Scribes Sounding Off: A Marvelous Manifesto for the United States of Americana

Veteran music critic (and KEXP DJ) Kurt B. Reighley had a confession to make to Seattle Weekly readers back in 2001. “I love country music,” he wrote. “I wasn’t country when country wasn’t cool” he admitted, “and I’m not truly country now — but I love the music just the same.”

Nearly a decade since the publication of that piece on Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard in the regional alt-weekly, Reighley has scribed a delightful guide for those of us coming into that genre, and others related to it through appreciation of American “roots” culture. United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement (Harper Collins) is a DIY (Do It Yourself) journey into traditionalist reinvention. From its beautiful textured cover to its whip-smart humor throughout, it is your best bet as a gift book for both vets and neophytes of the various subcultures celebrating the construction of homemade music, food, fashion, crafts, and near-total autonomous lifestyle.

I was absorbed by the book instantly and have returned to it over the past few days to read passages to my friends — particularly from the exquisite backgrounds given on folk, C&W, and soul musicians, which haven’t such a succinct but spot-on summation of their inspiration elsewhere. (Also, the facts of booze. Lots of great tips for belly-warming cocktails, which should come in handy with the early Seattle fall settling in.)

Mr. Reighley was gracious to answer a few thousand nagging questions about the United States of Americana, both the book and what he learned writing it. The conversation follows below:

As a noted music writer and DJ, was it a difficult decision to expand the book from being “merely” about music and involving a whole milieu of people “doing things”? Or was this planned from the beginning?

No, it wasn’t a tough decision at all. I wasn’t interested in writing the Idiot’s Guide to Americana Music. There are already several comprehensive books on the topic out there, and frankly, why would I want to compete with someone as formidable as Peter Guralnick? Since I came roots music later in life (i.e. I didn’t grow up listening to country radio, or go through an obsessive blues phase in college), I was intrigued to track the parallels between the resurgence of interest in American roots music and other areas of culture, the adoption and adaptation of the tired-and-true in food, clothing, grooming, décor, etc.. Once I realized that most of the people I talked to had experienced a similar domino effect, the way my love of roots music and crafts had spilled over into pickling and collecting Pendleton shirts, I wanted to pinpoint the factors driving these impulses. Hence the emphasis on community and sustainability and D.I.Y. in the book.

One of my favorite quotes of yours from United States of Americana is “Just because the passing pickup drivers who harassed you as an adolescent non-conformist were blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd shouldn’t discourage music lovers from investigating the Drive-By Truckers.” How did you yourself get involved with roots music? (And how did you know I used to get my ass kicked by guys who drove pick up trucks?)

I know you got harassed by passing pickup trucks because I grew up in Virginia, and am all-too-familiar with the cultural phenomena of having folks yell “faggot” or “punk” (or, oddly enough, “Devo!”) and throwing empties at me and my friends as they sped past blaring Charlie Daniels Band.

Although I’d gone so far as to purchase Rank & File’s Sundown album in high school, the turning point for me and country music was an episode during my sophomore year of college, when I was bedridden with a rotten stomach flu, and my then-boyfriend left Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits on the turntable, on repeat, all day while he was out working, knowing full well I was too sick to get up and turn it off. This was during a period when my record collection was mostly Smiths albums and 4AD titles, so it was quite the culture shock in my weakened state. For a much more detailed version of the back story, I’d encourage people to read my 2001 Seattle Weekly column “I Wasn’t Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” Also, the rise of Village Voice approved acts like Lone Justice, Dwight Yoakum, and Rosanne Cash during my college years proved invaluable in discrediting my misguided prejudices about country music.

United States of Americana reminds me of those wonderful broad-spectrum and weird info-nugget pop-culture books by Charles Panati which smart punks and weirdoes loved in the 80s — blended with awesome music coverage and even a sociological imperative. What influenced its humor, multi-topic chapters, and style? As in other books … for example, I don’t really remember that many “manifestos” like this with punk (except maybe Dick Hebdige’s Subculture, but that was much more academic, not populist-oriented).

I have mad respect for Dick Hebdige, but critical theory makes my head hurt. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I wanted this book to have broad appeal and lots of practical applications. Towards that end, my biggest influences were actually a pair of books my grandmother gave me as a young lad, The Sierra Club Summer Fun Book by Linda Allison (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977) and The Hodgepodge Book by Emrich Ohlsson (Four Winds Press, 1972). The former was aimed at keeping kids busy and stimulated during summer vacation, and the latter was a compendium of folklore, both of them organized by subject matter. Later on in the research for United States of Americana, when I was back in Virginia, I stumbled across old copies of the first two Foxfire anthologies and those shaped my format a great deal, too. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Leslie Simon and Trevor Kelley’s Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture, which my publisher had enjoyed great success with a couple years prior.

