“Americana can be quiet or loud, pretty or cacophonous. It is always infused with the vitality of the landscapes from which it has sprung,” writes Amanda Petrusich in her new book, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music (Faber and Faber, 2008).
Petrusich is a thorough reporter, and one in love with describing her subject every bit as much as she enjoys researching her material. But there are moments in the text when her word smithing overwhelms her fact finding. She stumbles through front doors, she chomps her cereal, shuffles onto the boardwalk and gnaws on a chunk of Grafton cheddar. Petrusich is a pretty woman who manages to interject a klutzy, oafish self into her text. It’s jarring.
But that unfortunate literary mechanism aside, Petrusich is an able music historian, seamlessly stitching Americana music’s past to its present. That, as a female music writer, she’s an anomaly, only adds to her prowess.
Moves is successful not because it goes where we can’t go, haven’t gone—it’s that the book sees what we already know and presents those well-thumbed landmarks through new eyes. “Graceland is a bewildering mix of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and glitzy American standards, the kind of thing an overgrown teenager tottering on the verge of adulthood night think up,” Petrusich writes. “It is the very first time that Elvis Presley has felt comprehensible to me. He liked monkeys and watching television in the kitchen.”
The book ambles at times, a travelogue fortified with minutiae and memoir-esque perspective. Petrusich described the deep-fried meals she buys and country cookin’ establishments, the odd-ball characters with whom she shares fleeting and superfluous conversation, the recent and distant histories of place (a hit-and-run at Ole Miss; a sharecropper shack-turned-B&B named for the sharecropper who lived and died in its three rooms) and the bowl of dry cat food left on the threshold at the Carter Family Fold. This equal-opportunity approach to factoids, neither glorifying the past nor minimizing the present, lends a haunted air. Petrusich is a skilled storyteller and her narrative, though round-about, at times, always finds its mark.
More than that, Moves is an enjoyable read, and the author—also a contributor to music magazines Pitchfork and Paste—knows of what she speaks. As if her brain houses an encyclopedia of modern music ephemera, she references U2 at Elvis’ graveside, Eminem while touring Sun Records and The Big Lebowski while visiting the Smithsonian. Her pop-culture savvy seems perfectly at home with her considerable grip of Americana’s genealogy; thus Petrusich is able to portray Americana music (a slippery thing to define, despite her admirable attempt quoted at the top of this review) both in relation to the catalog of popular music and in terms of cultural and sub-cultural morays.
While Petrusich stops short of offering us the slick, high-profile music writer voice of, say, Cameron Crowe (it’s doubtful Crowe ever admitted, in print, to “sloppily buttering a biscuit, dipping half into a viscous puddle of bright yellow yolk, and stuffing it into my mouth”) the road-trip trajectory of Moves proves this writer is firmly rooted in her subject. Petrusich gives equal credence to interviews of Iron & Wine‘s Sam Beam and Cracker Barrel decorator (yes, the guy who hand-picks all those kitschy antiques hung on the walls of the restaurant’s chains) Larry Singleton. And it’s that balance, that surprisingly revealing juxtaposition, that makes Moves such an entertaining and ultimately inspiring read.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter