I was pleased to see “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” by Rick Bragg on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. Bragg cut his writing teeth on stories of the American South. His memoir “All Over But the Shoutin” was chosen for the 1998 Notable Books list.
Once we get past the irony of Jerry Lee’s “own story” being told by someone else, the choice of author makes perfect sense. Bragg clearly knows how to portray the South, in this case, Ferriday, Louisiana, where Lewis grew up during the Great Depression. That time and that place propelled Lewis to rock and roll superstardom in the 1950’s. Nearly everything that happened to Lewis, or that he set in motion, connects back to Ferriday. His bigamous marriage to his young cousin, his reliance on drugs and alcohol, and his attraction to risky behavior of all sorts, they all began in Ferriday. And central to it all is the image of a performer with boundless energy, a man who whipped crowds into a frenzy with a piano playing style entirely his own.
Bragg interviewed Lewis extensively for this book, using many of Lewis’s own words to craft the story. Bragg succeeds in creating a compelling sense of Jerry Lee Lewis in his seventies, looking back on his life as a younger man. He almost never admits regret, and often notes where he deserves more credit. From time to time I became completely impatient with Bragg because he diverted attention away from Lewis’s story in order to wax poetic about the South.
Last year’s Notables list included “Johnny Cash: The Life” by Robert Hilburn, another story of a boy growing up in the Depression-era South, destined to be a star. The two stories combine well, with both men getting their start at Sun Studios in Memphis, both leading complicated personal and professional lives. Both Bragg and Hilburn respect the depth of Lewis and Cash, going to great lengths to do justice to their complex lives.
I found “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” immensely readable, potentially an excellent nonfiction choice for books groups who usually read fiction. While it’s an easy recommendation to rock and foll fans, I’ll also suggest it to people who enjoy social history, especially if they’re interested in the American South.
I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash’s upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, Hilburn keeps the story’s thread strong.
Hilburn’s reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash’s performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.
I grew up in a home where we seldom missed “The Johnny Cash Show.” This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.
My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People–all kinds of people–loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.
I’ve recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.