Wednesday, January 12, 2011

United States of Americana by Kurt B. Reighley

I picked this one up because I love reading about the quirky side of America, and I had so much fun with Way Off the Road that I wanted to read more in that vein.

When I think of Americana, I think of things like Dinosaurland or the Zane Gray Museum, perhaps Sunday flee markets or people who square dance in the old barn. Things that can trace a line back to America's roots, even if those roots are as shallow at the 1950s.

Reighley has a completely different approach, as this book shows. Instead of talking about things that are genuinely old fashioned, he concentrates on modern people, mostly crafty businessmen or hipsters, trying to cash in by making the simple things of the world as expensive as possible. That means customized taxidermy, people who think they're getting back to nature by raising chickens in their urban backyard, and musicians who are copping the acts of those who came before.

Is it interesting? Certainly, when it's not reeking of pretension or overlooking the fact that "American" companies like Woolrich are using overseas labor and have been for decades now. Spending a lot of time on why hipsters buy boots that mimic those of the old miners just isn't my idea of Americana, let alone talking about people who think that canning is a way to get back to their roots.

There is a lot of talk in this book about the yearning of Americans to try and get back to the old days, from trying established brands to listening to vinyl to using older skin shows for modern entertainment. The problem that I have is that nothing here is organic for the people doing it. When a rock band decides to cover Johnny Cash or an old blues legend, they are taking someone else's sound, not playing the same sound they grew up with. Maybe I'm spoiled by growing up knowing people who actually were calling square dances or playing folk from day one, but calling these co-opters members of a "roots" movement just rubbed me the wrong way.

The number grows smaller every day, but there are still Americans who do things the way they used to, even when a WalMart is only a few miles away. Drive into Central Pennsylvania sometime, or northern Georgia. You'll find them. I'm sure they're in the Midwest, Southwest, and West, too, but I've never made it out that far. People who can because they can't easily afford store goods, not because it looks hip to have the jars in your fridge and freezer. People who do make their own belts or boots. People who sing like they were taught.

That's the book I wanted to read, and its' not Reighley's fault that he didn't write that book. It just saddens me a bit that a move back to simpler things involves so much money, based on what he describes in the text. I'm not saying we should all live in a simpler time--that ship sailed ages ago, if it even ever existed. What I am saying is that if we have to buy Americana, then we've lost it forever. And that, dear reader, would be a shame. It's a topic Reighley never talks about, and I think that's the biggest shortfall in this text. Ultimately, United States of Americana is more a book about how we try to buy the past instead of just recapturing it. I really hope we haven't come to that just yet, but I'm afraid it might be true.

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