A piano on display in Sun Studio, the Memphis tourist attraction and birthplace of rock and roll, sports a sacred cigar burn. The tour guides at Sun will tell you with pride that Jerry Lee Lewis is responsible for the half-inch deep crater in the ivory between the low E and F keys, and there’s no doubt his vandalism transformed the instrument from a common spinet into a treasured artifact, rather than decreasing the value.
Cashing in on the bad behavior of rock stars is almost the mission statement of Disgraceland, one of a handful of music-related podcasts I listened to on a drive from Missoula to Memphis last week. Producer Jake Brennan makes no attempt to conceal the fact that tabloid tales about mayhem and murder are the stated aim of Disgraceland, and episode one is about The Killer himself, strongly suggesting Lewis murdered his 5th wife. Other episodes tell shocking stories of James Brown and Sid Vicious, and Brennan even claims to have dirt that links Beck, Scientology and a number of suicides.
True crime is the backbone of some of the most successful podcasts. A blend of true crime and music stories seems like a home run, and I find the stories of Disgraceland hard to turn away from, but the journalist in me requires more veracity than self-identified bullshitter Brennan provides. Veracity is where Cocaine and Rhinestones goes one step further.
Cocaine and Rhinestones is a country music history podcast produced by Tyler Mahen Coe. I consider myself a reasonably informed fan, and much of the content Coe produced in season one is new to me. His extensive liner notes at the end of each episode provide ample attribution, enough to give sticklers like me confidence that the stories are more than apocryphal. The episodes take deep dives into the career of an artist or the lifespan of a song, and the results are ultimately very satisfying. I ate up huge swaths of Montana highway listening to stories of the Louvin Brothers and Don Rich.
I also melted away entire states of the Midwest with the help of the Sodajerker on Songwriting podcast. Once a month, Liverpool songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor sit down with a different songwriter to talk about their process and experience as a creative. The list of guests is illustrious, from respected stalwarts like Nick Lowe and Suzanne Vega to contemporary hit maker songwriters like Naughty Boy, who has worked with Beyonce. I made sure to dial up the Johnny Marr episode to soothe my jangled nerves as I drove through the biggest city I’ve ever attempted behind the wheel.
As the roadside ads switched from beef to barbeque, I listened to the Meet the Composer podcast in defiance of the pop country, worship and classic rock options on the radio. Meet the Composer is an hour-long focus on contemporary classical music produced by violist Nadia Sirota, and it feels like a view of high-art music from 30,000 feet. Each episode is itself a composition, an exhilarating dive into the mechanics and theory of contemporary composition rendered with the dynamic, seamless flow of a show like Radiolab.
For the drive back to Missoula, my partner and I have a playlist full of Dr. Portia Sabin’s The Future of What podcast. Sabin, president of the Kill Rock Stars record label, has created a body of work that’s almost a free education for anyone interested in the music business under the hood. Each week she talks with a broad spectrum of professionals, from performers to accountants, to demystify the details of the music industry. As we make our way back across the country toward Missoula’s economic reality, the most recent episode titled “Creative Accounting” looks to be required listening.
We got lucky when we toured Sun Studio this trip. Our tour guide knew we were fellow musicians and took us behind the scenes to see the piano The Killer branded. With podcasts, you don’t have to rely on luck. No matter where you are — or where you’re going — the guides in these music podcasts are there to give you an on-demand VIP tour.