A solipsistic quest for authenticity, conducted with road map and library card—and without a clue.
Music journalist Petrusich (Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, 2007) purportedly set out to define “Americana,” an umbrella term for tradition-oriented strains of country, blues and folk music. Neglecting to clearly delineate the boundaries of this non-genre for either herself or the reader, she hit the road through the South and Appalachia. The book’s subtitle is an infuriating con. Far from being “lost,” the highways through Memphis, Nashville and Clarksdale, Miss., to name a few of her destinations, have been driven so often that they require repaving—or at least more energetic and keen-eyed travelers than Petrusich. The music she writes about is neither obscure nor new; tiresomely familiar stories about Elvis Presley, Sun Records, Robert Johnson, the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie abound. Relying heavily on the work of earlier journalists and scholars, this maddeningly underreported volume often reads like a book report. Only two dozen new interviews are cited, most of those with performers who have been active for at least a decade; Petrusich is more comfortable talking with academics, other writers and the occasional publicist than with musicians. She devotes an irritating amount of space to descriptions of museums, archives, tourist traps, motel rooms and her roadside meals, as well as the scenery along the interstate. In the thousands of miles she covers, the author makes exactly one stop to check out the local music action, and that’s at an upscale Clarksdale juke joint. In this navel-gazing context, it makes perfect sense that Petrusich would lamely dub the members of indie rock’s neo-hippy-dippy “freak-folk” scene (many of whom derive their sound as much from British sources as American ones) as the truest exponents of contemporary Americana.
You won’t find “the next American music” here.