Though Peter Guralnick is one of our most acclaimed music historians, with landmark biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips and Sam Cooke, he is, as he will tell you, a fan first. And that’s what sets his writing apart. His prose is always driven by a need to share his passion for a particular artist or genre with readers.
As Guralnick says in the introduction to Looking To Get Lost (Little, Brown and Company), his fine new collection of artist profiles: “Writing about music is, as more than one dismissive wag has pointed out, a little like dancing about architecture, and for someone almost entirely lacking in musical training or knowledge, it is even more so. What I was trying to capture, though, I realized from the start, was the feeling, not the technique. I was not trying to provide deconstructive analysis of the breathtaking swoops and glissandos of Aretha Franklin’s singing style. What I was interested in was exhortatory writing, writing that would bring the reader to the same appreciation of Ray Charles, Skip James and Charlie Rich that I felt, that would in a sense mimic the same emotions not just that I experienced but that I believed the musician had put into the music in the first place.”
Looking To Get Lost brings us into the worlds of American roots music legends such as Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Chuck Berry, Doc Pomus, Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard. But equally fascinating are Guralnick’s portraits of those who deserve the same status, but through chance or self-sabotage, never quite achieved it – among them, Lonnie Mack, Joe Tex, Delbert McClinton and Dick Curless (the tale of the country music outsider receives the book’s longest chapter). There are also a few contemporary names like Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello in the mix, as well as the author’s humorous account of his relationship with Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker.
I recently spent an hour on the phone with Guralnick, talking about the art of interviewing, creativity and the mysteries of musical longevity.
I like how you talk about the blueprint for your music writing being more about exhortation than deconstruction. It reminds me of a quote by E.B. White. He was talking about deconstructing humor and said, “It’s like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
(Laughs) I’m interested, as I think E.B. White was, in describing music as evocatively and precisely as I can. And I think in that prescription is embedded a certain critical response. I don’t mean critical in the sense of negative, but critical in that you look for the telling detail. I never looked to be the arbiter of all things. I never wanted to be a critic. The way that I started writing about music was just to bring people to it. I never conceived of the idea that this would lead to anything. What I wrote initially were these capsule descriptions of a James Brown show, or of Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf. Sometimes they were only 75 words. But they were based on my experience. They weren’t reviews. They were urging people to get out there. If you go to see the James Brown show you’ll see the greatest live theater you’ve ever seen in your life. The other thing is, I never wrote about anybody that I wasn’t enthusiastic about. I think of it in the same way as when I go to another town or city. What I’m interested in is to have a person who really appreciates the city take me around. Not to see the sights that are in the conventional guidebook.
Before you go into an interview with an artist, what kind of preparation do you do?
I try to know everything I possibly can about a person. You don’t want to go into an interview with Johnny Cash and he says, “Well, when June and I first met . .” and you say, “Who’s June?” (laughs). You’re going to lose the subject’s confidence. Also, you don’t want to ask the questions that every other interviewer asks. It’s like David Gahr, the great photographer. He said if he saw all the photographers at a show on one side of the stage, he went to the other. He was going to get his own view, not the same as everybody else. When I did interview Johnny Cash, I can fill in the narrative of things. I can know where he was born, I can know this or that. But I went in there with the idea of asking him about what he read as a kid. And I got much more about something that was a small part of a story, but I feel like that’s the way that people engage. People tend to engage more with something that hasn’t been asked before. So I prepare as best I can. Sometimes people ask me, ‘How did you get so and so to say this or that?’ There’s no way I got them to say anything. I hope that they felt comfortable and I hope I treated what they told me with respect, without trying to show them up in any way.
Are the expectations of what you’ll get from an interview often upended by what you do get?
In this book, Dick Curless might be the best example of that. He insisted on telling me his entire story. And it became a totally different story than the one I imagined I would write. The thing is, if you don’t know what the revelation is, you can’t cause somebody to reveal it. You treat people with respect for their dignity. It’s kind of like the lesson from my father’s and my grandfather’s medical practice, which is – You’re not the important thing. The person you’re attending to, or for me, the person I’m writing about, they’re the focus. They should go where they want to go, and you should listen.
