in on No Depression magazine from the start, I wasn’t a co-founder. That was Mr. Grant Alden, who we very much hope will be writing a book for the series at some point. A lot of the ideas we tossed around at that March 2011 meeting are still cooking along at various stages, and we’ve had further conversations. I hope to be able to tell you about more American Music Series books before too long. But here are the ones under contract (or firm enough to talk about) at the moment:

Merle Haggard, by Dave Cantwell
Uncle Tupelo, by Dan Durchholz
Los Lobos, by Chris Morris
John Prine, by Eddie Huffman
The Flatlanders, by John T. Davis
Vic Chesnutt, by Kristin Hersh

As the proud owner of a vinyl copy of Throwing Muses’ House Tornado, I’m especially excited about that last one. But I think all of these have the potential to be fantastic.

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