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In what ways is writing like drumming? Like a drummer, the writer lays down a pattern of rhythm that keeps the plot of a story moving, propelling it with a steady beat through various twists and turns. Novelist Nic Brown’s peripatetic memoir, Bang Bang Crash, examines his past life as a drummer and the ways it both haunts and informs his current life as a writer.

When he was 8, Brown took drum lessons from a local jazz musician, and by the time Brown was in high school, he was playing in a few bands around the Greensboro, North Carolina, area. Although he was accepted at Princeton and Columbia, he deferred enrollment to keep gigging with his band, Athenaeum. They landed a record deal when Brown was 19 and even had a hit song. Brown spent much of 1996 touring the country, fulfilling all he’d ever wanted for his life—but by the end of the ’90s, he was losing his enthusiasm for music, and other dreams were starting to glitter on the horizon. One day, Brown picked up his acceptance letter from Columbia again and discovered he was still enrolled, even after his deferral over a year earlier. So he dropped his sticks, picked up his pen and left behind rock to start writing fiction, eventually landing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

After all these changes, Brown realized that writing offered a kind of artistic fulfillment that playing music had lacked. “As a drummer, I’d been yoked to the projects of others for so many years,” he writes, “that now, as a writer, I [was suddenly] so intoxicated by the opportunity to have an artistic project be all my own.” Even so, those old percussive impulses remain deep in his heart and soul. “I never play the drums anymore, but they never cease playing me,” he writes. “Rhythms and songs and patterns are dancing constantly through my mind, twirling in and around the beat of the windshield wipers, the thud of my footsteps, the click of my grocery cart as I wheel it away.”

Bang Bang Crash doesn’t always keep a steady beat, and sometimes it hits more rim than skin. Nevertheless, it offers a stylish portrait of a life in search of a deeper rhythm.

Novelist Nic Brown’s stylish memoir examines his past life as a drummer and the ways it both haunts and informs his current life as a writer.

“When I love a song, there is almost always a moment that sounds like how I imagine truth to sound,” writes poet Amy Key in Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone. “It’s the moment in the song that touches the bruise you didn’t know you had, the aching, denied part of you. You are found out by it.”

Every track of Joni Mitchell’s Blue uncovers a bruise for Key. The 1971 album has been dear to her for three decades, since she borrowed the cassette tape from her older sister when she was 14. From the moment Mitchell sang, “I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling, travelling, looking for something, what can it be?” Key experienced a sense of longing. At first it was a longing to consume every note of the album. But as she’s moved through the decades of her life, Key has come to associate Blue with her desire for romantic love. She yearns for a partner, but she also yearns for a sense of self that isn’t defined by her singleness.

In Arrangements in Blue, Key uses Mitchell’s seminal work as a magnifying glass for her emotions and experiences as a single woman. These 10 essays parallel the tracks of Blue, but intimacy with the album isn’t required to understand and appreciate Key’s insights. She recounts solo meals and solo travels, and reflects on how people have looked at her during those moments. She confesses all the ways she’s held out her heart and body to men who were happy to receive but unwilling to open themselves in return. By embracing a vulnerability that matches Mitchell’s, Key reveals the full spectrum of human feeling with words honed as carefully as poetry.

Key offers analysis of Mitchell’s work throughout, but Arrangements in Blue isn’t exactly about Blue. It’s a window into the way one woman has moved through a world that’s quick to define women by their relationships. It’s also an ode to the ways music can give voice to our emotions, sometimes shape-shifting over years to remain as relevant as the first time we hit play.

In Arrangements in Blue, Amy Key uses Joni Mitchell’s seminal work as a magnifying glass for her emotions and experiences as a single woman.
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Lynn Melnick’s I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton is an extraordinary homage to one of country music’s leading ladies. Melnick’s early life was marked by abuse and trauma, and she fell in love with Parton’s music at age 14. Mixing her personal history with reflections on the singer’s significance as a cultural figure, Melnick creates a moving narrative of female endurance. Parton’s popular tunes, including “Jolene” and “Islands in the Stream,” serve as springboards for the chapters of this inspiring book.

In Unlikeable Female Characters: The Women Pop Culture Wants You to Hate, Anna Bogutskaya explores how our perception of what makes a “likable” woman has changed as more complex female characters have become prevalent in media. Bogutskaya uses tropes such as “the mean girl” and “the shrew” as reference points and celebrates how those misogynist terms have been, in some cases, reclaimed. Bogutskaya’s analysis of gender, sexuality and the power of the media will get book clubs talking as she explores famous figures such as Cardi B and Hillary Clinton.

