During her interview with Larry Singleton, the man who picks all the décor for the Lebanon, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel chain, music journalist Amanda Petrusich distills the muse of her life—the quest for Americana—down to its essence: “Singleton is peddling earnestness, industriousness, and faith, trying his hardest to ‘remind’ us of a time when life was less virtual; the fact that our memories of these objects and eras are entirely fabricated has little to do with his endgame. Even if we’ve never baked our own bread or churned our own butter—even if we’re deeply skeptical that ‘simpler times’ have ever really existed for human beings on planet Earth—we still understand, immediately, what these tools are meant to represent.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the very question that led her to write her latest book, It Still Moves—“What does Americana look like?”—was not found at a folk festival or sitting in her Brooklyn apartment reviewing the latest Wilco or Calexico records, but by watching several of those 500+ infamous red barn stores whiz by on her interstate travels. Cracker Barrel does indeed bring us warm-hearted memories of the old days that never existed for most of us. The company magically conjures images of calling the family dog inside while the rainstorm barrels over the fields, or the smell of crisp, baked apple pies wafting in the autumnal breeze. Where or why we have these images is altogether another question, yet certain stores—like Cracker Barrel—make a killing from the impulse.
It Still Moves
Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Yet Petrusich’s real question isn’t what Americana looks like, but what it sounds like. And this is a question she is most ready to, if not answer, then at least explore in-depth. She is a passionate writer whose love for music shines through on every page. As she explains early on, she is not concerned with how many records are sold or what tactics artists use in the studio. Her approach is more intangible, hence more emotionally tactile: Who are these people creating this music? What are their dreams, ambitions, philosophies? We can hear the result of their craft. What is the foundation of their songs? This is, in large part, what makes this book so enjoyable—the people behind the songs, not to mention her own personal perceptions of what goes on behind her scenes.
And it is a refreshing approach, especially in a time when most anyone can publish a book (last year, over 400,000 new titles hit shelves and websites in America alone), and the majority of this literary landslide lands in the most egregious and mundane genre imaginable: memoirs. It takes a keen eye (and pen) to write your own story for the greater good of the topic matter; Petrusich nails it. Indeed, it is embedded in her subject matter’s philosophy. As she writes early on, “most traditional Americana music is produced without much concern for its commercial potential”. During the story that unfolds thereafter, her thesis is proven over and again.
This is not new to American music; in fact, it’s not new to any country. It’s not that most any artist wouldn’t like to be successful, commercially and financially, at what they do, but Petrusich is right in her assumption that artists who get into the game of the various and evolving strains of folk, country, and rock are not banking on big paybacks. In fact, the model for multi-million dollar deals is truly the newer idea, one that did not enter modern consciousness until acetate began pumping out spirituals and classical music early last century, and, with the emergence of jazz a few decades later, became profitable.
Petrusich does not go that deep into the history, though. She doesn’t touch the plight of Thomas Edison, the marketing dreams of Thadeus Cahill, or the birth of Motown, which perfected the assembly line techniques that a motor company across the city had been churning out, and applying them to music. Her quest begins at a very important point in American musical history: Alan Lomax and the blues. Keeping a sturdy mantra in mind—“every good story about America is also a story about the road”—she hops into her “scratched-up Honda Civic” and takes off on an excursion in search of the soul of our country.
And this soul has been a mystery even to its inhabitants, because in many ways, we are so many people coming together all the time. This trend is not unique to America—in older wayfaring communities, like those along the Silk Road or the Balkan trail, people traveled, traded, and formed new cultures constantly. Yet the rapidity by which America has grown, and its ability to ingest and consume so much foreign influence, recreating it with its own distinct flavor, is a very inspired trait. What is true of our culture at large is reflected in the music we create. We can here refer to what journalist Kip Lornell wrote regarding Ry Cooder teaching Keith Richards how to play guitar in the style of John Lee Hooker: “So that famous riff in 1969’s ‘Honky Tonk Woman” came to millions of fans across the world from a Detroit-based, Mississippi Delta-born black musician by way of a young white southern Californian who taught it to a British rock star!”
Petrusich’s focus is the influence of blues on rock music, and how that has come to be represented in the numerous folk-, country-, and emo-based forms that are circulating today, represented in the tones and timber of Wilco, Califone, Iron and Wine and others. Along the way she takes pit stops along the country’s sonic timeline, like a brief history of Sun Studios and Sun Records and the emergence of Elvis Presley; a visit to Graceland, where upon learning that he “liked monkeys and watching television in the kitchen”, for the iconic Presley was humanized in her eyes; and a great historical overview of Woody Guthrie’s emotionally challenged life in Coney Island, and his rise to prominence on the national folk scene.
Like all good stories, there is no summation, but a glimpse of the continuation to come. That is what music does—it serves the needs of the times. If it stagnates, the culture is unmoved. Styles are staircases that we climb up and create new buildings with. The raw materials of song remain the same, however: struggle, heartbreak, ascension, passion. As the writer concludes, she understands we are not the dominant species on this planet, that we have grown out of the dirt and steel and blood of this earth like all else: “We are all subject to our environs, fashioned and chiseled and sanded into shapes. We have highways for arteries and clouds for brains and sticks for bones.” And, she could have added, we have wheels for hearts that continue to let us move.