Some big news: today Amazon is publishing my Kindle Single Home Grown: Cage the Elephant and the Making of a Modern Music Scene. You can buy it here for $1.99, then read it on your smart phone, iPad, computer, or Kindle. (Find instructions on that here.)
Home Grown, in short, tells the story of Cage the Elephant, a group Rolling Stone has called “one of rock’s best young bands.” But it also tells the story of Bowling Green, Kentucky, the small town where Cage got its start. It turns out the town helped the band make it big — and now that they have made it big, the band has returned to invest in the town. Music fans will enjoy the in-depth original reporting on how a music scene works today. (And Bowling Green has grown into a full-blown music scene. Heard of Sleeper Agent or Morning Teleportation? They’re from there, too.) But the Single will also resonate with any reader who grew up in a place like Bowling Green.
I put a lot of work into Home Grown. (If you think the subtitle’s wordy, well, the Single stretches past 20,000 words.) You’ll get to meet everyone in Cage, along with a bunch of other bands and some amazing locals. Click here for an excerpt about one of those locals at Deadspin. Also check out a Tumblr I created, Way Down in Bowling Green — it includes a bunch of rare images and videos and songs related to Cage and the local scene.
I’ll update this post with any interviews or reviews (and there are already a couple lined up). In the meantime: the excerpt . . . the companion Tumblr . . . and the Single itself.
- Interview with Bowling Green’s best DJ, Tommy Starr [mp3 download]. “It’s fantastic,” Tommy says of Home Grown. “You nailed it from beginning to end — it is the article on the local music scene, especially what’s happening right now.”
- Interview with David Goldenberg at Gelf Magazine: “Many of these bands are starting to tour around the country, making names for themselves on a national level. How did this Southern town become a Mecca for hipster music? Fehrman trekked to the source to find out.”
- Interview with Marr Sparr of Young Mary’s Record: “Whether you grew up and shared a babysitter or a blunt with Cage . . . [whether] you’re a Cage fan, or a ‘music’ reader—or just a reader . . . download Home Grown.”
- Interview with Howard Polskin of the website Thin Reads. “Home Grown is one of the best e-book singles about rock and roll ever written. . . . Craig Fehrman hits all the right notes.”
- Interview with Stephen Trageser of The Nashville Scene: “There’s plenty in the short volume for both Cage fans and those whose interest is more academic, documenting the conditions that made it possible for the scene to develop. . . . Icing on the cake: a chapter devoted to master horror director John Carpenter, Bowling Green’s most famous export.”
- Long review from Galen Smith, Sr., the dad of Tony from Sleeper Agent. “I give Fehrman’s Kindle Single five stars. It’s an awesome read and spot on regarding the ins and out about Cage The Elephant and the Bowling Green Music Scene. . . . I was totally fascinated how this very talented writer had captured the essence and the current mood our fair city of 60,000.
In Boston a few weeks back, I met a librarian who, like me, hails from Indiana. Actually, she hailed from Terre Haute, and like everyone else who’s lived there she had a Larry Bird story. Her dad used to work at Indiana State University, in the bookstore, and one day in the mid ’70s a young, peach-fuzzed Bird ducked through the door and bought his first batch of school books. That’s it — that’s the whole story. “But my dad still tells it all the time,” the librarian said.
Today I’ve got a nearly 5,000-word feature up at SB Nation. It previews the upcoming season for Indiana State’s basketball team. (In short, they’re going to surprise some people and maybe even make some noise in March.) But it also examines the larger dynamic of what it means to root for — or coach for, or play for — a school whose defining moment happened decades ago and who must now build for success in four-year cycles.
One point I make in my feature is that we need to stop thinking of the Gonzagas and Xaviers of the world as “Cinderellas.” After all, those programs spend more money on basketball than many high-major schools. Certainly, they spend more money than Indiana State. The hoops-first schools do so by dropping or deemphasizing football, and one thing I couldn’t fit into my story is that Indiana State hasn’t done this. In fact, the Sycamores AD has doubled down on the school’s Division II program. The university’s latest ten-year plan sets the goal of constructing a new stadium downtown — a place that will ultimately be the campus symbol and post-card view. “Football’s kind of the crown jewel of the athletic part of that ten-year plan,” one school official told me. But to me, that seems misguided. Indiana offers so much tradition and in-state talent for basketball, and I wonder whether the Sycamores would be better off pouring those resources into creating a top-notch mid-major basketball program.
