Looking to Get Lost

Adventures in Music and Writing


By Peter Guralnick

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By the bestselling author of Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll and Last Train the Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, this dazzling new book of profiles is a culmination of Peter Guralnick’s remarkable work, which from the start has encompassed the full sweep of blues, gospel, country, and rock 'n' roll.

It covers old ground from new perspectives, offering deeply felt, masterful, and strikingly personal portraits of creative artists, both musicians and writers, at the height of their powers.

“You put the book down feeling that its sweep is vast, that you have read of giants who walked among us,” rock critic Lester Bangs wrote of Guralnick’s earlier work in words that could just as easily be applied to this new one. And yet, for all of the encomiums that Guralnick’s books have earned for their remarkable insights and depth of feeling, Looking to Get Lost is his most personal book yet. For readers who have grown up on Guralnick’s unique vision of the vast sweep of the American musical landscape, who have imbibed his loving and lively portraits and biographies of such titanic figures as Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Sam Phillips, there are multiple surprises and delights here, carrying on and extending all the themes, fascinations, and passions of his groundbreaking earlier work.

One of NPR’s Best Books of 2020
One of Kirkus Review/Rolling Stone’s Top Music Books of 2020
One of No Depression’s Best Books of 2020



Having a Party

SIMPLY PUT, THIS IS A BOOK about creativity. Like so many other things in my life, this is a realization I have come to only after the fact. When I first started writing profiles (see “Falling into Place” and “Whose Skip James Is This?”), it was with the idea of putting what gifts I had at the service of a greater cause. But gradually over the years I have come to recognize that what has always fascinated me, apart from the very idiosyncratic nature of each and every person that I’ve ever written about, was the imaginative impulse that drove them all, not the material dreams (even in the case of a fabulist like Colonel Tom Parker, I would argue that this was by no means his primary motivation) but what it was in their makeup that led them to express themselves in so particular and individuated a manner.

And so in a way this is what all my profiles from first (Skip) to last (Dick Curless) have been about, however different the particulars of the lives may be. In some cases, as with the unique collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, the artist may be exceedingly self-aware—but then, so, too, in his own way, was Howlin’ Wolf, who saw his music as an expression not just of personal freedom but of personal difference. It is that almost inextinguishable drive to self-expression that, to paraphrase John Lee Hooker, was, simply, in them and had to come out. I’m reminded sometimes of what Stoney Edwards, a singular black country singer who could neither read nor write, said to me on the subject of other people’s attempts to educate him. “I’m glad I can’t read,” he said. “It scares the shit out of me sometimes how close I came to being an educated man. What I’m saying is, when I think about how many things that’s written about that’s copied—well, I can’t copy anybody else. What I write about comes from a natural feeling inside myself. What I write has to be true.”

Well, maybe so. Though that is not, of course, the only way. And yet it is one way to discover that state of abandon which all artists, whether knowingly or not, are searching for, that momentary sense of “lostness” that leads an author like Henry Green to forgo grammatical niceties, and sometimes even linear sense, for the same kind of lyrical rapture (in Green’s case it might best be described as verbal drunkenness) that permits a musician like Jerry Lee Lewis or Ray Charles to discover places he might never otherwise have sought to go.

I toyed with the idea of calling this book Creativity: An Autobiography, because in one sense that is what it is. But then I figured no one would really get the joke (is it a joke—and if it is, how certain am I that I get it?)—and besides, it might take away from the seriousness of my point. Which is that there is no one in this book, or any other that I have written, who was not lifted up in some way on the wings of imagination.

You won’t find anyone more dedicated to their writing, or more ambitious about the precision of its expression, than Merle Haggard or Chuck Berry. To Lee Smith, “I guess my favorite thing is before you even start writing, when you’re sitting down every day just thinking about [it], and it’s all completely fluid in your head and there’re all these people running around, and there’s infinite possibilities of what they might or might not do.… Everything is all intensely alive, and it’s just total possibility.” Doc Pomus, who experienced a late-in-life renaissance that freed him from the more self-conscious restrictions of genre and craft, describes writing one of his early songs in an almost trance-like state (“I definitely remember writing the song in a car. I was still living on and off with my family, and I was riding somewhere. It has a kind of quasi-heartbeat, it’s almost like subliminal writing”), but in the end he had no interest in explaining the song, because “it’s like with Edward Hopper, when they asked him, ‘Who are those paintings about, all those late-night diners?,’ he said, ‘They’re all me.’” Henry Green was so inflamed by his fears for the demise not just of himself but of everything that he knew and loved as the Battle of Britain began (he was driven, he said, “to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live”) that he wrote what could arguably be considered his three greatest masterpieces in the course of little more than two years. Bill Monroe, widely hailed as the “Father of Bluegrass,” saw a long lifetime as an opportunity to refine the ever-developing arc of the revolutionary new music that he had pioneered in his mid-thirties. And if you listen to the dialogue between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, you will overhear a conversation that returns again and again to the work ethic of the artist (simply put, this might be summarized by writers and musicians from Ernest Hemingway to Robert Johnson as, You’d better be there just in case inspiration arrives, because if you’re not, it may never choose to show its face again)—a conversation leavened and uplifted, in a manner that Lee Smith and Bill Monroe would certainly approve, by visionary arrivals like the Archangel Gabriel in the midst of an otherwise wholly secular (and, up to that point, almost frivolous) song.

Many of the subjects of this book are people that I’ve known for years—in a number of cases, I’ve simply written new profiles of artists that I have written about before. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, I met originally in 1970, when he was living on Coro Lake, outside of Memphis, still married to his first cousin once removed, Myra Gale, whom he had married some fourteen years earlier when she was thirteen. (The revelation of their marriage in 1958 had virtually ended his career for the next decade.) Over the years I continued to talk to, and write about, Jerry Lee, and I like to think I gained additional insight not only into what he was saying to me at the present moment but into what he had told me long ago. The same with Howlin’ Wolf—I interviewed him just months before Jerry Lee, as I was putting together my first book, Feel Like Going Home, but though he died in 1976, I never ceased to be fascinated by both the man and his music. And Solomon Burke—well, as I say, someday I’m going to write an epic about Solomon Burke (not really, but I wish I could), and I have tried once again here to suggest some of the illimitable dimensions of his world.

All of these portraits, old and new, tell stories that are just as exciting to me today as when I first encountered them, and they connect with one another now in ways that I might not always have suspected. The most recent piece, the chapter on Dick Curless, which I have been working on for the last two or three years, turned into something altogether different from what I had imagined—and told a story that, while it began and ended in the same place that it had originally started, took a number of unexpectedly tortuous twists and turns. In similar fashion, I found myself exploring another side of Ray Charles, whom I’ve written about extensively over the years, by focusing on the moment in his life when everything changed. Or, in another newly written piece, which, like the Ray Charles chapter, started out as a talk and then evolved, I sought to place Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in a different, deeper, and I hope more entertaining perspective by utilizing my own interaction (and correspondence) with him over an almost ten-year period.

With all of the profiles, old and new, I wanted to maintain a “presentness” in the writing, even while doing everything that I could to avoid unintentional anachronisms or inaccuracies. It’s funny, the challenges that sometimes arise. You may note, for example, in the profiles of both Leiber and Stoller and Tammy Wynette how I’ve tried to address looming issues that never came up at the time (I simply didn’t have the information to ask the questions)—but I hope never at the expense of that first wide-eyed moment of meeting. Sometimes, in rereading and rewriting, I’ve found myself embarrassed most of all by—well, by myself. (I must confess, this could happen just as easily with something I’m writing today as something written twenty or thirty years ago.) But I never want to deny that first, fresh impression—however much I might be tempted, I would never want to touch up the truth, or the tone, of an instant that I can so vividly recall but could never fully re-create in the same terms that presented themselves so startlingly to me at the time.

