Paul Hemphill was an accomplished newspaper columnist at the age of 32 when he was awarded a Neiman fellowship and spent a year at Harvard. That’s where this son of truck driver began to write a book about country music. The next year, 1969, he moved to Nashville to report and write The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music, a volume the Chicago Sun-Times called “The best book ever written about country music.”
In his foreword, Hemphill writes, “To do this book, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, ‘hillbilly heaven,’ for nearly two months, where I saw a dozen performances of the Grand Ole Opry and countless recording sessions and television tapings. I also visited Glen Campbell at the CBS television studios in Hollywood, rode along with Bill Anderson and the Po Boys as they played a string of one-nighters in New England, sat in a tiny dressing room in Bakersfield, California, while son-of-an-Okie Merle Haggard loosened up his tonsils with straight bourbon before singing for the homefolks, and sat in an isolated cabin in northeast Georgia, while an old mountaineer played his homemade fiddle the only way he knows how. In all, I traveled 18,000 air miles, interviewed about 150 people and listened exclusively to country music for seven months.”
This was a few years before Redneck Rock broke out but already groups like the Rolling Stones—and Keith’s pal Gram Parsons—as well as the Grateful Dead incorporated elements of country music into their songs. Nashville was hot. Dylan recorded his album Nashville Skyline there in 1968. But Hemphill was there on the scene, reporting with a gimlet eye. The New York Times said the book “reads as smoothly and sparklingly as a bluegrass breakdown.” It’s no surprise that the book holds up and we’re fortunate that The University of Georgia reprinted it earlier this year.