I loved your two-volume biography on Elvis – Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love – so I was interested to read of your efforts to get Colonel Parker to participate. It felt like an ongoing cat-and-mouse game.
It was. What I got such a kick out of was that he appreciated the game so much. He enjoyed engaging in that way. He was past his heyday, so I was not a threat to him, and there was nothing he was going to do to me. I heard so many tales of his kindness, and many people had great affection for him. When I meet someone like Colonel, I don’t like to think that I’m engaging with a mythic figure. I want to engage as much as possible on level ground. So I can’t take anything personally. I’m not entitled to anything. I did everything I could to persuade Colonel that it was in his interest to lend his voice to this account. The greatest moment in the whole thing was when I sent him the narrative that I had constructed, a rough version, and I said, ‘Look, this is the best I’ve been able to do. Without your voice in it, I can’t tell the whole story.’ And he wrote back, “I’ve never read such a messed up conglomeration of fact and fiction. I feel sorry for you. If you can’t learn the entire truth, you shouldn’t write about it at all.” And at the end, he wrote “But I’m still your friend, Colonel.” (laughs) Having said, “No, I can’t contribute because I’ve said no to everybody else,” he would then give me clues. After he died, I had become quite friendly with his widow Loanne, and she told me, “A couple of times, Peter, he was so close to really talking to you.” But every time, he would get right up to the point, and he would draw back. That’s what I felt I was experiencing, but I was thrilled that I got as far as I did.
The book is full of legends. But what do you think accounts for the varying degrees of longevity among them? Why for example does Johnny Cash ending up more meaningful to younger generations than Elvis or Chuck Berry?
I would say that Johnny Cash, for one thing, was open to almost anything that came along. It’s funny, I remember when Cowboy Jack Clement came up with an idea, when fax machines first came in, that this technological marvel would be the perfect vehicle for constructing some kind of novel. Me, him and Johnny would correspond with each other, strictly by fax, and the book would grow out of that. I had no idea what Jack had in mind, but Johnny was totally open to that (laughs). Years later, I ran into him at the Waldorf Astoria on the night he was being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and I started mumbling an introduction to who I was. You never expect people to remember who you are. There’s no reason they should. John jumped up and said, ‘You know, I think I was the first person in this room to hear Robert Johnson!’ What was astonishing about that was that he was making that connection, because I had published a book on Robert Johnson a few years earlier. But also that his curiosity let him say it. Johnny made records with Don Law, and Don Law recorded Robert Johnson, and played Johnny those tapes. Johnny continued his research into American music throughout his life. At the end, he made the American Recordings with Rick Rubin. There were very few people who’d achieved the eminence that he did who would be open to doing that. Whether you like those records or not, he found a mode of communication in them, covering Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails and in that way, he was able to connect with a new audience. He was systematically passionate about that. Also, Johnny created a persona that could stand for so many different things, whether it was native Americans or prisoners. That lent him a breadth of appeal that wouldn’t be open to some of his contemporaries.
Chuck Berry is almost the polar opposite.
Whatever you say about him, Chuck Berry stopped in 1964. That’s a very odd thing. As a contrast, you look at someone like Doc Pomus. How ever much his early songs continued to have relevance over the years, there were also the songs he wrote at the end of his life, which were pared down and I think had even greater emotional impact, and were better songs in many ways. They reflected the inner self. He’s in the hospital, he’s dying, and he’s still writing songs with Mac. I don’t understand where Chuck Berry put that creative drive that he had. To some extent, he could’ve occupied a mythic role as opposed to a nostalgic role on the American culture scene. But he didn’t. That must have some impact on his relevance to later generations.
Is there an artist that you haven’t interviewed that you’d like to?
I’ve never interviewed Dolly Parton. And I’d like to interview Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes.