Interview

Below Garth questions himself on the quest that became More Miles Than Money.

Q: Another book on American music/travel, who needs it?
A: I know, I know. When I told Charlie Gillett that this was what I wanted to embark on he told me not to. Said that it had been done to death. I replied “not in the way I’m going to approach it, Charlie.” He’s now read the book and agrees, says I achieved that rare thing and found a fresh perspective on America.

Q: What made you so determined to write More Miles even when advised not to?
A: I’ve had an obsession of sorts with US music, books, films, politics and society ever since childhood. I blame it on my dad taking me to see Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid when I was 9! That and reading Huckleberry Finn and hearing stuff like Bo Diddley and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio. So before I even hit adolescence I had this very strong idea of moving through a musical America, from San Francisco through the South West to the South. I went to the US in 1990 and didn’t find what I was looking for but I kept paying attention, certain that there was an unreported America I could someday write on. After finishing Princes Amongst Men I had the idea that a similar kind of book – travel with a musical flavour – could work in the US and so set about thinking what I wanted to write and who I should interview.

Q: In what way do you think More Miles stands alone from other books on American travel or music?
A: Well, there’s lots of US travel literature out there but few of them pay any attention to music. On The Road is the best of these as Kerouac describes the jazz he hears and juke joints he enters wonderfully. But outside of a drink with Slim Galliard he doesn’t really engage with any of the musicians. And writers like Peter Guralnick – whose books’ Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway inspired me as a teenager – only wrote artist profiles, they give you no sense of what the society was like, how the politics were, what the problems and joys of the community were. I wanted More Miles to stand as travel literature that let you know exactly what Mississippi and the Navaho Nation and East LA and such were like at the start of the 21st Century while giving an idea of the sounds of those places and the men and women who helped shape those sounds. That I write on artists like Chalino and Radmilla Cody, singers who are pretty much unknown beyond their immediate communities, means I report on music as it exists on a vernacular level, not hyped by record companies and told over and over again through various media. I’m looking for fresh stuff. And I’m also celebrating lost treasure – Lydia Mendoza, what a giant! A woman who started recording in 1928 and helped shape Mexican American music. Sam The Sham – everyone knows Wolly Bully but who has ever read an interview with Sam and realised what a remarkable life he has lead?

Q: Researching the book did you find the America of your imagination?
A: Yes and no. From my 1990 experience I was aware how much tougher and less loving the US was. I mean in terms of music corporate capitalism has crushed most vernacular music. And it’s like that in so many ways – only being able to eat at fast food chains, finding small towns really run down, drug abuse having seriously damaged much working class culture. But this wasn’t a shock any longer. It all becomes part of the America I travelled through and reported upon. That I still found great music and good people was the reward. I would have hated to report on a US that was the kind of wasteland Cormac McCarthy conjures in The Road.

Q: Can you imagine going back to the US and doing more research? I ask as you mention not touching on Louisiana or the Appalachians.
A: If someone ever wanted to put the money up for me to cover those regions, yes, I’d love to. I’m still excited about going back to hear music and see friends. But as to long travel covering huge distances on very little money – no. Been there, done that, don’t do that no more!