When I picked up United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties & Handmade Bitters
, the recent field guide to the American Roots movement by a former contributing editor for No Depression
and current KEXP DJ
Kurt B. Reighley, of course I expected to learn about music. Who are the forefathers (and mothers) of American Roots music? What are some of the essential gateway albums? That sort of thing. I wasn't even that surprised to find tips on "how to play a washboard."
What I didn't expect to learn is that there is a DJ in New York who only plays shows on hand-crank Victrolas and wax cylinders, or that there are now barbershops that specialize in straight-razor shaves. In this broad survey of DIY, durable living, Reighley offers up tips from hundreds of interviews and a fair amount of personal research on such varied life skills as beard growing, water-bath canning, making a corncob pipe, and choosing a pre-Prohibition-era cocktail. I am now frantically in search of items like selvage denim, hard tack and salt pork, and Wellingtons. ("I love my Wellingtons," says Reighley. "I'm like Paddington Bear.)
The author spoke to me recently about his experience of Americana over coffee and doughnuts:
Reighley: The response to this book has been really really positive because people are excited about the whole idea of control. There's that theme running underneath all these things: take control of your life. If you learn to preserve your own food you have more control over what you consume and what your kids consume. If you know how clothes are made, you know whether or not you're getting a good deal. You know where it was made, under what conditions. If you pull the camera back a little bit, the fundamental principles outlined in the book are going to appeal to just about anybody.
Amazon: What drew you to this initially? I assume it was music.
Reighley: It was, and it wasn't. What drew me to it was I had put together a proposal for another book inspired by the freak folk movement, not even necessarily American Roots music, but there's some overlap--Devendra Banhart, Antony and the Johnsons, CocoRosie. I put together a book proposal based on that and it was more light-hearted but it did talk a lot about crafts and visual arts and it was inspired sort of loosely by this discussion Antony and I had had several years ago. He had this concept "in the time of flourishing beauty" which inspired a show at On the Boards with Antony and Coco and William Basinski and Devendra Banhart.
I started to see kind of a throughline between the resurgence in interest in crafts and learning to play an instrument and then I started connecting things a bit more. It wasn't that I lost interest in the music component, but I was so familiar with that component already and I was having so much fun learning about the other things, and they just kept snowballing. People kept giving me information and ideas, they were so excited: well, have you thought about blank and blank and blank.
I come from a music background and sometimes DJs and record collectors can be very "information to the bosom," like very selfish, they don't want to share. There's that whole tradition amongst DJs of taking the labels off records and obscuring records so people won't know what you're playing. So I kind of expected to encounter a little more of that but in fact people were really excited to share information and it was so invigorating because that was what I wanted to believe was driving this, that people were excited about learning and wanted to pass that learning along and wanted people to take advantage of the resources we have, older people, the physical library, take advantage of these things, preserve them, celebrate them before they go away.