So, I poured through Right By Her Roots. I mean, I drank it up. I would have stayed up all night just to finish it, if I’d been anywhere in the second half of the book last night. But instead, while the Butcher was working on his car, I spent the afternoon reading.
Like I said, I know Jewly Hight and like the shit out of her, so I am biased. But my enthusiasm for this book goes beyond that. This book is amazing. It’s nothing like Barry Mazor’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers except that both books approach music in ways that seem both like something you’ve never read before AND something you’re surprised isn’t already ubiquitous. I’m pretty convinced that these two books represent some kind of next step in how people write about music. Unless there are more books out there that I’m just drawing a blank on. I already said my piece on Mazor, so I won’t rehash it.
As for Hight’s book, she’s looking at eight artists–Lucinda Williams, Julie Miller, Victoria Williams, Michelle Shocked, Mary Gauthier, Ruthie Foster, Elizabeth Cook, and Abigail Washburn–and their catalogs. And through interviewing them and really carefully listening to their lyrical and musical approaches to their subject matter, trying to really grapple with and understand the aesthetic values at the center of their work.
But the thing that Hight does so well is that she really gets that the line between aesthetic transcendence and spiritual transcendence isn’t very clear and that any time musicians talk about “soul,” there is an obvious spiritual metaphor being invoked. And she is able to really get these artists talking about these things in ways you can’t help but feel they wouldn’t be comfortable with with another writer or that another writer wouldn’t quite know how to really get what they were saying (either because the other writer would be too quick to shove them out of the “Yea, Jesus’ mold or too quick to shove them in).
But Hight, over and over, gives the impression that she’s really grappling with what these artists are saying to her and working at understanding it in a larger aesthetic and spiritual context. And yet, it’s not a religious book, in the ways I think of a religious book being. Well, except that I can totally see how it’s a piece of religious scholarship. Hight’s time at Vanderbilt is apparent.
But this is also what I love about this book. Hight took this material and her background knowledge of both music and religion (and clogging, in a nice touch) and brings it all together in a way that reads how I wish every university press book read–not like she’s writing for the 50 other people in the country who are already mining the same material as her, but like she’s writing for everyone who likes to think and talk smartly about a subject they feel passionately about.
I honestly don’t think there will be a better book written about Americana music this year. And I dare say it will be hard for there to be a better book about Americana music written this decade.
I am curious to see if reviewers make hay out of the fact that she’s a woman writing exclusively about women artists. And I will say that this is a weird read in that regard. It’s very easy to say “Why can’t we just talk about female artists like they’re artists?” but to see someone do it? Yes, it’s awesome, but damn it’s strange. There’s little talk of spouses (unless said spouse is also the artist’s musical collaborator). There’s no talk of children. Except to mention a physical condition that affects the artists musically, Hight makes no mention of how they look.
You don’t realize how often talk of family and body creep into discussions of female artists, even in subtle ways, until it’s absent. Even if you’re not really into these artists, if you write about music, it would behoove you to study how Hight pulls that off.
I wasn’t familiar with everyone in the book. I’ve never heard of Ruthie Foster (though I’m searching her out now) and I’m not sure I know who Elizabeth Cook is, though her name sounds familiar. But that hardly matters. The chapters on Foster and Cook were just as interesting as the chapters on people I know. Since Hight isn’t writing some typical “for the fans” piece, but is actually trying to get at a certain way these artists tick, even if you’re not familiar with their music, it’s deeply, deeply interesting to hear what they have to say and what Hight’s take on what they’re doing is.
Plus, Hight’s does an excellent job of describing their music so I felt like I had a good idea of what they sounded like, even with not being familiar with them.
And get this! They’re doing a book-release… no, not party… a book-release version of Music City Roots. With the fucking Doobie Brothers. People, now I want to get a book published just so the Doobie Brothers can show up to my book-release whatever. I mean, let’s be honest. With the book industry being how it is, it’ll probably be a book-release trip to McDonald’s for whoever can fit in my car, a number made infinitely smaller if I have to drive the Doobie Brothers.
I’m bummed I’m going to be in Illinois, but I am hoping I get their early enough that I can stream it.