And then there was the matter of how exactly to present the portraits, how best to order them and introduce old friends and new not only to the reader but to each other. At first I thought, well, why not just try to put them into some kind of thematic sequence—but then I realized that far too many of the themes intertwined and overlapped to even consider that kind of arrangement. The centrality of home, for example, as the starting point for every creative endeavor, yoked to the implicit understanding that there was no way of ever getting back there again. (See previous paragraph.) Dick Curless, I think, put it most poignantly when he spoke of quitting school and leaving home at eighteen to go out on his first musical tour, just weeks before high school graduation. There’s little doubt in my mind that, given the opportunity, he would have done it again. And yet, “If I could go back and find that boy,” he said almost fifty years later, “knowing all the things that would happen to him, I’d tell him, ‘Boy, stay and sing with your family. They’re not going to be there very long. Yeah, you stay home and sing. Be happy in your little town.’” I’m not sure anyone else would have expressed themselves in such stark emotional terms (well, maybe Lonnie Mack), but Lee Smith spoke movingly of some of that same sense of regret (she described it as a kind of “intense ambivalence”). So did Allen Toussaint and Tammy Wynette, among others. Or, as Ernest Tubb once said, speaking of the origins of his own deliberately spare country style, “I want my music to be simple enough so that the boy out there on the farm can learn it and practice it and try to play it.” But as he himself would have been the first to acknowledge, it was a long time since he had visited that farm, and for all he knew neither the boy nor the farm was still there.

The one thing that united every one of them was the breadth and conviction of their democratic views—and I’m not talking politics here, even if like Chuck Berry you are inclined to argue that everything is politics. I mean, let me be clear: I am not prepared to vouch for anyone’s political views—in many cases I have no idea, and in the case of someone like Merle Haggard (whose views ran the full gamut, from left to right and back again), I couldn’t possibly begin to interpret them. But I can say confidently that none of the people I have written about—whatever their articulated political or social views might be—have ever voiced their aesthetic views, their views about art or music or self-expression, in anything but purely democratic terms. Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Allen Toussaint, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe—every one of them listened with his ears wide open, all of them expressed their admiration, often in the most expansive terms, for their acknowledged peers and predecessors, irrespective of genre, irrespective of class or color. And all in some sense would tend to subscribe to the view most explicitly voiced by Sam Phillips and Solomon Burke—that music, or in the case of Henry Green and Lee Smith the meticulous reimagining of all that they saw or heard around them, has the power to save (or at least preserve) the world.

Oh, yes, and sequencing the book? Well, I knew I wanted to start with some kind of statement of purpose, so I revisited two of the first subjects I ever wrote about, Robert Johnson and Skip James, to present them in a somewhat different, but no less fiercely partisan, light. They were among the very first to wake me up to the music, and in many ways they could each be said to have started me off on my own adventures. As far as the rest of it goes, the order of the book from Ray Charles on, well, I mean, what other choice did I have but to fall back on the tried-and-true method that so many of these artists called upon in their own work? In the end I did it simply by feel.

I spoke at a college not too long ago, and at the reception afterwards I was asked by my host who I would like to have at my ideal dinner party. Oh, Solomon Burke, I said, limiting the invitations to people I have actually known. And, of course, Sam Phillips, even if they didn’t seem to get along when I introduced them in real life. Don’t forget Johnny Shines. And Sleepy LaBeef—Sleepy would get along with everybody. All eyes turn when Carla Thomas, Stax’s own Queen of Memphis Soul (she sang with Otis Redding while studying for her master’s degree in English at Howard University), arrives. Sam wants to know right away where her father, Rufus, is. Which raises the question, Where is Rufus? After all, not only was he the originator of Sun Records’ very first hit, he is never anything less than the life of the party. I guess we’d better send out a call to him, too. Charlie Rich and his songwriter wife, Margaret Ann, come in together, a study in contrasts. Margaret Ann, the author of some of Charlie’s deepest, most personal songs, is an inveterate reader (as it happens, she’s a big fan of Lee Smith, whom she’s thrilled to see across the room) and a natural mixer who fits right in. Charlie, on the other hand, one of the most introverted people I’ve ever met, might have to be coaxed out of his corner, but I’m sure if anyone could do it, Lee Smith could. Lee might in fact have to do double duty with Merle Haggard. (This was evidently going to be quite a party.) Not to mention Howlin’ Wolf, even if he might appear to be sulking at first (or maybe “brooding” might be the better term)—Sam would just be so happy to see him. My mind was really working overtime now. I think Doc Pomus and Colonel Parker, with their mutual (while very different) dedication to the proposition that you can’t hip a square, would get a big kick out of each other. Though on second thought Doc and Sam Cooke’s friend and business partner J. W. Alexander, who never met but should have, had so much in common that maybe they should be seated together. And what about Jack Clement, who could play Falstaff (or at least ukulele) to his onetime mentor Sam Phillips’ Lear, while Dick Curless could entertain everyone with his cowboy songs and courtly manner. Well, this had gotten a little out of hand (particularly with all the embellishments that my mind, if not my mouth, was adding), and I could see everyone’s eyes beginning to glaze over—but it was only when I got to Jerry Lee Lewis that my host held up his hand with a look that suggested, Surely you can’t be serious. But I was—and I am. All of these people are to be celebrated for their wit and wisdom, their humanity, and, yes, their genius. And I would like to present them all to you, without ascribing any more to it than I do in the pages of my books, in some cases as friends, in all cases as people I admire, people from whom I have learned, people whose work has deeply moved and influenced me.

