Justin Tubb, son of famed country star Ernest Tubb, once described Americana as “the music of the working man, the farmer, the trucker, the factory worker.” Today, you’d have to add “the hipster” to that list. With It Still Moves, Amanda Petrusich shows us what the current indie-folk scene and its record-collecting twenty- and thirtysomethings—which she labels “the new, weird, hyphenated America”—have to do with classic American folk: what bands like Iron and Wine and Califone have inherited from that tradition and what they’ve thrown away. To do all this, the 28-year-old Pitchfork scribe and Paste editor hit the road, heading south in her beat-up Honda Civic to Memphis, Nashville, and Appalachia to find the seeds of folk and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
Heady stuff, to be sure. Fortunately, Petrusich’s evocative language is loaded with none of the cynicism and snarkiness so favored by many of her rock-crit peers. She’s able to talk about “music that comes from a tough place”—about what is and isn’t “authentic”—without diluting the notion with irony. When she calls Robert Johnson’s blues “the sound of one man using his entire being to create a noise so deep it’s unfathomable,” she means it. Petrusich loves this music and isn’t afraid to sing along.
Yet for all her infectious enthusiasm and first-rate reporting, she can’t quite deliver on the tantalizing promise of part of her book’s subtitle: The Search for the Next American Music. Petrusich burns too much gas in search of Americana’s ghosts, too little in search of the artists reimagining folk music today in Chicago, Brooklyn, Vermont, and elsewhere. Many of her readers will already know the stories of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, and Woody Guthrie—and those legends have their own biographies anyway. Fewer will know the stories of Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom—precisely the folks making “the next American music.” Petrusich, however, devotes only two of 15 chapters to them.
The fact that It Still Moves reads too much like a history lesson undercuts Petrusich’s fascinating thesis about contemporary music—that the ecstatic folk-tronics of Animal Collective can be traced all the way back to the Carter Family. If, instead, Petrusich had dragged today’s practitioners of free folk, freak folk, and psych-folk through the muck of Americana from page one, we’d have a better idea of just how “fluid,” “unfixed and malleable” American folk music really is.