Emily Nussbaum delivers a shrewd overview of the modern TV landscape with her dazzling collection of essays, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. Over the course of the collection, Nussbaum—an unabashed fan of the tube—provides engaging analyses of audience viewing habits and storytelling trends and traditions. She also interviews showrunners and considers the significance of watershed series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Nussbaum’s lively writing style and gifts as a critic are on full display in this eye-opening collection.

Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse, Maya Phillips’ smart, incisive essay collection, investigates the growth of nerd culture and its influence on modern media. Reading groups will appreciate Phillips’ personal yet wide-reaching critiques of cultural touchstones such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and Marvel comics and how they inspire feelings of belonging among fans. Phillips also delves into the complications of her own experiences as a Black woman engaging in fandoms without many Black characters. The evolution of pop culture, hero worship and the impact of fan bases are but a few of the rich themes in this intriguing book.

These great picks come with ready-made playlists and watchlists!

How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair

Simon & Schuster | October 3

Throughout poet Safiya Sinclair’s childhood in Jamaica, her father was a strict Rastafarian who imposed harsh constraints on his daughters’ lives and appearances. As Sinclair read the books her mother gave her and began to find her voice as a poet, she likewise found her voice as a daughter struggling to get out from underneath her father’s thumb. In her debut memoir, Sinclair reckons with colonialism, patriarchy and obedience in expressive, melodic prose.

A Man of Two Faces by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Riverhead | September 12

The celebrated novelist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer turns to memoir for the first time in A Man of Two Faces. Viet Thanh Nguyen left Vietnam at age 4 and came to the U.S. as a refugee, but even after escaping danger in their home country, his family was separated, targeted and harmed in America. This book recounts the events of Nguyen’s life, of course, but it becomes much more than a straightforward memoir as Nguyen conjures stirring insights into memory, migration and identity.

The Sisterhood by Liza Mundy

Crown | October 17

The author of the 2017 bestseller Code Girls returns with The Sisterhood, a history of the women who have played key roles in the CIA since World War II. As spies, archivists, analysts and operatives, women have been underestimated and overlooked through the years. Liza Mundy now spins a gripping tale of how those women used those slights to their advantage as they captured state secrets and spotted threats that the men working alongside them had missed.

Being Henry by Henry Winkler

Celadon | October 31

Famously kindhearted actor Henry Winkler opens up about his life and work in Being Henry. From overcoming a difficult childhood and getting typecast as the Fonz early in his career to finding his second wind decades later in shows such as “Arrested Development” and “Barry,” Winkler peers beneath the sparkling veneer of Hollywood to tell the tender personal story behind his lifelong fame.

My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand

Viking | November 7

If there is one book that truly captures the spirit of “most anticipated,” it has to be screen and stage legend Barbra Streisand’s memoir. Fans have been looking forward to reading the full saga of Streisand’s life and unparalleled career for years—and this fall, they will finally get the chance. At 1,024 pages long, this book is unlikely to skip over any of the juicy details.

To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul by Tracy K. Smith

Knopf | November 7

Tracy K. Smith digs into historical archives to craft a new terminology for American life in this centuries-spanning portrait. Using the personal, documentary and spiritual, Smith considers the memory and possibilities of race, family and intimacy throughout history and into the future. By the end of this meditation, readers will have a new vocabulary and insight into the powers of their own soul.

Gator Country by Rebecca Renner

Flatiron | November 14

Gonzo journalism meets nature documentary in this fast-paced Floridian crime story. Officer Jeff Babauta goes undercover into the world of gator poaching in an attempt to bring down the intricate crime ring. As he becomes embedded in the network, meeting a zany, desperate cast of characters, Babauta’s sense of justice is challenged and he soon has to choose between sacrificing his new community and the safety of the natural world. 

The Lost Tomb by Douglas Preston

Grand Central | December 5

True crime meets a crash course in archaeological history in this extravaganza of a book. When he isn’t co-writing bestselling thrillers featuring FBI Agent Pendergast, Douglas Preston has been traveling the world, visiting some of history’s most storied and remote locations. From the largest tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings to a mass grave left by an asteroid impact, Preston will take readers on a fun, insightful journey into history.

