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Book review: More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music

Garth Cartwright's restless journey through classic American music.

More Miles Than Money

More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music

By Garth Cartwright (Allen & Unwin, 2010) $40

Let me just say from the outset this book is a difficult read, but not for the reason you may think. Such is the wealth of music described in Cartwright’s book that I find myself putting the book to one side every few pages to dive into my record collection and reconnect with the fabulous sounds of Americana.

To an extent, that’s the point of Cartwright’s book. He’s a Kiwi, now resident in London, who is restlessly reconnecting with the roots of American music by way of an exhaustive—and exhausting—road trip through a large number of musical hotspot states.

And what is ostensibly a story about music and its resonance throughout culture in America and around the world also doubles as a story about America’s underclass—the forgotten heroes, faded glory, the dispossessed and those marginalised by poverty, race or locale.

It’s the people that make this story and Cartwright seeks out fascinating characters in each city he visits: Motown/Stax alumnus Mabel John in Hollywood, Luis Rodriguez in East LA, Navajo Indian Ramilla Cody, the now late, great Lydia Mendoza (born 1916) in San Antonio, Billy Joe Shaver in Nashville and the legendary Sam The Sham in Memphis, to name but a few.

On Cartwright’s recent visit back home I ask him about meeting such performers. “People like Sam the Sham came up the hard way. [Musicians like him] are an extension of their community. In America it’s the cliché but [music] is an escape from the ghetto and it’s that stuff that makes America entertaining for me.”

Cartwright spent time beforehand making contact with people via record labels, websites and personal networks. Some were easy, some weren’t. “Billy Joe Shaver was impossible to get hold of so I just talked my way backstage and was fortunate that he was willing to talk.” One of the more surprising hookups was Lydia Mendoza, who, like me, Cartwright had assumed had long since passed away. “She was 89 when I met her, and she started recording in 1928 … it was just amazing to meet someone like her who was there at the dawn of the recording industry.”

What is ostensibly a story about music also doubles as a story about America’s underclass—the forgotten heroes, the faded glory

One of my favourite stories occurs in Tucson where Cartwright meets Howe Gelb, formerly of alt-country pioneers Giant Sand. Gelb comes across as an intensely prickly character, and Cartwright confirms this. “Howe was not very articulate but a charming guy. There was a lot of setting up that interview ahead of time, but when I got there he did that thing that I guess a lot of artists do, which is to close up and give monosyllabic answers. At one point he said he was off to put the kids to bed and then just disappeared. But to me, he represents the last great period in American rock ‘n’ roll, when it was still exciting and fresh.”

Cartwright is not as enthusiastic about the current state of music. “People always make music, it’s part of human nature, but … it’s just getting worse, it’s deadening. MTV, High School Musical and things like that make people think that young and skinny is where it’s at. When you look at music from different cultures it’s about learning from elders, and I think that killing regional radio really hurt that [way of learning].”

The chapter on the period spent in Tucson in particular will make you leap for your music collection. In the space of two pages, the likes of Gun Club, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, CCR, The Band, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Lisa Germano, Polly Harvey and Calexico are name-checked—all fine, fine artists and if you are unfamiliar with any of them, please check them out. You will not be disappointed.

Hound Dog Taylor

Hound Dog Taylor

The classic novels Roughing It by Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road kept Cartwright company. “Twain and Kerouac are huge influences. As a kid, my parents gave me Twain and that made a huge impression on me. I also had Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon in my head, where he takes off on the side roads of America in the 80s.”

But the America of literature differed from the reality. “When I won a Qantas journalism award in the 90s, that’s when I first went to the US and it knocked all the romanticism out of me.”

While Cartwright might not be as cynical as that comment suggests, certainly a pervading sense of fatigue, especially towards the end of the book, comes through loud and clear. I relate to this—my own travels through America’s southwest and touring with bands were not an easy life. Cartwright agrees with a wry smile. “Too many miles and not enough money … I lived that title, man. People think life on the road is really fun, but until you’ve done night after night of cheap hotels and fast food you don’t realise how bad it is.”

Cartwright himself is pretty easy company, and despite the years abroad he still carries a Kiwi accent. This is a boon in certain states where predominantly black or Mexican populations view white guys with a certain degree of suspicion and reticence. One of the choice quotes comes when Cartwright is hit on by a young black woman at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Mississippi, who is curious about his accent. “Damn, yo is a cute white boy,” she says. “Tell me, do yo’ date outside yo’ race an’ nationality?” This isn’t an isolated incident and in some ways his Kiwiness lends a certain neutral currency to his journalism, perhaps opening up doors and people just that much more than an American journalist would.

Too many miles and not enough money ... I lived that title, man. People think life on the road is really fun, but until you’ve done night after night of cheap hotels and fast food you don’t realise how bad it is

Although the travels date from the pre-Obama years of 2005 and 2006 (“Hurricane Katrina got in the way of going to Louisiana”), Cartwright is circumspect about any difference the new president would have on the places he visited. “There’s a sense of optimism, but y’know, black and white doesn’t matter in America—green is the colour that counts.”

At the end of the book, Cartwright admits there are a few places yet to see—Louisiana and the Appalachians for instance. “I’d like to live in those places for six or eight weeks and soak up the atmosphere. Those places don’t seem to change too much and they value their music on a community level.”

I ask when he’ll get back on the road again. “Don’t expect that too soon. In fact, I’d quite like someone else to do it!” And fair play, it’s not an easy road, literally or figuratively. For most, a road trip across the US of A would be difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately for us, More Miles Than Money is so superbly written we can feel like we’re there. Ace Records is set to release a companion compilation album later in the year, so my advice is to get a copy of the book and the album, find yo’self somewhere hot and dusty to sit, and take that trip.