Dog Days Reading List: 6 Book Picks for August 2021 | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Dog Days Reading List: 6 Book Picks for August 2021 

Last Updated: 08/02/2021 10:36 am
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Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll

John Milward
University of Illinois Press, 2021, $29.95

Divisiveness may fuel the news cycle, but an enlightening tale of seemingly unlikely connections still fascinates us. Bearsville-based author and longtime journalist John Milward’s Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll, with gorgeous portraits by artist (and Milward’s wife) Margie Greve, is such a tale. In concise, amusing prose, he recounts how the music of rural white America emerged from the South in the early 20th century and, despite (or maybe because of) Jim Crow segregation, merged with songs created by African Americans (eventually labeled “the blues”). By the 1950s, the best-known branches from this union evolved into monoliths marketing execs labeled “country & western,” “rhythm & blues,” and “rock & roll.”

Americanaland focuses on “Americana,” a contemporary offshoot of this mighty tree, with myriad approaches and flavors. Past branding attempts, all inadequate, included “country rock,” “alt.country,” “y’allternative,” and “roots rock,” to name a few. As labels came and went, material deemed “too rock for country,” “too country for rock,” “too Black for country,” “too weird,” et al., continued to cross-pollinate. Finally, in the last generation or so, what Milward calls “the accommodating umbrella of Americana” gave this largely indefinable-by-design subgenre a name that stuck.

As a label, Americana is a triumph of nuance and stylistic diversity. It represents a community where elders like Mavis Staples rub elbows with modern-day standard bearers like Brandi Carlile; country punk poets Drive-By Truckers share a marquee with sensei Willie Nelson; MacArthur fellow Rhiannon Giddons illuminates the banjo as a distinctly African storytelling device as innovator Bela Fleck nods from the wings.

But the road to “the accommodating umbrella of Americana” wasn’t all “Kumbaya.” As he lays down the history, Milward revivifies many a colorful mover, shaker, and music-maker. Tricksters, emissaries of the Devil, avenging angels, and holy fools populate Americanaland.

Milwardbegins with the so-called “Big Bang of country music”: talent scout/music publisher Ralph Peer’s “Bristol Sessions,” conducted in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. Turn to any modern American music genre (except classical or opera), and the songs you hear will contain DNA from Peer’s humble recordings of Poor Valley, Virginia’s plainspoken Carter Family and Meridian, Mississippi’s rough-and-rowdy Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers.

Just a few chapters later, we’re on Striebel Road in Bearsville, with Dylan, The Band, and George Harrison, then whisked to a Los Angeles studio with the Eagles, witnessing them refine the work of pioneers like Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, who sought to “bring the hippies and rednecks together.” Along the way, border-conscious bean counters naysay such attempts to merge, but Milward’s yarn spinning illustrates the beautiful inevitability of it all. Music will not be contained.

As this century dawns, Americana coalesces into a viable, recognizable category, albeit one with many faces. The occasional hitmaker arises: Steve Earle, Wilco, Lucinda Williams. Festivals and conferences spring up, and even as the internet diminishes income streams, the community keeps releasing music. Prior to COVID, many toured continuously to make money. At this writing, that’s starting back up.

Milward’s pithy profiles pack a punch throughout. Of the mythic 1965 Beatles/Elvis summit, he writes: “Elvis drank 7-Up while the Beatles had scotch and Coke; George smoked a joint and talked about Hinduism with Larry Geller,
Presley’s spiritual advisor and hairstylist. John and Paul were said to have played ‘I Fee Fine’ on acoustic guitars with Elvis on bass and Ringo thumping on a table.” Insert WOW emoji here.

Americanaland illuminates a thriving landscape of artistry that long remained obscure because of the challenge of selling it. And while some of the lovably cantankerous musicians of Americanaland may not care what you label their stuff, lucky for them, the savvy marketers finally got it right. Mostly.

—Robert Burke Warren

To March or to Marry

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Violet Snow
Epigraph Books, $19.95, 2021

Violet Snow of Phoenicia tells a story of the friendship between feminists Abbie (based on Snow’s great-grandmother) and Louisa in her historical novel. In 2012, Snow published an article in American Ancestors magazine about her great-grandmother, whose letters about the women’s club Athenaeum serve as the basis of this story. The novel’s conflict emerges when Louisa quits their women’s club in favor of marching for suffrage—a social issue avoided by the respectable middle-class club. Combining family ancestry and historical fiction, To March or To Marry discusses class divisions in early feminism and women’s influence in the suffrage movement.

Horse Girls

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Edited by Halimah Marcus
Harper Perennial, $17, 2021 

Catskills resident Halimah Marcus’s Horse Girls is a collection of essays by women and nonbinary writers that reclaims the titular stereotype and explores intersecting themes of gender, autonomy, and freedom. Now Executive Director of Brooklyn-based digital publisher Electric Literature and editor-in-chief of its fiction magazine Recommended Reading, Marcus herself was known as a horse girl in childhood and recognized its effects on her relationships with friends and family alike. Subtitled “Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond,” this anthology features personal stories and critical analysis from contemporary writers like Carmen Maria Machado, T Kira Madden, and Nur Ibrahim.

Marcus, Machado, and Ibrahim will be read at Rough Draft Books in Kingston on August 11 at 7pm.

The Stranger Behind You

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Carol Goodman
Harper Collins, $16.99, 2021

Goodman, Red Hook resident and prolific author of thrillers, tells an intriguing story of mystery and #MeToo controversy in The Stranger Behind You. The story centers around Joan Lurie, a journalist who writes an exposé revealing her former boss as a sexual predator. Attacked the night the article goes live, Lurie relocates to a secure Manhattan apartment building named The Refuge where she resonates with 96-year-old Lillian Day who witnessed a murder in 1941. A 1940s mobster narrative woven together with a contemporary Manhattan storyline, Goodman’s book addresses women’s power to uncover the truth and overcome trauma. 

This Poison Heart 

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Kalynn Bayron
Bloomsbury YA, $18.99, 2021

Award-winning young adult fantasy novelist Kalynn Bayron tells a story of magic and mortal peril set in the Hudson Valley. Main character Briseis’s power over plant life is the least of her worries. When a mysterious aunt dies and leaves Bri a deteriorating estate in Rhinebeck, her family decides to move upstate for the summer. But Bri’s inheritance proves more complicated than expected, with old school apothecaries and lethal plants only she can access. Battling curses and the deadliest plant on Earth, Bri must fight to protect herself and her family in this young adult fantasy novel.  

Being Clem

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Lesa Cline-Ransome
Holiday House, $17.99, 2021

Rhinebeck resident Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Being Clem concludes her award-winning Finding Langstontrilogy, a historical fiction series that explores mid-20th-century America through the lives of three boys—this one focusing on nine-year-old Clem. When Clem’s father dies in the notorious Port Chicago disaster of 1944, his mother must work as a maid for a wealthy white family to make ends meet. With a tumultuous home life, Clem struggles to understand himself and the expectations placed on him. This concluding novel delves into Clem’s life while simultaneously addressing grief, racism, and inequalities throughout American history. 

—Jacqueline Gill

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