The book is broken into concise chapters on the roots of Americana’s philosophy and history, food (preparation and consumption), liquor, grooming (shave and a haircut), fashion and apparel and footwear, design and decor, and a great summation of the rise of crafts — and yet the lone chapter on music is probably the best Americana record guide yet written. You have quotes and stories about the best new artists and wonderful career-capsules on everyone from the Carter Family to Thomas A Dorsey, and don’t neglect the necessary reissues (The Anthology of American Folk Music and Goodbye Babylon). Was it hard to keep the music to one chapter, and have you thought about (or has there been interest in) expanding this to a book all its own?

My publishers originally wanted a much more music-centric book, and the version of the proposal I sold promised several chapters on music. But as my excitement around the other topics grew, I distilled the music component into a single section. Again, I envision this book as a jumping-off point for a wide variety of people. If someone already loves roots music, I want them to walk away from my book with enough nuts-and-bolts info to investigate pickling. But on the other hand, if someone picks it up because they’re an avid knitter, I want them to learn that they might apprecaite the music of The Knitters, too. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

While I intend to continue writing about music, and certainly don’t rule out another music-specific book in my future, the ideas I’m currently nurturing for big upcoming writing projects either include music as only one of many components or not at all. Frankly, selling a music book is increasingly difficult; like film, everyone seems to think of the Internet as the primary resource for information on that topic these days. But blogging, magazine work, and DJ-ing still afford me plenty of opportunities to celebrate and share all the music I get excited about, pro or con. Music is still my greatest love (well, after my partner Mark and my dogs), and always will be.

I loved how you begin the music section of United States of Americana with Emmylou Harris as an “iconic example” (she’s had a remarkable run as an artist) but elegantly detail the rise of Fleet Foxes (and their inspiration in centuries-old Sacred Harp music) and Neko Case (who started off straight punk-fumed “y’all-ternative,” as Harris jokes about the sub-genre). The juxtaposition of Robin Pecknold with a busking Frank Fairfield, who later went on tour with the Fleet Foxes. When you talked to all these musicians, how aware were the older ones of the Americana artists coming along now? Were you able to share with the older ones the work of younger musicians, and turn young musicians on to older work (single artist songs and releases, and collections) too?

Someone like Emmylou Harris is still very dialed in to what’s going on at all levels of roots music, thanks to her affiliation with people like Buddy Miller and Conor Oberst. However, in many cases, I have noticed during interviews that veteran artists aren’t as connected to the underground folks who’ve followed in their wake as they are with their Top 40 progeny; artists like Wanda Jackson and Dolly Parton generally illustrate their anecdotes about younger musicians with examples such as Jessica Simpson, Carrie Underwood or the Dixie Chicks, not Gillian Welch and Neko Case. I think that’s just a function of operating in the mainstream music biz, though, and usually my access to them is so limited I can’t really spend too much time making listening recommendations. Outlets like No Depression and Paste, however, have helped connect-the-dots for a lot of those veterans.

As for younger artists, I’m usually the one who walks away from those discussions with a list of records I want to check out. Robin Pecknold and I spent an inordinate amount of our interview for the book geeking out about different record stores and recommending music to each other. That’s one of my favorite fringe benefits of my job: Finding out what musicians I admire are listening to, and helping to spread the gospel. Frank Fairfield is a national treasure, right up there with Tiny Tim when it comes to the great musical archivists. I wish he had his own weekly radio show.

As for an addendum to the chapter for the KEXP sound scholar, are there some other albums you’d like to recommend here (anthology or otherwise)? I am also thinking of ones you may have discovered after wrapping the book up, as well as having to prune from its pages. (I love how you included Rev. Johnny L. “Hurricane” Jones’ current work with Black Lips and others — what release of theirs would you recommend? And any other collaborations of this nature you found out or could hip us to as well?)

Oh dear heavens. At one point, I had five or six different running lists of “essential” titles in various categories I wanted to shill, but they mainly got trimmed for space considerations. Anyone who fails to take Dolly Parton seriously as a songwriter is an idiot. Her bluegrass albums, especially The Grass Is Blue, were hugely influential on me. In terms of “gateway” albums, the aforementioned first LP by Rank & File (which featured members of the Dils and the Nuns) and k.d. lang’s Shadowland are biggies that I didn’t touch on much. I didn’t get to lavish any attention on Ronee Blakley’s two ’70s albums, recently reissued on Collector’s Choice, which really are overlooked, idiosyncratic masterpieces that defy easy categorization. I’m looking forward to seeing how Wanda Jackson’s work with Jack White pans out, and wish Loretta Lynn would forge ahead with a new full-length (although I appreciate the songs she’s written with Elvis Costello in the interim). I’m actually not very hip to Black Lips — I’m more of a Black Keys kind of guy — but I applaud them for helping Rev. Jones get his groove back.

