The United States is the birthplace of an amazing wealth of popular music styles. Country, Cajun, zydeco, blues, jazz, soul, and rap were all born and bred in America, as was the blend of several roots forms, rock 'n' roll, that would dominate the Western musical world in the last half of the twentieth century. America's musical eclecticism is fostered by both its large size, which has allowed plenty of idiosyncratic regional genres and sub-genres to thrive, and its numerous ethnic and immigrant groups, whose musical forms have influenced each other to yield unpredictable and thrilling new sounds. While it sometimes seems as though mass media and electronic communications have made American culture more homogenous, many areas of the country are remarkably zealous in their preservation and cultivation of music identified with, or even unique to, their own part of the United States.
The Rough Guide to Music USA is a guide to the most important and interesting varieties of American popular music, from the acoustic folk of Appalachia to today's rock and rap. Each of its twenty-one chapters explores the history and development of the styles of a city, state, or region that has made crucial contributions to the country's sonic identity. In addition to providing musical overviews for each region, each chapter also includes recommendations and reviews of the most useful and-just as important-enjoyable recordings illustrating the greatest achievements of the area's musicians. While the emphasis of this volume is on musical history, there's no better way to appreciate the musical legacy of a place than to visit, and the end of each chapter has listings of the best venues, radio stations, record stores, publications, and music-oriented museums to check out in each locale, along with reviews of books and videos to aid further investigation.
No book-or even library-could hope to cover all of the interesting regions and artists that have made a significant impact upon American musical history. Music USA is not intended as a definitive guide to this immense territory, but as a roadmap of sorts that covers many of the major highlights, and a launching pad for those who want to gain a basic grasp of sounds, sights, and recordings that can be dauntingly diverse and difficult to assimilate. The focus of each section, and the choice of essential recordings, has been necessarily extremely selective, rather than all-encompassing. Although every state and city has artists and audiences for dozens of genres, this volume focuses on the forms of each region that have proven to be the most influential and durable. In some cases this has meant the parameters are largely limited to a single style, as in Nashville, known primarily for its country music. By contrast, in an area like Louisiana, which has been instrumental in the growth of several strains of music, you'll find coverage of multiple branches, including jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, Cajun, and zydeco.
"Popular music" is sometimes defined as music that is not only made by large numbers of people, but also listened to by large numbers of people. While many well-known figures are written about in these pages, the qualifications for inclusion were originality and quality, not sales units, and the book detours into some avenues not often discussed by standard music histories. Major, iconic performers, from Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley to Patsy Cline and R.E.M., are all given their due, but so are other musicians and behind-the-scenes producers, label owners, and promoters that made vital but relatively unheralded contributions to forming the American musical mosaic. Discovery of such unsung heroes, as well as styles that have passed into history or thrive outside the commercial mainstream, will hopefully spark readers to venture along these paths on their own and in greater depth.
Learning about great musicians and records, however, is only part of what makes traveling the infinite highways and byways of American music fascinating. American music is not just something to be listened to at home, or made in the hopes of becoming a star; it is the reflection of a culture, embodying the geographical, ethnic, social, and even political forces that have shaped the disparate components of the United States. Sounds which on first listen seem to have nothing to do with each other turn out to have been intimately connected. Such overlooked connections are at the core of America's exhilarating and at times downright zany musical evolution. Elvis Presley covered songs by an obscure bluesman and bluegrass originator, Bill Monroe, on his first single to form a blueprint for rock 'n' roll; steel guitar playing, developed by Hawaiian musicians, came to characterize the sound of much rural blues and modern country music; Communists in New York City helped launch a revival of American folk music; and Miami rap developed a bass-heavy sound in large part to accommodate youngsters who wanted to blast music as loud as possible while driving the streets of Florida and California. Music USA is dedicated to uncovering the interwoven fabric of American popular music, which may seem fragmented, but turns out to be much more of a whole cloth than one would expect.
Music USA Format
Music USA is organized thematically, with separate sections built around specific styles of a region, often broken into sub-sections within a certain style. New York jazz, for instance, has a lengthy history, and there are sections within its coverage for swing jazz, bop, free jazz, fusion, and so on. Some musicians merit a section of their own, sometimes because of their immense significance, and sometimes because they are a singular notable manifestation of a juncture in an area's development. There are also a few sections detailing non-performers and landmarks, as in the Cleveland chapter, which has discussions of disc jockey Alan Freed and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Albums are reviewed under the Essential Recordings heading following many sections within each chapter. Most of these are CDs; if an album was only released in a vinyl format, it is designated by the symbol V. Albums are listed with the artist name first (unless they are compilations, which are attributed to "Various Artists"), then the album title and record company.