Just as it seems the future of the United States might include running out of money and resources, along comes Kurt Reighley’s United States of Americana: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement (Harper Collins) to take us back to the place where we knew how to make things that would last, how to take care of them — and even knew the people who made them.
Remember? It was called a community.
Reighley’s was in Virginia. When he was in grade school, he recalls, his mother frequently ran errands to see a mysterious “‘little man’ who fixed her sewing machine, another who made tortillas, a third man who resoled Dad’s dress shoes. … Over time, I grew to understand that Mom’s ‘little men’ were skilled craftspeople, both male and female, who were integral to the life of our small Virginia town.”
Now, Reighley claims, the threat of extinction of skilled craftsmen all over the country and the communities that once supported them has driven many consumers away from big-box stores and cheap goods made overseas, and back toward their roots in search of the “little man.”
He (or she) may not be so little or cheap anymore, but Reighley has found evidence that the American craftsman is making a comeback in the form of butchers, barbers, taxidermists and tried-and-true apparel and shoe makers.
For much of the “roots movement,” the search begins at home, where a whole new wave of D.I.Y’ers are raising their own chickens, growing their own food and canning their own pickles.
Reighley is quick to point out that a return to traditional living is not a nostalgic escape, but a means of empowerment in this age of food scares and outsourcing, a time when information trumps experience. By getting closer to the process, the “pioneers” of today “not only know exactly what they’re getting, but also have a deeper sense of where their money goes and the practices it subsidizes once it’s spent.”
The nouveau practitioners of this nationwide trend are both old and young. We meet up-and-coming butchers in Brooklyn and veteran barbers in Seattle. Reighley interviews urban farmers who employ low-income young people, and profiles the Callaway Cannery (8471 Callaway Rd., Callaway, VA, 540-484-1966) in the Blue Ridge mountains, a community operation that’s been in business since 1940 to help neighbors put up their produce.
He explores the development of the modern crafts movement: “An amalgamation of D.I.Y. punk rock bravura and Third Wave feminism” that began in the mid-1990s when young women reclaimed handcrafts and introduced modern twists to vintage needlework, sewing and knitting.
If repackaging the past is more your bag than going back to the land, check out chapters that trace the background of the great American cocktail, explore the appeal of architectural salvage, delve into the feminism behind today’s neo-burlesque shows, and examine the rise of animal-free, cotton-candyless underground circuses — along with advice on how to join one.
Reighley, a disc jockey and music writer, has plenty of experience with Americana from his years writing for alt-country magazine No Depression, which practically coined the term to describe roots-rock acts like Son Volt, Drive-by Truckers, Gillian Welch and Rosanne Cash. It’s no surprise that his entertaining, informed chapter on music is a micro field guide in itself.
Along with a crib sheet of mostly Southern artists famous for bringing roots music into mainstream popular culture, Reighley lists albums that eased “country phobic listeners” into an appreciation of bluegrass and country music. And he notes “second acts” that revived the popularity of artists like Johnny Cash, whose “American Recordings” albums with hip-hop/heavy metal producer Rick Rubin brought him a wider audience.
Also of interest are in-depth profiles of field-recording greats Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, a look at Sacred Harp singing, and a roundup of time-honored instruments made from everyday objects: cigar-box guitars, jugs, saws and spoons — instructions for playing your grandma’s washboard included.
(This review originally ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on August 29 2010.)