Sing My Way Home: Voices Of The New American Roots Rock
The Zimmer twins are best known within the music industry for their long involvement with the now-defunct trade magazine Gavin Report (where the Americana radio chart began). They have also ghost-written autobiographies by Sonny Barger (the legendary Hell’s Angel) and Johnny Rotten.
Sing My Way Home grows from one of their earliest musical experiences, the blind luck that led two sophomores in high school to the backstage area of Altamont right about the moment the Flying Burrito Brothers plugged in. It also begins with a caveat. “Fair warning: If you’re a self-proclaimed expert on roots music looking for a detailed, tedious, and footnoted history and analysis, then please move on. This book is geared toward those who are curious…an attempt to put a human face on the tastemakers we profile in each chapter.”
Well, that buys them some freedom, but no matter who Sing My Way Home is intended to reach, the audience deserves some degree of explanation for what’s here, and what’s not. There is (unless they were simply recycling old interviews) a distinct aesthetic at work, revealed obliquely by the artists they’ve chosen to write about. And they certainly know the material well enough, and write well enough, to have done more with it — without descending into academia.
The tastemakers the Zimmermans choose to profile largely reflect the curiosity of the Altamont generation, though they can at least claim to have been present for the birth of roots rock. (But, then, so can the Sun generation.) In addition to the expected — and surprisingly even-handed — summary of Gram Parsons’ career, we are treated to a stirring and detailed argument for the importance of Delaney & Bonnie and a revealing (if oddly chosen) dissection of Don McLean’s fall from grace.
Which is to say theirs is a very mixed bag of roots. Their case for the Lovin’ Spoonful is less compelling, and devoting a chapter to Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin (OK, he lives on a ranch in the U.S. now and recorded those Farm Dogs discs, but…) seems willfully provocative.
They seem less engaged by other subjects, or perhaps obliged to meet a deadline. The Ryan Adams chapter offers little more than a plan to resequence the Love Is Hell work into a successful double album; the Neko Case chapter seems to be written from clips, its opening stanzas bearing more than a passing resemblance to Bob Mehr’s profile in the November 6-12, 2002 edition of the Seattle Weekly. And those are the only two musicians of their generation — which is to say, under 40 — profiled. Lucinda Williams is revealed (or not) through a transcribed Q&A.
Each chapter concludes with an annotated discography suggested by the subject’s music. A final chapter offers their “Top 100 Modern American Roots Rock” albums, with Williams and Dylan holding down four of the top five positions.
It’s a quick, thoroughly accessible read. But it doesn’t much explain what is (and isn’t) going on in “New American Roots Rock”; indeed, most of the voices aren’t very new.