All-Americana girl

The author of "It Still Moves" discusses her road trip through America's musical past and future -- and why we still yearn for the music of yore.

Published September 2, 2008 11:19AM (EDT)

One morning last week, the sound of raucous, twangy fiddle music greeted me as I groggily descended the stairs to the subway platform. A small crowd had gathered around a young man attacking his instrument with intensity and skill. Toddlers did clumsy dances as their parents dropped change into his open case.

Sitting on the train, I pulled out my copy of Amanda Petrusich's "It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music," considering the parallels between the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based music critic's book and the juxtaposition of ancient sounds and contemporary landscape I had just witnessed. Every decade or so, Americana resurfaces, from Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late '60s to the Mekons 10 years later, to Uncle Tupelo, who ushered in the early-'90s alt-country movement. But as music increasingly becomes digitized, it's getting more difficult to feel a personal connection to the songs we listen to. The longing for old-fashioned forms, pastoral themes and nostalgic visions of the American dream seems more urgent than ever. "Living on a farm, the only thing to do at night was gather on the porch and have everyone play a song together," says Petrusich. "There's something appealing about the simplicity of it. Things have gotten so complicated."

This impulse to simplify may be at the heart of Americana music's most recent, and increasingly popular, revival. The country-flavored band My Morning Jacket has risen from the underground to release one of 2008's most commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums, "Evil Urges." Last year, formerly obscure, antifolk weirdo Kimya Dawson earned overnight fame with her soundtrack to the film "Juno." And, as Petrusich describes in "It Still Moves," the world of independent music teems with new "free-folk" (or "freak-folk" or "new, weird America") artists like Devendra Banhart and Iron and Wine who shape old forms into albums that sound ancient and contemporary at the same time.

Structured around a three-and-a-half-week solo road trip that took the author (a 28-year-old staff writer at Pitchfork and contributing editor for Paste) across the American South, from Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., to the Mississippi Delta and the mountains of Appalachia, "It Still Moves" is a contemplative journey through the history of folk, country, blues and rock 'n' roll. Petrusich's tale unfolds in the first person, complete with uncomfortable moments, delicious home-cooked meals, and long, dreamy stretches of highway. She tells stories about legends like Elvis and obscure figures like W.C. Handy, another Memphis musician whose 1909 song, "Boss Crump Blues," may have launched the genre. Petrusich traces the divergent strands of Americana through the 20th century and into the 21st, finding the tradition alive and well in free folk's unofficial headquarters of Brattleboro, Vt., where the first free-folk festival was held in 2003.

Salon spoke with Petrusich at Salon's New York office about her road trip through America, how Lead Belly was the 50 Cent of his time and why we still yearn for the music of yore.

As a young critic who has written mostly about new, independent music, what drew you to such an old tradition?

I grew up listening to grunge and pop radio, and I found it the way a lot of people find it. You listen to enough Led Zeppelin and you eventually hear the name "Robert Johnson," and from there it's a treasure hunt through the record store. When I first started hearing that stuff, especially Delta blues, I fell in love with it. And when Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" was reissued on CD in 1997, I was 17 years old. Through that, I hunted things down. Around 2003, I started hearing a lot of bands in the indie-rock area that were drawing from Americana in really interesting ways.

Why do you think Americana has had such a resurgence lately?

We live in a digital culture now. Things feel less regional, and music feels less regional. Americana appeals in the way that it feels more "authentic," or a little bit richer, a little bit tied to a place. We don't see as much of that anymore.

Maybe it's the same thing that draws people to record collecting -- it's tangible.

I'm no record collector, but I'm kind of a nerd about that stuff. You hold an LP in your hand, and it's all those clichéd things. It's big and it's awkward, it's dusty, it's beautiful, and it smells funny. It has the liner notes, and it's kind of mysterious. All those things apply to this music, too. It feels rooted.

So many of the characters in "It Still Moves" -- like Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records, and John and Alan Lomax -- are obsessive collectors. Does the impulse to collect and preserve strike you as a particularly American trait?

Yeah. It's endemic of American culture, whether it's collecting money or square footage or going to Costco and collecting 65 cans of green beans. It's funny, because I've just started writing about record collectors. I'm following around these 78 collectors. It's amazing how much preservationist work they do. [In the 1940s] lots of masters [master recordings] were melted for the war effort. Paramount's were supposedly thrown in the Milwaukee River. All that are left of those songs are those 78s.

Record collectors are a big part of American music history. People think of it as being this niche and a male pastime -- Robert Crumb, "Ghost World," basement dwellers, mouth breathers. But John and Alan Lomax were song collectors. I think they were driven by a love of that music and a desire to preserve it.

You mention in the book that the protagonist of most American road trip stories is male. Most rock critics are also male, as are most of the characters in "It Still Moves." How did being a woman impact your experience, both on the road and in writing the book?

The story of Americana music is very much a male story, or that's the way in which it's been preserved. There were certainly a lot of amazing female blues musicians, but unfortunately they didn't get to record, and their stories haven't been passed on in the same way. There were times when I felt almost self-conscious about it. I wanted to write about more women artists, but it was difficult to have access to that information and to those recordings.

About the road-story structure of it, I love "Blue Highways"; I even love "On the Road." I felt like, why can't a woman write this book? Why are these stories so overwhelmingly male? So many women I know love driving around listening to records, but I guess that's not something people think about.

