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Right by Her Roots
Americana Women and Their Songs
By Jewly Hight
In this day of digital delivery, more and more popular music arrives to its listeners in downloadable bits, giving away very little about where the songs come from or who is behind them. At the same time contemporary popular culture, with its ancestry-excavating Web sites and television shows, reveals that people are craving answers to those very same questions about themselves.
Right by Her Roots is a book for this moment, a thorough and thoughtful exploration of the bodies of work of eight groundbreaking artists who acknowledge, in their songs and in their lives, their relationships to their roots—both musical and personal. Jewly Hight, a highly regarded and spiritually-savvy music writer, delves into the journeys and styles of eight of the most distinctive voices in Americana music: Lucinda Williams, Julie Miller, Victoria Williams, Michelle Shocked, Mary Gauthier, Ruthie Foster, Elizabeth Cook, and Abigail Washburn.
Hight proves there is much to be gained from digging into the oeuvres of singers and songwriters who put something of themselves and their pursuits of meaning into their music. What she unearths, through vivid original interviews and perceptive analysis of their spirits, sounds, and styles—not just their lyrics—is rich insight into what animates their work and how they view and experience the world. Giving music-making women the serious attention they deserve but rarely receive, Right by Her Roots is an especially important and engaging account.
Lucinda Williams: Life and Death Matters
A three-time GRAMMY winner, daughter of a former poet laureate and an Americana archetype. To put it another way, the most influential and cathartic literary southern-folk, rock-and-blues confessor of her generation.
Julie Miller: Heart to Heart
The deep, empathetic, emotional center of Americana songwriting, who is a coveted song source for discerning mainstream country singers. She and singer/guitarist husband Buddy Miller are widely regarded as the Queen and King of their genre.
Victoria Williams: Seriously Free
A Louisiana-born, California desert-dwelling, jazzy alternative folk-rock pioneer whose unfettered approach to singing and songwriting has a way of confronting and dissolving even the strongest inhibitions.
Michelle Shocked: True to Conscience
An intrepid and sharp-witted American roots music sojourner who has fought against the currents of the music industry to follow her social, political, and spiritual convictions. In the process she has become the head of her own small record label and a devoted member of a black church.
Mary Gauthier: Outsider Art
A folk-country singer-songwriter respected not only for the quality but the heft of her work. She unflinchingly, though not at all unfeelingly, speaks of and to people on the margins of society, identifying with them particularly through her own experience of being orphaned.
Ruthie Foster: Don’t Be Shy about What You’ve Got
A Texas singer-songwriter partial to blues, spirituals, and soul. Possessed of a big voice, she teaches life-affirming boldness by example, in the spirit of her mother, grandmother, and the caught-up, celebratory church services of her youth.
Elizabeth Cook: Staying Down-Home, Getting Somewhere
A regular on the Grand Ole Opry, born with a voice for hard country and also drawn to the rawer sounds of rock and roll. As affectionate toward and sustained by her humble familial roots as she is determined to do her own thing beyond them, she writes in a way that embraces both with keen humor.
Abigail Washburn: The Joy of Joining In
A clawhammer banjo player whose warmhearted embrace of American old-time music, Chinese folk music, and sympathetic musical collaborators aims to stir communal connection . . . and leads to the occasional international diplomatic role.
"In this remarkable book, music journalist Hight offers a perspective rarely seen in books on contemporary music—the stories of women singers and songwriters who have probed deeply and examined their geographical, cultural, familial, and religious roots in their music. Through interviews with Lucinda Williams, Julie Miller, Victoria Williams, Michelle Shocked, Mary Gauthier, Ruthie Foster, Elizabeth Cook, and Abigail Washburn, Hight allows these women to tell of the ways they have used music to go beyond their roots in search of their identities. She splendidly explores each artist's entire catalog, reflecting on the ways their music reveals the struggle to stand right by their roots. For example, Gauthier speaks of and to people on the social margins, identifying with them particularly through her own experience of being orphaned. Hight offers readers a glimpse of the many ways that music can transcend the ordinary to reveal the ongoing spiritual struggles that define an individual's relationship to others and to the world. Verdict This beautifully crafted little book introduces the deeply felt music of many of these women for the first time and brings their music to new audiences. For all collections."
—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL, Library Journal
“As incisive and insightful as the women she profiles, Jewly Hight has filled these pages with remarkable, creative portraits of remarkable, creative people.”
—Peter Cooper, Senior Music Critic, The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee
“Much more than a smart, informative series of profiles of Americana’s leading female singer-songwriters. This book brims with empathy and insight and inhabits the spiritual journeys of its subjects to reveal how their search for meaning and fulfillment nourishes and shapes their bodies of work. In the process it also makes a case for why the voices of these women speak to those of us who keep returning to their music for sustenance and inspiration.”
—Bill Friskics-Warren, author of I’ll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence
“With a powerful wit, intense attentiveness, and eloquent empathy, Jewly Hight is a dream come true for the songwriters to whom she pays careful and affectionate heed. By calling our attention to them, she lifts their voices, testifying concerning the ways their work uplifts, invigorates, and challenges our otherwise all-too-settled imaginations. Prepare to be enriched by this culturally crucial account."
—David Dark, author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
"Right By Her Roots establishes Jewly Hight as one of the Americana scene's sharpest writers."
—Juli Thanki, senior writer for The 9513
"Jewly Hight's conversations with eight of America's best singer-songwriters yield fascinating insights into these gifted artists' creative process and such personal subjects as their spiritual beliefs. An intriguing read."
—Holly George-Warren, author of Public Cowboy #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry and co-author of The Road to Woodstock
Jewly Hight has written about popular music for more than a dozen outlets—including Nashville Public Radio, American Songwriter, Relix, No Depression, Paste and the Nashville Scene—and holds a master’s degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Born in North Carolina and raised in Florida, she lives and writes in Nashville.