Nashville Stars: Six Books About Female Country Singers

A Scene from
A Scene from "Nashville" - photo: Katherine Bomboy-Thornton, ABC

ABC’s new drama Nashville, which premieres tonight, already has us singing into our hairbrushes. Written by Callie Khouri, the talent behind Thelma and Louise, the show stars Connie Britton as a fading superstar and Hayden Panettiere as her young nemesis: big-haired, big-lunged talents battling for supremacy of the Nashville airwaves. If you like your female singers tough, battle-scarred and dripping in sequins, these six biographies and memoirs offer the perfect opportunity to discover the lives behind the music of some of country’s biggest real-life stars.

Loretta Lynn’s story is country legend. Born in backwoods Kentucky, Loretta Webb married at thirteen and had four children before her husband bought her a guitar as an anniversary gift and encouraged her to turn her love of music into a life as a performer. Over her fifty-year career, she’s honed her style into a full-throated, down-home blend of energy, sensuality and sass. Her song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” tells the story of her childhood in Butcher Holler; her autobiography of the same name, made into a film starring Sissy Spacek in 1980, is a rousing rags-to-riches tale and an indisputable classic.

Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Tammy Wynette, "Tragic Country Queen" is a searching and intimate portrait of country music’s “Queen of Heartbreak.” McDonough builds on extensive interviews to explore the contradictions of Wynette’s life, her extraordinary talent and her rise from a poor background in Mississippi to stardom on the strength of an “atom-bomb voice.” McDonough is a lively and opinionated writer, and his respect and awe for his subject shines through in this definitive account of her troubled and tragic life -- “her music ain’t for sissies.”

The outsize personality of the legendary Dolly Parton, who has herself published several collections of her wit and wisdom, gets the comprehensive biographical treatment from Stephen Miller, also the author of a biography of Johnny Cash. In "Smart Blonde," Miller interviews Parton’s family members, musicians, and producers to strip back the sparkling surface of the self-made millionaire, cosmetic surgery junkie, and star of her own Tennessee theme park, detailing how she seized control of her career in the male-dominated Nashville of the 1960s, and shedding light on her intimate relationships. The result is a fitting tribute to a true American icon.

Reba McEntire is known and loved for her plainspoken musical style and, for six seasons, her starring role in the WB sitcom Reba, in which she played a wisecracking single mom with an unruly home life. Born to a ranching family in Oklahoma, the real Reba grew up working cattle and competing in rodeos, and got her musical start performing in local bars. This autobiography, co-written with Tom Carter, tells her story with honesty and humor, from career triumphs to personal disasters, including the breakup of her first marriage and the 1991 plane crash that killed eight of her band members.

Shania Twain’s upbringing as one of five children in Canada follows a familiar pattern, from rural poverty to stardom, and the different but no less painful pressures of a life in the spotlight. "From This Moment On" tells the story of Twain’s courage and sacrifices as a young woman who fought to keep her siblings together after their parents were killed in a car accident. She writes honestly about her fears of hurting others by sharing her secrets, but of her hopes that the “fellowship-like communication” of sharing even painful memories might help readers who are suffering themselves. Twain’s writing is vivid and full of detail, but full of self-questioning: “Are these warm, fuzzy memories from my first five years what I want to remember?”

Chely Wright’s memoir "Like Me" is an honest, moving portrait of her journey to accept her sexuality in a musical world steeped in tradition and prejudice. As a girl growing up in Wellsville, Kansas, Wright fought desires that she was taught were wrong and sinful; after she broke through to become a country star, she continued to deny that she was gay. "Like Me" is an unsparing story of the overwhelming cost of bigotry and the power of endurance; at her lowest, Wright considered suicide to escape the feelings she was fighting: “I go upstairs and locate a loaded 9-millimeter handgun. It is heavier than I remember. I say a prayer to God to forgive me and to understand why I can’t go on anymore like this. I beg God to realize that I will never be able to fit into the life that I’ve created, that I will never be accepted. I pick up the gun and put the end of it in my mouth. It’s cold. I hold it steady and get my right thumb on the trigger and prepare to pull it by pushing it outward.” Although she lived to tell the tale, this intimate drama is chilling and unforgettable.