Yesterday marked the release of It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music, a new book written by noted Pitchfork, Paste, New York Times and Spin scribe Amanda Petrusich. I've read it cover to cover, twice, and it's great. She examines American roots music through a series of road trips to historically important music spots around the country, in hopes of coming to some conclusions about what exactly constitutes "Americana" in a modern sense. She does a exhaustive job covering all the early stuff, from the Delta Blues, straight through Elvis, Johnny Cash and just about everything else you could think of. But what sets It Still Moves Apart, what makes it stand out from so many of the other like-minded works is — in addition to her focus on geographical features and U.S. highways as an integral to the development of the music she's writing about — that she follows it through to today, discussing at length the alt-country movement of the 90s, the freak-folk movement of a couple years ago, and an assortment of artists carrying on in the same tradition right now.
Back in 2001, I remember watching the PBS documentary American Roots Music, about 95% of which was outstanding. It provided more than a surface look at how Americana had changed over the years, about how the genre was kept alive through a series of small changes throughout the years, giving way to all sorts of little sub-genres that were developed by artists who were informed by what came before them without being completely beholden to specific stylistic choices. And then, disappointingly, as soon as they got up to the 90s, with Steve Earle and, I believe, Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue project where they set unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, the documentary fell apart with depressing footage of old (like, seriously old), white-haired men playing traditional bluegrass on flat-bed trucks at state fairs. It always struck me as odd that the directors weren't willing to do a bit more digging to find out what was going on at the time, that they were content to come to the conclusion that roots music exists today only through a fast-fading (read: dying) group of revivalists. Fortunately, Petrusich does a much better job.