Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Rick Bragg is no stranger to unearthing the heart of a story, as he proved in his own best-selling memoir All Over But The Shoutin’. To uncover the many lives of Jerry Lee Lewis for his latest book, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, out this month from Harper, Bragg spent countless hours scrolling through letters and doing research, two summers sitting with the legendary performer, and a fair share of time crossing his fingers in hopes he wouldn’t meet with the wrong end of Lewis’s shotgun. “I heard and read he shot his base player,” Bragg says. “He kept a Long Barrel .357 under his pillow, and he made sure I saw that. I thought he would never shoot me on purpose, but if you’ll shoot your base player, why not shoot your book writer?”

For the summers of 2011 and 2012, Bragg would sit across from Lewis and Lewis’s ornery Chihuahua, Topaz Junior, sometimes listening, sometimes sharing bits of his own story, and all the while getting to know the man behind the myth. “I often tell younger people that the best stories in the world come from people with a lot of lines in their faces. Much of what put marks on Jerry Lee Lewis was a hell of his own making. He was tortured by the idea of a simple question – can you play rock and roll music and not burn in a lake of fire?” Bragg says. “It’s still a question in his mind. Along the way and beyond that question of faith, he took a lot of pills and drank a lot of whiskey. He stole a bunch of men’s wives and fought and gauged and screamed and raged across at least seven decades.”

Bragg landed the assignment of writing “the story of Jerry Lee Lewis” when his agent called him in 2011. “Part of me said ‘hell yeah’, and part of me said ‘God, help me’. The book fell right down in between, and we lived that book right in the middle. If it were food, it’d be sausage gravy. It’s not good for you, but it sure does taste great.”

With so much already written about Lewis, Bragg embraced the daunting task of telling the legend’s story in his own words. “The challenge was this: if you fawn over him and try to make him into something he’s not, then you will fail. At the same time, if you do not find a way to make people feel some sympathy for him, then you also fail. The way to do that, I thought, was to go back to his childhood.”

Bragg found a connection between himself and Lewis, who was “born into a whiskey river” on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana. “His people and my people are similar. His daddy went to prison, my daddy served time in almost every way possible. We had that in common. I can’t tell you the whole thing was a hoot, but it was as good a time I’ve ever had talking to people who are not my blood.”

When it comes to the life of the infamous singer, Bragg says, “Death swirled around him. He lost a boy in a car wreck, he lost a baby who wandered out of the house and drowned in a swimming pool. It seemed he lost everyone he had greatly loved except for a tiny handful of people.”

While there were days when Lewis was a fount of story and recollection, there were also times when he’d roll away from Bragg – unable or unwilling to look back. When he spoke about his passions, Bragg was spellbound. “He talked about music with bone naked love. It was like listening to someone tell their deepest darkest secret when he talked about music,” Bragg says. “He was a wonderful talker when he felt like it. He would talk about faith and his mama, and he would talk about trying to claw his way back up from the bottom. There was a great pride in not disappearing. He reminded me of my uncles and aunts who gave me the inspiration for three books on the Appalachian. It is in many ways a lost art – telling story.”

While the biography of the man who introduced a generation to revolutionary music like “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” is ripe with history, it’s also got Bragg’s colorful use of language. Bragg counts Pat Conroy, Charles Dickens, Eudora Welty and others among his literary influences, but it’s often his family he credits for his writing style. “I think the phrases, the color, cadence and rhythms [in the book], those come from the foothills of the Appalachian,” he says. “It’s how my people tell a story.”

Bragg’s relationship with language is an organic one, but there was one aspect of shaping the events Lewis shared which proved a struggle. “The organization was hard – it was difficult when I was 19 and it will be hard when it’s the last thing I write on this earth. I’m not going to say pretty writing is easy, but it’s opportunity every time. I knew with Jerry Lee Lewis that there would be a great chance to flex that muscle. He lived in violence, pain, and suffering – great darkness. He rose and he fell, rose and fell again, and again, while most of us just bump along. I knew it would lend to drama, and if you’re a writer, you just want someone to hand you some drama.”

Drama, Bragg wanted, and drama he received - in spades. “It’s not the easiest book I’ve ever done, but it’s the richest. It was a little frustrating getting started because Lewis’s health was so bad, and some days it was really hard for him to talk, so it was a kind of a difficult process. At the end of the day, though, I was proud we did it and stuck with it - and glad he didn’t shoot me.”