Solomon Burke and Rufus Thomas at Sweet Soul Music book release party, Memphis, Tennessee, 1986. Photograph by Pat Rainer

Art is meant to be shared and treasured, borrowed and altered, too. Bobby “Blue” Bland took equally from the fiery sermons of Aretha Franklin’s father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, and Perry Como’s easygoing pop balladry. Ray Charles could cite both Hank Williams and the apocalyptic Five Blind Boys lead singer Archie Brownlee as models. Bill Monroe, often seen as the keeper of a very isolated, Appalachian tradition, always pointed to a black blues player named Arnold Shultz as one of the formative influences of his life. Even more surprisingly, Howlin’ Wolf, one of the most distinctive exemplars of the pure African American blues tradition, never failed to credit the profound influence of Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music. Listen to Solomon Burke talk about Gene Autry (and Brother Joe May) and Jerry Lee Lewis about B.B. King (and Gene Autry)—and then simply immerse yourself in the incalculable diversity of their music, which derived from a melting-pot culture that came to its fullest flowering in the twentieth century. Because, of course, with the invention of the radio and the phonograph and ever-broader agents for the mass dissemination of information and music, all effective barriers to the integration not just of culture but of the imagination were down—no matter how isolated the community (and just think of Skip James growing up in Bentonia, Mississippi, Dick Curless in Caribou, Maine, Lee Smith in Grundy, Virginia, and Johnny Cash in Dyess, Arkansas) there was bound to be a crossover, not to the obliteration of one tradition or another, but to their extension, in much the same way that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88”) confidently predicted the arrival of rock ’n’ roll well before the music had been named.

This is a book about individual difference—it is about a world in which, for so many of the people I am writing about, the possibilities seemed limitless, a world that through the gift of imagination continued to expand for them, in some cases right up until the moment of their death. And I’d like to think, whatever the challenges of the world that we see around us today, in which, like it or not, we have all been incorporated into the global marketplace, that somehow or another (and not by going back to where we were but by listening to the inner voice that we all possess), those same possibilities for individuation and freedom still exist. As Joe Tex, one of the most extroverted philosophers I have ever met, cheerfully declared, “I’ve enjoyed this life. I was glad that I was able to come up out of creation and look all around and see a little bit, grass and trees and cars, fish and steaks, potatoes. Everywhere I’ve gone, I can always go back, and I can always find a friend. I don’t go trying to make nobody like me, I just be me, you know, and it has worked out.” Or, in the somewhat more measured words of Allen Toussaint, after losing nearly all of his material possessions to Hurricane Katrina, “The things I had served me well when I had them.… I’ll have to write some more.”


Falling into Place

I COULD ACT as if I don’t really know how it happened, but it wouldn’t be true. I know exactly how I got to this place, whether for good or for ill, and I can’t pretend otherwise.

I wanted to be a writer. Not a rock writer—there was no such thing. I wanted to write novels and stories. And so I did—and occasionally still do. When I was fifteen, I first read the Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway in which he spoke of his working methods, and I took note of the fact that he set himself a quota of something like 500 words a day. With as much self-doubt as temerity, I did the same, committing myself to the idea that should inspiration ever deign to visit I was not going to be absent from my post. And so I began a daily vigil that has persisted more or less to this day.

When I was around fifteen, too, I fell in love with the blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell. I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it—don’t ask me why. It was like the writing of Italo Svevo or Henry Green: it just turned me around in a way that I am no more inclined to quantify or explain today than I was then. But I never dreamt of writing about it. There was nowhere to write about it in. And besides, I’m not sure I could have imagined a way in which to truly evoke just what I was feeling at the time. Experience, don’t analyze, my inner voice told me. Though that didn’t stop my friend Bob Smith and me from scrutinizing liner notes, poring over the one book we knew to exist on the subject (Sam Charters’ The Country Blues), and talking about the blues—all the time. It was almost as if by the time we saw our first bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, live and in person in the fall of 1960, we had created a virtual world that ignored the complexities of the real one. All of a sudden we were forced to adjust to the idea that there were actual people who made the music, subject to neither our preconceptions nor our fantasies and, of course, far more interesting than either.

I won’t bore you with all the mundane details of my awakening to that music and that world. Everyone has a similar story. Suffice it to say that I almost literally held my breath every time I went to see Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Mississippi John Hurt in those days, for fear that all of this beauty, all of this wit, all of this gloriously undifferentiated reality might somehow disappear as suddenly as it had first manifested itself in my life.

I was perfectly happy as a mere acolyte, expanding my world to the soul and gospel shows that came through town, when a series of related events conspired to rob me of my innocence. First I stumbled upon the English blues magazines Blues Unlimited and Blues World in 1964 and 1965. I started writing to the editors of both and, inspired by the recognition that there were others out there like me, began to file reports on the shows I went to. It was this sense of a larger community, as hungry as I for insights and information, that led me to approach the great Mississippi bluesman Skip James in the summer of 1965. There could have been no more unlikely interviewer than I, and certainly no one burdened with a greater degree of self-consciousness, but I had witnessed Skip’s astonishing performance at the Newport Folk Festival the previous summer, just after his rediscovery in a Tunica, Mississippi, hospital, and his even more astonishing reclamation onstage of the weird, almost unearthly sound that characterized his remote 1931 recordings. So I presented myself as best I could, asked questions at whose obviousness I winced even as they were being greeted with a kind of courtly gravity by the person to whom they were addressed, and persisted in this exercise in self-abasement because, I told myself, greatness such as this would not pass my way again.

That was my entire motivation. I wanted to tell the world something of the inimitable nature of Skip James’ music, I wanted to proclaim Muddy Waters’ and Bo Diddley’s genius, I wanted to find some way to describe the transcendent drama of the rhythm and blues revues that I had witnessed, featuring astonishing performances by such virtuosic entertainers as Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, and Little Richard, sometimes even on the same bill. When in 1966 an underground music press began to emerge—first with the appearance of Crawdaddy! The Magazine of Rock ’n’ Roll, Paul Williams’ utopian embrace of the revolution, then, in the same year, with the arrival of Boston After Dark, “Boston’s Only Complete Entertainment Weekly,” and finally, in late 1967, with Rolling Stone—my course was set. In each case someone at the publication knew of my love for the blues (and who within the sound of my voice could fail to be aware of it?) and asked if I would like to write about the music. I never saw it as a life decision (I had no intention of abandoning my novels and short stories), but I never hesitated either. How could I refuse the opportunity to tell people about this music that I thought was so great? How could I turn down the chance simply to put some of those names down on paper?

Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Solomon Burke, Robert Pete Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Guy—these were among the first stories I wrote, some of them no longer than 150 or 200 words. They were intended to sell, not a product but an unarticulated belief, a belief in the intrinsic worth of American vernacular culture. Writing down these names even today evokes some of the same secret thrill, but it could never fully suggest the tenor of a time when merely to name was to validate, when so much of this music was not simply ignored but reviled in the mainstream press. To be able to write in my perfectly serious, if not altogether unself-conscious, way of James Brown’s “brilliant sense of theatrics,” his “genius for showmanship,” and the “passionate conviction” with which he transformed his show into something like a religious ritual, to proclaim Solomon Burke an artist “whose every song seems to [possess] the underlying belief that somehow or other by his investment of emotion he might alter the world’s course,” to describe Muddy Waters as the creator of a seminal style whose songs were our contemporary classics, to speak of the “existential acts” with which Elvis “helped to liberate a generation”—these were my own intentional acts of subversion, by which I was clearly attempting to undermine ingrained cultural prejudices and, no doubt, declare my own.

The more I wrote, of course, the more I found the need to seek out a vocabulary that could suggest something of the experience that I found so compelling. 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 any more than I would have attempted to break down the sentence structure of Henry Green’s Pack My Bag. 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. Just how ambivalent I was about this whole enterprise can be gleaned from the epilogue to my first book, Feel Like Going Home. “I consider this chapter a swan song,” I wrote in 1971, “not only to the book but to my whole brief critical career. Next time you see me I hope I will be my younger, less self-conscious and critical self. It would be nice to just sit back and listen to the music again without a notebook always poised or the next interviewing question always in the back of your mind.”


  • "If there’s a leading figure among writers on American popular music—one who both defines and transcends the field—it has to be Peter Guralnick. . . . He approaches artists thoughtfully and connects with them—rather than their fame, beauty, or choice of handbag—and, through their voices, to their art. . . . For the author, it adds up to a study in the 'imaginative impulse.' For readers [this book] is an opportunity to appreciate Mr. Guralnick’s career, the music that has excited him, and the progress of his style."—Preston Lauterbach, Wall Street Journal
  • "Be warned: the chapters on Solomon Burke, Doc Pomus, and Dick Curless just might squeeze tears out of you. . . . Willie Dixon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, I imagine their spirits all around Guralnick, seeking what the author feels is the 'one common denominator for all great music, its capacity to bring a smile to your lips' … If this is what it means to get lost, it's a wonder anyone would ever care to be found."—Brett Marie, Pop Matters
  • "Guralnick has always been particularly passionate about music that transcends categorization…. He seems to prize most of all the intuitive individuality that distinguishes artistry—what makes a Jerry Lee Lewis, a Ray Charles, or a Merle Haggard more than the sum of their influences. “Simply put,” the author writes at the beginning, “this is a book about creativity,” and the sort of creativity that he appreciates in others can be seen throughout his work as well. Some of the book’s richest pieces focus on performers who Guralnick feels haven’t been given their due or whose music has to be experienced live because it loses something in the studio [but he] is nearly as revelatory when writing about well-known musicians; he invites readers to appreciate Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles with fresh ears .…. A collection that clearly expresses the passion of musical discovery and lasting legacy."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
  • "Peter Guralnick is one of the 3 or 4 greatest writers in the country today. His searching intelligence, his unquenchable curiosity, his astonishing omnicompetence and his stunning scope of knowledge are all on display in this breathtaking volume dedicated to the odd duties of art and the taxing if transcendent assignments of genius. In Looking to Get Lost, Guralnick explores everything from the edifying enigma of blues icon Robert Johnson to the Appalachian absurdity of writer Lee Smith as he taps the veins of their, and other artists’, combustible originality — all while fashioning his own inimitable aesthetic and sublime style as a formidable master of American letters."—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America
  • "Peter Guralnick’s new book Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing is a slow read — slow because it’s impossible not to keep stopping and listening to music. After reading his essay on Skip James, I lost a solid two hours on Spotify. Many of the blues and country artists he covers in this collection— Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Howlin’ Wolf, Tammy Wynette, Chuck Berry — are huge figures, but because Guralnick is such a fine-grained storyteller and so driven by a deep passion for the music, even familiar characters emerge in a revealing new light."—Hugo Lindgren, GQ
  • "Guralnick has established himself as the cultural historian who, when it comes to the roots of American rock ‘n’ roll, always takes the long view. . . . Looking to Get Lost features essays written from inside some of popular music’s longest shadows -- Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton. But it also tells a subtle story of Guralnick’s own long journey."—Boston Globe
  • "Peter Guralnick is a dedicated explorer, and like all explorers with true mastery of their quest, he is singular and tenacious. He goes deep into the difficult emotional undercurrents, and the contradictions of success, in the lives of artists, and by subtle extension, into his own life. He is a writer of great sensitivity and intuition, who lyrically untangles the network that exists between artist and art, persona and humanity, rhythm and melody, the mortal desires that underscore it all, and, crucially and seamlessly, his own relationship to everything and everyone he contemplates."—Rosanne Cash