Male road trip stories tend to focus on finding oneself through a journey. Did you experience that?

The trip was cathartic for me. It's an interesting time to be writing a book about America because we're at war, and there's a very contentious presidency. "Patriot" has become a loaded word with uncomfortable connotations. It was interesting to get back in touch with the country at a time when I felt out of touch with it politically. Especially the South, which gets maligned as being backward or conservative by default, which is not necessarily true. I fell deeply, deeply in love with this country.

You often seemed more deeply affected by the landmarks you visited than you originally expected to be.

I went into it open, willing to let these places get to me. And they did. Even Graceland -- I had goose bumps. And Graceland's the silliest place on earth. But you go there and get a sense of the weight and history of it. And Sun Studios -- the huge, awesome ramifications of what happened in this little room. It's impossible not to get emotional about it. Seeing A.P. Carter's grave on top of Clinch Mountain in rural Virginia, I had tears in my eyes. I didn't see that coming.

You uncover a great deal about how closely intertwined all genres of Americana are -- folk, country, blues, rock. Did it surprise you to learn how much common ancestry they share?

Absolutely. There are a zillion books about Elvis and a zillion books about the blues. But I wanted to rethink it as a single narrative, the story of rural American music. It did surprise me to see that it was all coming from the same spirit and, in some cases, literally coming from the same places or the same seed.

I didn't realize African-Americans were involved in country music so early on.

It's funny, I was just listening to some 78s of Mississippi John Hurt, who was called a blues singer. People still refer to him as a blues singer. But you listen to those songs, and they're country songs. It's all about classification. African-Americans were written out of country music history, which is tragic, if perhaps unsurprising.

The history of Americana music does seem to be a history of racial tension. Could the music have existed without that?

Probably not. It's a cliché about the blues that they were born from such impossible-to-comprehend hardship. A huge component of that was racial tension. A lot of great art is born of some kind of tension. It's unfortunate it had to be that.

You tell a story about the way Lead Belly was marketed as a black murderer to educated, white audiences. The echoes in the current hip-hop industry are unbelievable.

I had a conflicted relationship with the Lomaxes and what they did. I'm grateful, on one hand, that I was able to listen to these songs, which is directly because of them, and also angry about the way in which they worked, specifically with Lead Belly. You read about that and you're like, "It's crazy." But then you pause for a second and you're like, "Oh God. It's still happening."

It's an old story, that kind of fetishism. It happened with hillbilly music, too. They were forced to dress up in silly outfits and put a piece of hay in their teeth. It's the selling of "the other."

One of the biggest controversies in music criticism in the past year came out of an essay the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones wrote decrying the lack of African-American influences in white indie rock. But after reading "It Still Moves," it's hard for me to imagine that any American popular music could be free of black roots. Is current independent music as white as it appears to be?

That's tough to talk about, and I think that may be why so many people found that article so problematic. I hear a lot of blues in indie rock -- I mean, it's rock. And rock is so indebted to black music that you can't perform any kind of rock 'n' roll without nodding back to that culture.

I think Sasha was talking about the rhythm of it, and that's a common complaint about alt-country, too. It feels very white. And I get that. It's music made by white people for white people. There's something that feels sort of exclusionary about it. But I'm not sure I buy it. When I listen to Califone, I hear the entire "American Anthology of Folk Music." And that's a band lots of people would classify as white indie rock. It's not an argument I would try to make.

You write about two contemporary genres that have firm roots in Americana -- alt-country (bands like Uncle Tupelo and Freakwater) and free folk (like Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham). You seem to feel that free folk has been the more successful of the two, artistically. Why?

I say that as an alt-country apologist, because I like a lot of that stuff. But it devolved into this Starbucks-y background music genre that was not very interesting. Sometimes it was straight revival country music, and sometimes it got too precious for its own good.

Free folk was more interesting to me because I felt it was reflecting the new American landscape in a way that was really successful. Here are bands that are taking this acoustic, rural music and tweaking it with a broken synthesizer or some kind of crazy, very contemporary-sounding beat. To me, that felt like the aural equivalent of when you're driving down the highway, looking out the window, and you see these beautiful mountains and old cabins, and then there's a Wal-Mart. It made sense to mix the two, and I never thought alt-country did that.

Did you notice that juxtaposition of new and old while you were on the road?

That totally surprised me, the extent to which you find these little enclaves. It could have been 1945 in some of these towns. And it's functional. It doesn't feel like a theme park. It's the way people live. Then you'd get on the highway and start to see the gas stations, the Ruby Tuesdays and the Targets. For me, it made sense. It's sort of like playing a banjo and then playing a keyboard. That's why free folk feels contemporary, in an honest way. That's the way we live now.

Is Americana more about the music itself -- the instruments and sounds -- or the feeling it imparts?

To me, Americana is more a feeling than a specific set of parameters. As soon as you start trying to say, "It's this song structure and it's this instrument, and this style of singing," you're going to run into problems.

When I met with the then president of the Americana Music Association, I asked him how he defined Americana, and he said, "I know it when I see it." I think that's true in a lot of ways. It's music that has a deep connection to the landscape that supports it. It's community-oriented, regional, often rural music about everyday life and everyday people . But I think that definition is expanding. With alt-country and free folk, it becomes more difficult to contain the music, which is a good thing. This is a crazy, broad, wild country, and it makes sense that its music reflects that.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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