Author Interview: Amanda Petrusich
by Guy Sangster Adams
“It just felt that the best way to tell the story of American music was to hit the road,” says Amanda Petrusich, whose debut full length book, It Still Moves: Lost Highways & The Search for the Next American Music, was published in Britain the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration and chimes with the current resurgence of interest in Americana music underscored by the success and Brit Awards nominations of Fleet Foxes and Seasick Steve and the BBC Four series Folk America and the accompanying Barbican concerts.
It Still Moves works on a number of levels mixing the highly personal account of Petrusich’s journey across key points on America’s musical map including New York, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Nashville, and Appalachia, with a sturdy history of the musical genres that have infused Americana music¾country, blues, folk, jazz, gospel, and bluegrass¾and the artists most redolent of those styles including The Carter Family, Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan. The duality aids the readability and accessibility of the book and was an intentional stylistic device as Petrusich explains, “some of my favourite authors have always done that really well, like Joan Didion or Truman Capote; it feels personal, it feels very authentic to the writer, but at the same time you’re learning a lot along the way and there’s a lot of factual information that’s being permeated through these personal narratives. That’s what I love to read and it ended up being what I love to write as well.”
It is absolutely her use of the personal that provides the reader an highly entertaining engagement with both the tactility of, and her passionate and thorough understanding of the history of Americana music; be it her description of leaving Brooklyn at the start of her journey with “my trunk heaving with plastic bags fill of clothes, two crates of mix tapes, three pairs of sneakers, and four family-size tubs of Animal Crackers”, her visit to Graceland where for “the first time Elvis has felt comprehensible to me; he liked monkeys and watching television in the kitchen”, her endearingly eccentric trait of taking elaborate and expensive CD (hand-crafted wooden) box sets back to their musical origins, such as The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain to A.P. Carter’s grave in the Appalachian mountains, or her eroticisation of the open road and particularly Interstate 64, “giddy and anxious the entire time, blind to landmarks and history my whole body is craving the highway […] practically panting with anticipation, I evacuate downtown Charlottesville and nose toward the interstate”.
But Petrusich’s primary musical focus is not retrograde, as the book also offers her analysis of, and interviews with, the musicians who have re-imagined and reworked Americana into new forms through the 1990s and into the 2000s, such as Wilco, Freakwater, and Iron & Wine, under genres labels such as alt-country and its sub genres with, as Petrusich writes, “ridiculous names¾see twang-core, country -punk, insurgent country, lo-fi, roots, rock, desert rock, gothic country, and, a personal favourite, y’allternative”, and indie folk, free folk, freak folk encapsulated by David Keenan in 2003 The Wire Magazine cover story New Weird America.
Whilst with an understanding that American music reflects the landscape from which it springs, one of the key quests of her journey was to discover “how Americana music is transforming to accommodate the massive cultural and geographical shifts in the American landscape.” In that, two twenty-first century dates loom large over Petrusich’s theme: the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001 and Barak Obama’s victory in the presidential elections on 4th November 2008, and the route that Bush administration took the USA on in the intervening years. As Petrusich writes, “in retrospect it seems almost inevitable that a film soundtrack [O Brother Where Art Thou?] packed tight with ancient American folk songs would soar to the top of the pop charts in a year when nearly everything ‘American’ was being challenged, threatened, and rearranged.”
Petrusich’s decision to undertake her journey came not only during a key time of national soul searching but also at a key time of her life. She turned 26 whilst she was on the road, and has just celebrated her 29th birthday; I suggest to her that the period between those two ages is often as much a transitional stage as between the ages 16 and 19. “I do think that’s a complicated period for human beings,” Petrusich concurs, “that stretch at the end of your 20s, and I think the book in many ways is a coming of age story and also a search for identity, identity as it relates to one’s country; what is this place I live, it’s shaped everything about me, what does it mean? I think also politically at that particular time living in America there was a lot of disillusionment, especially amongst people of my age group, thinking that we were being carried along by an administration that we all felt powerless to stop and at the same time felt very strongly was not making the right choices for this country, not making the right choices for the world, and I think it was a time when the words ‘patriotism’ and ‘patriotic’ were getting imbued with all kinds of meaning that I wasn’t comfortable with, and so it was nice to hit the road and really fall head over heels back in love with America at a time when I was otherwise feeling a little, you know, maybe I should move to Europe.”
The road trip has become an essential and mythical ingredient of Americana, from Robert Johnson, to Woody Guthrie’s road trip in a 1953 Model A Ford, from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, to Bob Dylan, to Tom Wolfe’s account of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, via Easy Rider, to Larry McMurty’s Roads published in 2000. A long tradition that has hitherto been the preserve of a male narrator, as Petrusich writes, “the man on the road is the stuff of American legend, the woman on the road is the stuff of teenage fantasy,” expanding upon this in our interview she says, “the iconography of terrible 80s metal band videos; women wearing short jean shorts and a halter top being stranded on the side of the road and the man swooping in to save her.” Although a desire to right the gender balance had not initially occurred to her, as she explains, “I hadn’t really realised how entrenched that idea of the man as the driver is, it’s the default mode in many Western cultures, you see a couple get into a car and the man’s always driving, and I never really gave it much thought until I started working on this and I thought there’s not a ton of road stories that are written by women; you know it strikes me as odd because I know all these women who love to drive and to hit the road but it hasn’t been expressed in the same way, at least in literature.”
Petrusich’s quest and title were inspired by the lines from Donovan Hohn’s A Romance of Rust, “Where lies the boundary between meaning and sentiment? […] Between memory and nostalgia? America and Americana? What is and what was? Does it move?” Her response and conclusion is that It Still Moves, to which one might now add an Obama-esque exhortation of ‘Yes it does!’
It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, & The Search for the Next American Music (Faber & Faber) £14.99
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