Faber and Faber, 290 pages, $25
Reviewed by Ken Burke, March 2009
art travelogue, part musical essay, Amanda Petrusich's treatise provides fresh, stylishly written insights. Tackling an immense subject with snapshot imagery and scrupulous historical research, it fashions a convincing argument that American roots music is a perpetual cultural force that ultimately still matters.
Traveling New York - where she cannily cites Woody Guthrie's rise as a folk hero as a Big Apple-generated phenomenon - the author chronicles her reactions to several iconic musical regions. Sun studios in Memphis inspired a look at the importance of black radio and skepticism over Sam Phillip's true cultural legacy. A wide-eyed visit to Elvis Presley's Graceland leads her to wonder if the rock king was killed as much by his fulfillment of the American Dream as he was drugs. Clarksdale, Miss. finds the author reveling in low-rent digs while searching for ghostly specters of dead bluesmen ala Robert Johnson.
Nashville proved so bland that Petrusich quickly shifted her narrative to the Outlaw Country breakthrough of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. However, the pop music critic for The New York Times among others burns brightest when contrasting country music history with the rise of alt.-country and the vanity labels that keeps roots music alive today.
Moreover, she makes a compelling case that the new hyphenate music - which draws as freely from rock as it does blues, folk or country - reflects our national spirit with the same intensity as the sounds created by the original roots pioneers. Purists and contemporary fans alike are well advised to pick up this smart, absorbing work before the resumption of their next argument.