Forgive me some thinking aloud.
I’ve just finished reading Amanda Petrusich’s It Still Moves. The book’s subtitle is ‘Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for the Next American Music’, but the book discusses only the most obvious of American roots music’s catalogue, travels almost entirely on the interstate network (indeed, has a chapter devoted to the I-64 West), and doesn’t so much search for the next American music as knows it exists from the very first page. This is not the first time, though, that what a publisher thinks will sell a book proves to be different to what the author finds interesting, and It Still Moves proves to be compelling on its actual ground: a discussion about Americana and what it is, seen through the lens of music, but encompassing Cracker Barrel restaurants and ersatz tourist attractions.
I should declare a bias. Americana music – country, blues, folk, ragtime and all the rest – is what I love, and the music with which I most connect. Whilst reading the book, which concludes in part that “American music reflects the landscape from which it springs”, I frequently paused to ask why. I’ve been asked many times how it is that a boy from Birmingham wants to sing hillbilly music, and whether that isn’t an affectation; I put my hands up and agree that folk music is an indigineous form, and to an extent my singing it is therefore perilously close to pastiche. And yet it is also true that it is the music which feels natural to me to play, the cadences and phrasings of its lyrics suited to my voice.
This isn’t because I was brought up on it. My dad likes Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves, it’s true, but it’s a long leap from ‘He Has To Go’ to folk music. The first records I bought were British modrock: Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene, The Who. Simon Fowler of OCS once remarked in an interview that he was inspired by Bob Dylan and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which might have been the start of my exploration of Americana but still can’t explain the singular way it speaks to me. Nor is it as if English folk doesn’t still ‘move’: only this week I’ve been listening to Before The Ruin, a very fine record recorded by Kris Drever, John McCusker and, er, Roddy Woomble, and which at times fully inhabits a tradfolk foreground.
In February, Stuart Evers posted presumptuously on the Guardian’s Books blog, asking “why are we so fascinated with US literature?” One comment in reply was succinct: “You like American writing because you’re young and have never lived here. The promise far outweighs the punchline. But hey.” Perhaps that’s why the Grand Coulee Dam makes me want to sing where the bitter withy doesn’t. Perhaps, too, it’s just that Americana records sound better than English folk ones. (Compare the production on a Natalie Merchant LP with that on a John Tams album.) Maybe, and whisper this down at the folk clubs, it’s that the two styles at their rootsiest are drawing once again closer and closer to each other the younger their players get, and that the particular emphasis barely matters anyway.
Whatever, Petrusich’s book burrows beneath the music, unearthing new ideas about why those of us who love Americana music might be so afflicted. It’s well worth a read for fans of the Carter Family and Iron & Wine alike, and might even send you back to Harry Smith’s Anthology; heck, it should send us further back than that, too. But the highway, not the moor, is where I’ll stay feeling most at home.