As for archival materials, I follow Dust-to-Digital, Tompkins Square, and Light in the Attic religiously (even though only D2D is strictly a reissue label). Also, anything that gets a thumbs up from Mike McGonigal (publisher of Yeti, compiler of Fire In My Bones, etc.) goes to the front of the line. I pay close attention to the picks of Sylvie Simmons in MOJO, too. She’s a peer I admire greatly.

You quote Colin Meloy of the Decemberists about LPs being a great way to share music with friends who come over to your apartment (due to the cover art and conspicuous size), and how people tend not to brag about their MP3 collection (no matter how large). But you also reminded your readers that even though vinyl albums are “coming back,” manufacturer Rainbo is allowed to explain that the machinery to make vinyl is still limited (“pressing machines stopped being made in 1986″). I have to ask, are details like this dropped in to maybe meant to inspire people to get more hands on with manufacturing records again? (As a continuance to remind people to get behind all manner of Do It Yourself projects?)

That info is there primarily to underscore the themes of community and D.I.Y. that run throughout the book. A lot of my friends have resumed having listening parties and record clubs, which is a wonderful way to socialize and hear new music, passing around LP jackets and talking about what you like/dislike about the selections with people you love — or are just getting to know.

It saddens and infuriates me that so much of the machinery needed to manufacture great American goods are no longer available in the U.S.. If it weren’t for the Japanese buying up all those old looms, American heritage clothing culture would be even worse shape than it is right now, and Red Wing Boots has a whole graveyard of old machines it cannibalizes to keep the surviving ones operating. I wanted to underscore the value of maintaining those machines, and the skills required to operate them. Progress doesn’t mean you have to disregard what’s come before; if anything, it should allow for easier integration of old and new.

Do you ever think about how all the people who tend to “evolve” pop music from the underground do so by “going back to the roots”? I’m thinking about, for example, artists like Harris and her love for bluegrass, Joe Strummer (with the 101ers), the raw rockabilly-surf energy of the Sex Pistols, the rustic Uncle Tupelo-into-multi-genre Wilco? Can you theorize why true musical history is often made by tapping into the past?

The fewer bells and whistles you have at your disposal, the more direct and visceral the finished (and I use the term loosely) musical outcome. This is as true for early Detroit techno as it is for the Carter Family. It’s the same way a great disco record or a Trevor Horn production should be capable of being stripped down to just a piano-and-vocal arrangement or small jazz combo treatment and still be as captivating as a Cole Porter or George Gershwin standard in the same format. Working with a bare minimum really forces the artist to focus on craft, whereas a plethora of production tricks, guest stars, additional instrumentation, etc. often allows mediocrity to pass for something more substantial than it actually is.

You do challenge one (possible) sub-genre of Americana, Steampunk, as being more about “pretending to romp around an alternate future than improving day to day existence.” One of my favorite (protest singer) Phil Ochs quotes is “in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty,” and he actually made a fake Greatest Hits album that warned about re-creating the past in the name of nostalgia. I know you do so in United States of Americana by writing “The different parts of this movement embrace traditions, but are not necessarily consumed by nostalgia,” but for someone cynical of seeking authenticity in the parts and labor of the past, how would you describe what you’re offering as different?

Golly, I wish I’d made more room for Phil Ochs in the book. Also, for the record, I think Steampunk is fascinating. It reminds me a great deal of the role-playing games of my adolescence. And I was a champion of Rasputina before they ever put out a record. I just don’t see a lot of practical applications for everyday life coming out of that subculture… yet. What I’m championing in this book is “know how.” Know how food is preserved. Know how quality clothing is made. Know how to care for your beard so it doesn’t look unkempt and smell bad. Know how to take your clothes off over the course of ten minutes without boring your audience to tears. In my experience, looking to older traditions is one of the fastest, most engaging paths to accumulating “know how.” Modern technology is great for providing raw information, but nothing beats actual experience and engaging in physical activity. The more “know how” you have under your belt, the more confidently you can move through modern life.

Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass about “authenticity,” which is such a loaded term anyway, thanks to its abuse at the hands of marketing and advertising folks everywhere. I’m more interested in helping people have a “real” experience in the sense that they’ve gotten their hands dirty and learned something. It’s kind of like record collecting. I’m not one of those DJs who fusses over original pressings or what format I use for playback. I’m concerned with the quality of the music first and foremost. The nitpicky stuff can quickly descend into masturbatory minutiae, which is what discourages people from investigating the unfamiliar in the first place.

