September 2008

David Varno

nonfiction

It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music by Amanda Petrusich

It Still Moves is a unique and mostly concise piece of music writing on a subject full of contradictions. In equal parts road narrative, music history, and critical assessment, Ms. Petrusich shares her quest for the true meaning of Americana in American music. Rather than seek obsessively the grave sites or relatives of lost, forgotten legends, she divides her time roaming the ground of the most prominent figures (Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, A.P. Carter, Leadbelly and the Lomaxs, and Woody Guthrie), and opening herself to the young acts recommended to her on the road at juke joints in Clarksdale, Memphis, and Nashville. Then she visits with select artists of the newer, hyphenated generation: alt-country, free-folk, indie-folk, etc.

Initially, this story of the road threatens with the standard fare of Gen X/Y travelogue, but the author looks our fear of Kerouac-nostalgia right in the eye by outlining a brief history of the American road narrative, and even comments on the tropes of road dreams as the stuff of myth for men and boys, but mere teenage fantasy for girls. Thus she acknowledges what she’s up against, and avoids the clichés. She succeeds by staying close to her subject, in the vein of the new-new journalist. She doesn’t make the story about her, and reveals little about her personal life; she submits to the story, and takes the reader along in the passenger seat.

As a cultural critic, Petrusich functions mostly as an apologist, noting the historical value of certain questionable figures (Sam Philips, John Lomax) over their alleged cultural imperialism and double standards with copyright issues. But it’s not a glossing-over; the stories of Philips’s opportunism with “race records” and Lomax’s refusal to grant Leadbelly songwriting credits for his arrangements are told with a string of uncomfortable details. The author even makes a 400-mile side journey to visit a PhD candidate in Lexington, KY, whose dissertation argues that black country music pioneers have been written out of history, before she heads back east through Kentucky coal country on her pilgrimage to the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, VA. Essentially, the author seems to suggest that one common thread in Americana is the discovery of qualities that white businessmen and career-minded musicians have realized will sell.

There is an easing here of the long-running quest for authenticity vs. commercial distillation. Petrusich notes that many young musicians who either practice or subvert various traditions of American music are less concerned with authenticity than with an original interpretation of what they find inspiring. But most of these artists (Will Oldham, Freakwater and MV & EE are among those covered) are not exactly in the mainstream, which leads the author to go further, asking us to consider if pop staples like Nelly and Faith Hill are just as steeped in Americana as the country revivalists Gillian Welch and Steve Earle. After all, she notes, performers of mainstream hip-hop and Nashville country both pull heavily from American roots music, and each industry has catapulted stars from impoverished or working class backgrounds. Provocative as it is, this line of thought contradicts an earlier passage of the book, in which Garth Brooks is brutally dismissed. Her incredulous descriptions of the retired superstar’s inflated stage antics elicits a chuckle, but it’s too bad she can’t say anything nice about “The Thunder Rolls,” which she claims sounds so generic that “it could have been conceived and executed by a computer program.” Aside from being a mighty powerful song, it was a progressive move among the so-called “hat-acts” to release a single that reverses country music’s paradigm of spousal abuse.

It would be unfair to mention more oversights, because the introductory Author’s Note makes clear that the book is not meant to be all-inclusive on the subject, and the Garth contradiction is the only one she seems unaware of (though perhaps this merely comes down to a matter of opinion). As Petrusich finds, it’s the tension of difference, whether of opinion, of opposing musical poles, or the exotic coupled with the familiar, that leads to the creation and regeneration of Americana and American music.

It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music by Amanda Petrusich
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 086547950X
304 Pages