The local library was holding their annual used book sale, and although I'm trying to thin my own herd of paper and ink, it seemed like it might be a good way to kill a little time. My hope was that it would be a hodgepodge of mass market paperbacks and hardbacks with busted spines and missing pages -- which would not have tempted me -- but no such luck. The volunteers who ran this thing knew what they were doing: books were culled, categorized, arranged neatly on tables, and priced to sell. Since it was the last day of a four-day event, I figured there wouldn't be much of interest left, despite the large handwritten sign written with urgency that everything was half-price.
To be honest, people-watching at a used-books-priced-very-low sale was much more interesting than browsing. Elbows flew, kids screamed, bodies slithered on the floor as folks looked under the tables for missed bargains, and the overall mood was one of frenzy. It seemed that everyone except me was carrying huge piles of books, but I was determined not to bring anything home.
And then I saw it. On the cover was a guy wearing a cowboy hat, walking down the street, holding a boom box. Damn. It got my attention.
Music USA:The Rough Guide was released back in 1999 by the travel and reference publishers, and is probably the best American big-tent roots music resource book of it's kind that I've ever come across. It was written by Richie Unterberger, who is well known for his extensive contributions to the All Music Guide, plus articles in almost every single music publication that you can think of. Unterberger is also the author of ten other books on subjects including the Beatles, the Who, Hendrix, and Velvet Underground. He wrote two volumes on the Byrds and the folk-rock genre, and the magnificently titled Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock.
The back cover describes the book as "a tour through the best of the country's popular music, giving you the story behind the sounds of more than twenty regions." That should give you a hint that this is approached from a travel guide perspective. But rather than putting music inside a geographic box, it's written in such a smooth and concise stye that you can either choose to read it end-to-end, or randomly poke around.
The book's claim of "critical overviews of the crucial performers and styles, from Appalachian bluegrass to New Orleans jazz, from New York klezmer to San Francisco psychedelia" is actually spot on. And despite being Sweet 16, the book's sections on festivals, local venues, radio stations, record stores, and publications in some cases are either still relevant or warm and fuzzy nostalgia.
So what makes this book so hard to find? Along with the Rough Guide's other music titles that were made in this series, Music USA appears to be out of print. A damn national tragedy if you ask me.
Fortunately, the internet is the great equalizer, and as I write this you can find copies -- one as low as 67 cents -- at Amazon US and UK. For more information about Richie, visit his website. He also blogs at Folkrocks about travel and music, offering great information and tips on both.