City Paper is not for tourists
Amanda Petrusich knows what most people think about when they think about Americana: denim, banjos, a paisley handkerchief tied just so, maybe amber waves of grain. But she still has a host of questions about it: “What does Americana look like? What does it sound like? Does it move?” Part history, part travelogue, It Still Moves is Petrusich’s attempt to find some answers. She chronicles her travels through the South, with stops in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. She drops by meccas like Graceland, where she’s overwhelmed by all the kitschy familiarity (“There’s a toaster sitting on Elvis’ kitchen counter that reminds me of the one in my own childhood kitchen, all orange levers and fake wood paneling”), visits more serene landmarks such as Robert Johnson’s grave outside of Clarksdale, Miss., then swings up to Brooklyn where she watches indie-folk icon Sam Beam of Iron & Wine perform at Williamsburg’s McCarren Park Pool. A staff writer for Pitchfork, Petrusich initially overreaches to define Americana music: It’s “a symbiotic swirl of folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and classic guitar-and-vocals emoting [that] is always infused with the vitality of the landscapes from which it has sprung,” she writes. But it’s soon obvious that It Still Moves doesn’t intend to strictly locate the genre’s history and meanings. Instead Petrusich takes a much more meandering approach to identify the people who she feels figure prominently in the evolution of American music: Delta blues musician Charley Patton, who helped define the genre that so influenced rock ’n’ roll, Sun Studio impresario Sam Phillips, who first recorded Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and music historian John Lomax, who traveled with his son Alan through Southern prisons, recording and preserving obscure regional folk songs. A chapter on Woody Guthrie depicts the legendary songwriter as brilliant and talented but also acutely aware of the character he was supposed to be playing as a godfather of popular folk music; it’s a compelling sketch that better informs Guthrie’s widely noted influence on Bob Dylan. At her best, Petrusich’s criticism is sharp and beautifully written. Her insights about, for instance, religion and music are concise and relevant (“that remarkable tension—between right and wrong, carnal and spiritual—is essentially what fuels rock ’n’ roll”), and her criticisms have some bite: Discussing the success of the old-timey soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, she writes, “It’s always simpler to spew nostalgic over what’s passed than to put hard work into reimagining hallowed, spent traditions for a whole new world and to do so in a way that is just as meaningful now as it was when it started.” Moreover, she stresses that the music has a life beyond the archivists: Her book is broad enough to include a band like Califone, which prides iself on “synthesizing mountain and Delta traditions with contemporary technology…reimagining Americana for a nation more reliant on machines than the grace of God.” Audiophiles and history buffs might become frustrated with Petrusich’s tendency to wander, as she waxes poetic about the Appalachians and contemplates the tchotchkes adorning the walls of a Cracker Barrel. But more patient readers will appreciate not being hit over the head with timelines, dates, or sales figures. And while the relevance of Petrusich’s wanderings isn’t always immediately clear, by the end of It Still Moves she’s explored enough places to allow readers to consider for themselves how Sun Studios, the Federal Highway Act, and the Woody Guthrie archives in midtown Manhattan all weave together in the lexicon of Americana.