It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music

January 01, 1970

(Faber & Faber)


It’s practically in the job description now that rock
critics visit the music’s southern birth cradles and return, Moses-like, with a
book full of rumination and contextualization. At first glance, Amanda
Petrusich’s It Still Moves wouldn’t
seem to offer much new, since we’ve already read all about Robert Johnson, the
Carter Family, Elvis Presley and Woody Guthrie in seminal texts from Robert Gordon,
Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, and Peter Guralnick, among others.


But through 18 months of hard-core road tripping and scores
of interviews, a voracious reading list, and heartfelt affinity for the wildly
varied music called Americana,
the staff writer has performed the overdue service of
connecting the dots into the present (Peter Doggett’s Are You Ready for the Country did a decent job through the
alt-country era).  Most significant is
her understanding that, contrary to rigid doctrinaires of all stripes and eras,
the bloodlines of Johnson, the Carters, and Guthrie still course in new and
intriguing ways through contemporary music, embodied in the DNAs of Freakwater,
Will Oldham, Califone, Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, and scores of others.


But that’s just a barstool argument without Petrusich’s personable,
New Journalism prose style and reporting skills. Whether she’s worrying over a
Bear Family box set in her beat-up Honda or contemplating the slippery
definition of “authenticity” (Americana’s holy grail and white whale); rolling through
Mississippi crossroads or drinking pints with Freak Folkers in Vermont;
interviewing the decorator of Cracker Barrel (turns out those wall-baubles are not mass-produced) or trolling through
the Smithsonian Folkways archives; or just lamenting the hipster-fication of
her own Brooklyn neighborhood, Petrusich exhibits the great reporter’s knack
for capturing the telling details.


You come away from It
Still Moves
with abundant proof that appropriation — however obvious,
devious, or oblivious — isn’t just flattery, it’s how music retains its
vitality and seductive power; the best add their own take on tradition,
spinning songs out into ever-new territories. For anyone who’s ever had their
heartstrings plucked by a lonesome pedal steel or banjo, as well as those who
think Animal Collective or Joanna Newsome sprung fully formed from the ether, Petrusich’s
journey is also yours. JOHN SCHACHT



[Photo Credit: Bret Stetka]


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