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Fine Books Interview

Little Bit Country, Little Bit Rock ’N Roll

A music writer, editor, and consultant on her favorites, from Gene Autry to Coldplay Interview by Rebecca Rego Barry

Music writer and editor Holly George-Warren. Courtesy of Holly George-Warren.
Photo: Mark Loete

In this issue of Fine Books, we talk to Holly George-Warren, an award-winning writer, editor, book packager, producer, and music consultant. The Road to Woodstock, which she co-wrote with Michael Lang, will be issued in paperback this summer, and her third children’s book, The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West will be published in July. George-Warren served as a curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and the GRAMMY Museum, and she is an expert on Western wear.

FB: You’ve worked as a writer and editor for Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a large part of your career, so I have to ask, why music? Was it writing first or music first?

The cover for the soon-to-be-released paperback of The Road to Woodstock. Courtesy of Ecco Press/HarperCollins Publishers.
The cover of The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West, to be published in July. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

HGW: Pretty much both at the same time, though it was a while before writing about music actually paid my bills. I grew up in North Carolina and was a big music fan. When I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I moved to New York City to check out all the new bands that were part of the punk scene; I got my start in journalism, though, working at a parenting magazine and as a fact-checker at Rolling Stone, while writing about music for various underground magazines for no money. Later, I went on to become the editorial director of Rolling Stone Press, the book division of the magazine.

FB: You’ve written, co-written, and produced many books – does one stick out as having been your favorite to research or write?

HGW: The most difficult—and ultimately, most gratifying—was the biography of Gene Autry, called Public Cowboy #1: The Life & Times of Gene Autry. I spent nearly ten years working on it. I interviewed Autry for the New York Times in 1997 but got the book deal to write the biography in 2002. The research was fantastic—I interviewed nearly 100 people—but it was a bear to write!

FB: What’s your sense of the writing and publishing world right now? Alive and well?

HGW: A bit frightening right now. People are cutting way back on signing up books and there are so many layoffs at magazines and book publishers that you hope your work will even get edited!

FB: What kind of work do you do for the R&R Hall of Fame?

HGW: Since 1997, I’ve put together and edited the induction book for the annual induction ceremony, which means assigning essays on the different inductees, editing the pieces, working with the designer, and seeing it through all stages of production until it’s printed. I also edited a book called The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The First 25 Years, which was published by HarperCollins last fall.

FB: I know you’re a consultant to numerous museums—like the National Cowgirl Museum!—about Western wear. Do you collect Western textiles or artifacts?

HGW: Yes, I’ve been collecting vintage Western wear for decades, and I co-wrote a book called How the West Was Worn: A History of Western Wear in 2001. I give talks on the subject at museums and universities. I hope to write a sequel one of these days!

FB: What’s your music collection like? Is it mostly digital now?

HGW: I’m a packrat and a collector, so I have everything from 78s to vinyl to thousands of CDs—even a few eight-track tapes and way too many audiocassettes. I don’t use an iPod—still mostly listen to CDs. I rarely download music—though my husband and son do.

FB: Who’s your current favorite musician?

HGW: Way too many to name just one! I like artists ranging from Lucinda Williams to Wilco to Coldplay to Lady Gaga to Broken Bells! Currently I’m listening to lots of music by Big Star and Alex Chilton, who died suddenly in March, which was very upsetting to me. I’d known him since ’82 and written about him and his music several times.

FB: Is it more than a coincidence that you now live so close to Woodstock, New York?

HGW: We had a weekend house here for ten years before moving from New York City in 2001. I love the mountains—reminds me of North Carolina—but of course the area attracts others who are into the arts and music, so it’s a great fit for us! My husband is a musician, and his career has really prospered here. An added benefit was meeting local hero Michael Lang—actually through my husband—and being hired by him to co-write his memoir, The Road to Woodstock, which made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list last summer. The area has so many creative people that I’ve been very energized by it and have written numerous books here in the past nine years.

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Rebecca Rego Barry is the editor of this magazine.