Discover all of BookPage’s most anticipated books of fall 2023.

From CIA spies to Barbra Streisand, alligator tales and more, there’s something for everyone in fall’s most anticipated nonfiction releases.

Nothing could have prepared Melanie Jayne Chisholm—aka Sporty Spice—for the loneliness, isolation and debilitating episodes of imposter syndrome that accompanied the extreme highs (and lows) of fame. In The Sporty One: My Life as a Spice Girl, the singer, songwriter and tracksuit-wearing Brit carefully unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

The Spice Girls were a pop culture supernova at the turn of the new millennium. Contrary to the narrative wrought by the misogynistic media, the group was not the brainchild of industry executives. After answering a magazine advertisement, Victoria Adams (Posh), Geri Halliwell (Ginger), Melanie Brown (Scary), Michelle Stephenson and Chisholm came together to form the band Touch. When Stephenson proved to be a weak link, Emma Bunton (Baby) was recruited. It would take a pivotal name change and the reclamation of creative autonomy from their early male managers, but the Spice Girls would go on to smash records and, even more importantly, disrupt the cultural and musical landscape.

6 more celebrity memoirs that capture the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame

This type of rise at a young age leaves a few scars, and Chisholm isn’t afraid to recount her personal battles. The pressures of being a ubiquitous pop star coupled with her innate perfectionism brought on depression and severe anxiety. At one point after the Spice Girls had gone on hiatus and Chisholm had embarked on a successful solo career, she was nearly agoraphobic and plagued by incessant panic attacks. And despite her public image of health and fitness, the singer was secretly contending with disordered eating, which eventually led to anorexia and binge eating disorders. In 2009, Chisholm gave birth to her daughter, Scarlet. Motherhood wasn’t a cure-all for her mental health issues, but this new caregiver role allowed her to appreciate the extraordinary power of her body and all she has put it through.

Chisholm’s narrative voice is warm, funny and unabashedly real. Fans will feel as though they’ve been invited to an enlightening soul session with a close friend. Hard truths about patriarchal oppression and the fickle nature of celebrity are examined with sympathy and understanding. The Sporty One is more than the memoir of a pop star; it’s an emotional revelation.

Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice, unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

Listening to music is a uniquely personal experience. It can evoke strong feelings and memories. It can unite us or be a source of debate. In This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You, Susan Rogers (cognitive neuroscientist and Berklee College of Music professor) and Ogi Ogas (mathematical neuroscientist and co-author of Journey of the Mind) explain why we connect with certain aspects of a record. As a producer for artists as distinct as Prince and Barenaked Ladies, Rogers calls on decades of expertise regarding the musical preferences of herself and others. This real-world experience is intertwined with both authors’ scientific explanations of how the mind processes music. It’s like two books in one: stories of some of our most beloved musicians, singers and songwriters, coupled with insights about how and why our brains decipher musical notes, melodies and lyrics in particular ways.

Rogers refers time and again to an activity called a “record pull,” a music-sharing experience where friends discover things about one another by listening to their favorite records together. “Good record pulls feature as much storytelling as music,” she writes. Each chapter features a record pull suggestion to help us understand how we connect with music. It’s a fun, informative exercise that will undoubtedly open many readers’ minds and increase their musical knowledge.

In a tone that is both logical and approachable, the two authors explain that because each brain is wired to experience rewards from different facets of music, “it is misguided to suggest that anyone’s taste in music is superior to anyone else’s.” After reading This Is What It Sounds Like, lovers of all music genres will never listen to their favorite records the same way again.

This Is What It Sounds Like is like two books in one: stories of some of our most beloved musicians coupled with insights about how our brains decipher music.

In the popular imagination, the banjo is an instrument played by white bluegrass or old-time musicians plucking out traditional Appalachian ballads on their front porches. Many folks associate banjo music with the theme from the “Beverly Hillbillies,” played by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, or Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance. However, in 2016, Laurent Dubois’ The Banjo probed deeply into the instrument’s true origins, revealing that the banjo evolved out of enslaved communities in the Caribbean and North America as Black musicians preserved the sounds of their African cultures by fashioning instruments similar to the ones from their homes. Kristina R. Gaddy’s superb Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History builds on Dubois’ work to provide an even more detailed look at the “culture and lived experience of the people of African descent who created, played, and listened to the banjo.”