Do you think most Americans are ready to reinvest in the “How To” spirit again, as Chris Bray from Billykirk describes it? Will this be another generation of Back To The Land The Whole Earth Catalog subscribers, later distracted by a retro-dominating Reagan-style president? Do you think we’ll fumble along a bit longer with obfuscating desires for more elaborate technology and political subterfuge? Do you think we have a choice?

I do believe most Americans are ready to reinvest in “know how,” but they need to understand why it is critical for them to do so in order to get off their couches and work up a sweat. I did a radio interview with a woman in Athens, GA the other day, and she said something to the effect of how she used to put up her own food and make all her kids’ clothing, but it just took too damn long and why shouldn’t she save time by going to the Wal-Mart instead? I countered that she had the skills that allowed her to look at the items stocked by Wal-Mart and consider them thoughtfully: Were they well made? Could she repair them if need be? Would buying them keep jobs in America? But because she hadn’t passed those skills along to her kids, they were at a disadvantage, one that accelerates America’s dependence on cheap, imported goods and costs us American jobs. I’ve had a lot of positive response to the book from right wing media outlets, which was a bit of a surprise, but it follows: These are people who want to have more control over their own lives, and knowing how to clean a fish or resole a shoe is an easy-to-grasp example of that principle in action. And from there? Who knows, you could run for mayor.

I do believe history goes in cycles, but I pray to all the powers that be that we don’t have to live through another Reagan-type administration again. I saw a lot of great music come out of those years, and I agree with Marilyn Manson that oppressive governments foster better art than permissive ones, but AIDS wiped out an entire generation of my friends while Ronald Reagan sat idly by, and I don’t know if I could weather another catastrophe on that scale.

We live in a particularly peaked age of anxiety, and it seems that United States of Americana offers a real tonic for jangled nerves — becoming what your mother called a “little man” in the epilogue to the manifesto. (A “little man” being the people who helped her fix up her life and household.) You realized that meant learning real craftsmanship, whether it be playing an instrument well or canning food or learning a trade that takes simple technology, so that you can raise not only your own spirits and standard of living but in aid to your community. Did this revelation of what your mom meant come as you wound the book up?

All jokes about elves aside, I realized at a pretty young age that the “little men” Mom patronized were essential to our community. (And Mom and her friends were all part of that regional eco-system, too. For instance, my mom put her sewing skills to work making vestments for the church choir, thereby saving our congregation money.) What I didn’t realize until much later in my life was how these people had been driven to the brink of extinction. What’s interesting about my mom is that she probably could’ve done most of the things she called on people in town to do on her own, had time permitted; she’d helped operate her parents’ family farm in Iowa and graduated at the top of her class in high school. But like many of her peers, she’d also joined the work force (she was a dental hygienist for 50 years), and her time was at a premium, so she appreciated living in a small town where we did have a good cobbler, a dry cleaner that did alterations, a Mexican restaurant that made its own tortillas, etc.

One last comment: Thanks for defending the beard. In spite of its growing popularity, “Beardism” is a terrible prejudice I endure weekly, even among my old punk rock mates who can’t resist the clean shaven mug of an ancient greaser. But like a lot of things you describe it’s something old I always wanted to do anyways, and just grew into it. Did you find that the values and creativity of the people you interviewed for United States of Americana also pined for something from inside themselves and just felt lucky something came along and told them it was great to do it?

One of the reasons I believe I was able to create this book, and make as many wonderful new friends as I did in the course of writing it, is because my contributors are following a very similar life path to my own: They have nurtured their passions, and doors have opened as a consequence, and they have walked through them… regardless of whether or not they felt prepared for what might be on the other side. I took my first DJ gig without knowing how to use a cross fader, but I trusted my love of music to see me through. These people weren’t waiting for someone else to give them permission.

Jenny Hart from Sublime Stitching is a great example. She wanted to learn to needlepoint, but all the resources were antiquated and intimidating. So she figured out her own way to do it, and once she’d accumulated a certain amount of practical knowledge and hands-on experience, she was better equipped to parse through that backlog of information and glean useful things from it — and share what she learned with her peers. In the meantime, her success as a small business person and creative artist had empowered a whole new generation of crafters to take up a languishing handcraft and refresh it.

Same it true with beards; look at what the guys from Beard Team USA have to say about the more creative approach the Americans take to the pastime, versus the traditional school of thought embraced by the older European beard clubs. That’s why we’re dominating at the World Beard & Mustache Championships these days, because these young bucks found ways to make something “old-fashioned” contemporary and vibrant again.

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