  • "Charlie Rich once wrote a beautiful song called “Feel Like Going Home.” It’s an extraordinary, yearning ballad. What is more remarkable, it was composed in response to a portrait of the singer written by Peter Guralnick, from an anthology with the same name. It is more common for music to inspire prose of various shades of purple, but this was a description of a man with conflicts at a moment after his greatest commercial success had left him, nonetheless, with crippling self-doubt and a tendency to self-destruct. Peter Guralnick’s portrait moved Charlie Rich with its honesty and humility, and he, in turn, was moved to render this lovely heartfelt song of longing. I can think of no finer compliment to a writer on the subject of music and humanity than to inspire a song in this way."—Elvis Costello
  • "Peter Guralnick views his job as telling the Great American Story through the accomplishments of those who were larger than life and had the ability to make the nation feel as one through their music. What I love most about this anthology is Peter's Zip-Stripping of the synthetic veneer that cakes up on notable artists over time, masking the natural grain of their triumphs. He rebuilds the true legacy of these artists and personalities by slowly revealing the factors that made them tick and the creative impulses that drove them. [He] reminds us that exceptional rock writing is essentially sublime storytelling."—Marc Myers, Jazzwax
  • "Peter Guralnick's Looking to Get Lost — a literary masterpiece — takes the reader on a fantastic journey through the very best of America's musical landscape. His jewel-like personal stories about Skip James, Bill Monroe, Doc Pomus, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and others are priceless. Looking to Get Lost proves that nobody knows more about rhythm and blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, and soul music than Guralnick. This pulsing jukebox of a memoir and cultural history certifies that mighty claim."—Douglas Brinkley, Author of Cronkite
  • "Others have studied and written about 20th-century American music with punch and flair, but nobody has done it like Peter Guralnick. [Here] as Guralnick writes about country singer Dick Curless, novelist Lee Smith, and bluesman Skip James, he also writes about himself. The result is a book that’s both reportage and memoir . . . A refreshing departure."—Geoff Edgers, Washington Post
  • "In the introduction to this collection of profiles, American roots music chronicler Peter Guralnick plays that old game of imagining his favorite dinner party, composed of the subjects of his book. And what a gathering! Guralnick writes with deep empathy and respect about legends like Johnny Cash and Willie Dixon, lesser-known key figures like bluesman Lonnie Mack and music-adjacent kindred spirits like the novelist Lee Smith. This book will make you feel nostalgic for up-close conversations as Guralnick gently reaches the heart and soul of his subjects."Ann Powers, NPR Music
  • "In his new book, Guralnick has tracked down unlikely subjects….building human connections and bringing their worlds to life in novelistic detail.  Looking to Get Lost is full of new insights on musical legends [as he] traces the personal experiences that led him to become a writer, and the creative revelations he discovered along the way. “Waylon Jennings, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Solomon Burke, Charlie Rich – all of them were passionately committed to finding a voice,” Guralnick says, [citing] in one moving passage a conversation with Ray Charles not long before he died, where the singer recalled singing a spiritual at Sam Cooke’s funeral 40 years earlier. “I gave my heart to it, man,” Charles said. “Everything that came out of me was truly genuine, there was nothing fake about it.”"—Rolling Stone
  • "Guralnick’s dazzling new book of profiles is not a summation so much as a culmination of his remarkable work, which from the start has encompassed the full sweep of blues, gospel, country, and rock and roll. It covers old ground from new perspectives, offering deeply felt, masterful, and strikingly personal portraits of creative artists, both musicians and writers, at the height of their powers. Looking to Get Lost is such a treat, however, because it’s not only about music; the book gives us a glimpse at Guralnick the writer and Guralnick the reader and comes as close as we’re likely to get to something like an autobiography. What connects these pieces is Guralnick’s creativity, his love of getting lost in a story or a song, and his desire to write."—Henry Carrigan, No Depression

On Sale
Oct 27, 2020
Page Count
576 pages

Peter Guralnick

About the Author

Peter Guralnick’s books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, and Sweet Soul Music; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick won a Grammy for his liner notes for Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, wrote and co-produced the documentary Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and wrote the scripts for the Grammy-winning documentary Sam Cooke/Legend and Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Feel Like Going Home. His 2015 book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. His most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing.



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