Gaddy’s lively storytelling re-creates scenes from 17th-century Jamaica to 19th-century Washington, D.C., and beyond, illustrating not only the birth and development of the banjo but also its co-optation by white people. In 1687, the governor of Jamaica’s physician recorded his encounter with perhaps the earliest incarnation of the banjo, two- and three-stringed gourd lutes he called Strum Strumps, played during religious rituals by enslaved communities from West Africa. By the 18th century, the instrument—variously known as a banjo, bonja, bangeo, banjoe and banger—was being made and played by enslaved musicians on plantations, with some banjo players leading the wider community in song. In the 19th century, white performers who wore blackface in minstrel shows often included a banjo or two in their productions, mocking the Black musical experience while also popularizing the banjo. By the end of the 19th century, collections of slave songs had started to circulate, preserving the heritage of the banjo as an instrument used in religious ceremonies by Black communities.

Well of Souls’ coda points to the work of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Allison Russell and other Black musicians who are reviving the African history of the banjo through their albums, workshops and performances. Gaddy’s captivating book likewise recovers chapters in what is still a little-known history of this quintessential American instrument.

Kristina R. Gaddy’s captivating book reveals the African history of a quintessential American instrument: the banjo.

Lynn Melnick became a fan of Dolly Parton’s music after hearing “Islands in the Stream,” a duet with Kenny Rogers, while checking into rehab as a teen in the late 1980s. Parton was already decades into her successful country music career, with songs like this one also finding a home on pop charts. But she was a joke to the people in Melnick’s Los Angeles circles. “Islands in the Stream” was the first Parton song Melnick had heard start to finish, and it became her gateway into a life of fandom.

In I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, poet Melnick analyzes the 22-track Dolly Parton playlist that she’s listened to for the past decade. As she examines Parton’s work, Melnick excavates her own past and shares what this music has meant to her over the years. Parton is a symbol of femininity and goodness, and Melnick has been inspired by Parton’s triumphs as she’s faced numerous traumas and struggles: The cocaine and whiskey Melnick used to mask the memory of being raped at 9 years old. The abusive boyfriend who kept popping up years after she left him. Deaths of family and friends. The retraumatizing effects of living as a survivor in rape culture.

While each chapter is personal, Melnick also brings outside analysis to her narrative, weaving together cultural criticism and academic research to place these songs in a broader context. And though Melnick describes herself as a die-hard Parton fan, she’s also willing to critique her hero. She examines some of the singer’s less admirable choices, such as naming a dinner show “The Dixie Stampede” or referring to the sex worker who inspired Parton’s look as “trash” and a “trollop.” In general, Parton has a knack for political neutrality, which can frustrate fans like Melnick. But Melnick also praises her idol’s charitable giving, her readiness to defend queer rights and the ways she has modeled what it looks like for a woman to make her own way in the world.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis of a beloved icon whose relevance endures.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir about trauma and Dolly Parton; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman

Sophia’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Goldman, knits hats for just about everybody she knows, and Sophia helps by making the pompoms that go on top. “Keeping keppies warm is our mitzvah,” Mrs. Goldman tells Sophia, explaining that “a mitzvah is a good deed.” When Mrs. Goldman gives her own hat away, Sophia wants to knit her something special, but knitting turns out to be harder than she realized. I love this sweet introduction to the Jewish concept of mitzvot. Author Michelle Edwards’ text has lots of delightful little details, like when Sophia notices that a hat she and Mrs. Goldman began knitting together many years ago still smells like chicken soup. But what gets me every time is Edwards’ description of Sophia’s emotions when she realizes the perfect solution to her knitting woes: “Sophia feels her heart grow bigger and lighter, like a balloon.” If ever a book were a mitzvah, it would be A Hat for Mrs. Goldman.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor


Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher whose obsessive analysis of the effects of unchecked consumerism becomes more prescient with each passing day. In his 1988 essay collection, America, Baudrillard follows Route 66 across the United States toward Death Valley, California, as he seeks to answer a seemingly simple question: What makes an American? The thing that synthesizes American identity, he finds, is faith: from the evangelical fervor of Salt Lake City, to Las Vegas’ ascendant belief in the dollar, to the ever-elusive future of San Franciscan tech lords. Everywhere he looks, Baudrillard finds sprawling cities not built on trade or natural resources but suspended on dust clouds, spinning rivers of capital and an unshakable belief in American mastery over nature, by whatever means. Even if you disagree with Baudrillard’s funny, sometimes biting analysis of the United States, his surprisingly nuanced poetry, complex worldview and foreign perspective still make for a unique and engaging read during these dynamic times.

—Anthony, Editorial Intern

Open Book

Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I knew that Jessica Simpson had started out singing in church. What surprised me when I read her memoir, Open Book, however, was how much Simpson’s Christian faith still matters to her all these years later. The book opens with the day she decided to stop drinking, after years of using alcohol to quell her anxiety through tough relationships and even tougher career breaks. As she gets honest with friends about her dependency on alcohol, the group decides to pray together to validate Simpson’s decision. This moment of honesty and faith is a good entry point, since these values are Simpson’s guiding lights throughout her memoir. She’s honest with readers about childhood sexual abuse, the demands of record labels, her marriage to Nick Lachey, her relationships with family and the wild ups and downs that have shaped her life’s terrain. At every point, Simpson’s Baptist roots ground her and keep her from straying too far from her authentic self.

—Christy, Associate Editor

The Sparrow

First published in 1996, Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction classic The Sparrow examines organized religion and faith on a cosmic scale. Spanning the years 2014 to 2060, the novel follows an interstellar mission led by skilled linguist and Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz to discover the source of hauntingly beautiful music that was detected on a planet four light-years away. Accompanied by a motley yet qualified group of friends, Emilio feels called by God to explore the planet and make contact with its alien inhabitants, the music makers. But as the trip unfolds, the group’s well-meaning intentions have catastrophic consequences that cause Emilio to have a crisis of faith. Raised Catholic, Russell left the church at an early age, identified as an atheist for several years and later converted to Judaism. This background, combined with her skills as a multilinguist and her career in paleoanthropology, provide a unique perspective from which to tell such a rich, multifaceted story.

—Katherine, Subscriptions

Hana Khan Carries On

Uzma Jalaluddin’s enemies-to-lovers romance Hana Khan Carries On is a joyful homage to the classic 1990s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, with an Indian Canadian family’s halal restaurant subbing in for the Shop Around the Corner. Hana is our leopard-print hijab-wearing heroine, and she dreams of someday telling true stories that honor her Muslim culture and community. The local radio station where Hana interns is hyperfocused on Muslim stereotypes, so she creates an anonymous podcast to express her true thoughts. Meanwhile, her family’s business has run up against a competing restaurant, with an attractive man named Aydin leading the charge. But as romance grows and the restaurants duke it out, the heart of the novel remains with Hana. Despite microaggressions at the radio station and outright racism on the streets of Toronto, she remains strong in her culture and religion, never abandoning these parts of herself. She finds happiness by being her whole wonderful self—a lover, a fighter, a devout Muslim woman, an open-hearted storyteller and a heroine to believe in.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Whether your own approach to religion is devout, irreverent or somewhere in between, you’ll find characters to relate to within these narratives.

Novelist, journalist, editor and television producer Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop radiates brilliance. In dazzling prose, she casts a spotlight on the creative genius of Black women musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Marilyn McCoo and many more.

Weaving together the threads of memoir, biography and criticism, Smith illustrates how her intense love of music has been shaped by Black women’s art. These women helped her find her way as a Black girl in 1970s Oakland, giving her strength and the confidence to write about the music that defined her life. Now, when people ask Smith, “Why does Tina Turner matter? Why is Mary J. Blige important?” her answers, she writes, “are passionate and learned because I want credit to be given where credit is due.” For Smith, this especially includes giving Black women credit for being the progenitors of American soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop.

For example, Smith traces the career of Cissy Houston who, as part of the singing group the Sweet Inspirations, shaped the sound of megahits such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Son of a Preacher Man”—works that became foundational to the classic rock format and went on to influence everyone from the Counting Crows to U2. As Smith writes, “The Grammy Awards of the artists they have influenced would fill a hangar,” yet the Sweets are rarely mentioned in connection to these and other iconic songs.

As Smith teases out the immeasurable influence of both underappreciated background singers and idols who are household names, she illuminates the qualities these artists have in common, “most of which revolve around the transmogrification of Black oppression to fleeting and inclusive Black joy.” Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Danyel Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.

Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”

Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.

With unique depth, Citizen Cash combines biography, cultural analysis and music history to examine Johnny Cash’s political and social ideas.

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