For now, though, they’ll have to settle for being a top-notch team this year. Read about it in my feature. A lot of their success flows from Jake Odum, a local kid who made his name starring for an obscure AAU team known as the Terre Haute Jammers. That picture up top is of the Jammers a few years back. Odum is on the front row, kneeling right next to the trophy.
In this week’s Chicago Reader I’ve got a short profile of David Plowden, the distinguisehd 81-year-old photographer who’s just released Heartland, his stunning new book. Head over to the Reader‘s website to check my story out out — but mostly just marvel at the six included pictures. They’re incredible.
In today’s Ideas section, in the Boston Globe, I’ve got a profile of Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business school and the author of a smart new book called Blockbusters. Elberse demonstrates quite persuasively that blockbusters — whether in Hollywood or music or publishing — aren’t collapsing under their own weight. Indeed, they’re actually thriving. Read the story for more on that.
Elberse also debunks Chris Anderson’s seductive theory of the “long tail” — the idea, which Anderson advanced in a book of the same name, that the online economy would free us to move toward smaller and smaller customized niches. One thing I couldn’t fit into the story — and I’m surprised, given how much attention Anderson’s received, that very few people have pointed this out — is the degree to which The Long Tail was itself a blockbuster. That doesn’t just mean it sold well. To be a true blockbuster, a creative property must be designed with big sales in mind. To wit:
- Anderson first publicized his theory in a magazine article in the pages of Wired — that kind of pre-publicity publicity is essential to a blockbuster.
- Anderson and his idea also benefited from his position as the editor of Wired — that kind of platform helps, too.
- Anderson’s book went through an intense bidding war. The war drove up his advance to $500,000 — and that advance itself became news, in addition to an incentive for his publisher to market and distribute his book. It’s no surprise that Anderson gave a big talk at the 2006 BookExpo America.
- Anderson’s book provided plenty of juicy “comp” titles. The Wall Street Journal called it “the new The Tipping Point” months before it came out.
- And finally Anderson’s book — based on its intriguing premise, of course, but also on all the factors just mentioned — got tons of media coverage in radio, TV, and print.
None of this is to say Anderson’s book was good or bad, right or wrong. (Well, I can’t help but note that Elberse’s data add up to a pretty strong rebuke.) Instead, it’s only to say that to become a huge hit — to become a blockbuster — it’s almost always necessary to have these factors working in the creator’s favor, long before the creative product is due to come out. We live in an age of blockbusters. And strangely enough, it’s hard to find a better example of that fact than The Long Tail.
[Christian Science Monitor]
Today on the Christian Science Monitor’s website I’ve got a review of David Finkel’s staggering new book, Thank You For Your Service. It’s probably the best nonfiction title I’ve read this year — either it or George Packer’s The Unwinding. As it happens, I also reviewed Packer for the Monitor. Read that review here. And then go read both of these books.
[All Things Considered]
This morning on NPR, I got to talk about the National Book Awards. The story details some of the changes to this year’s nomination process, but I was there to talk about the Awards’ history. I wrote about this a while ago for the New York Times Book Review. You can find that essay here.
[Wall Street Journal]
In this Sunday’s Wall Street Journal I’ve got a long review of A. Scott Berg’s new biography Wilson. It’s also an essay on what exactly a biographer adds to any biography. Just four years ago, another excellent biography of Wilson appeared — John Milton Cooper Jr.’s Woodrow Wilson — and that means we’ve got an excellent test case for just how two different biographers create two different versions of Wilson.
Anyway, read the review for more. One of my main points is that Berg tries too hard to fashion Wilson as a president who feels distinctly modern. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Berg talking to to Los Angeles magazine: “As I was writing,” he said, “there were literally days I would say, ‘I’m going to forget the name is Wilson. I’ll pretend it is Obama. And I will write it as though it is Obama.'”
Berg’s an excellent biographer. (Last month, in a separate review, I praised his decades-old book on Max Perkins.) But this method strikes me as problematic, to say the least. Cooper is also an excellent biographer, and I think his book is a better fit for anyone new to Wilson. But Berg’s scrupulous research — he spent a decade on Wilson — has unearthed lots of new supplementary detail, and for experts it’s worth checking out, as well.
One last thing: not many people know that Sigmund Freud cowrote a biography of Wilson with William Bullitt. It’s called Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States, A Psychological Study, and it’s really, really awful. Freud’s estate worked very hard to separate Sigmund from it, and a lot of historians still seem dubious about his involvement. But in 2008 J. F. Campbell published a scholarly article based on his research in Bullitt’s papers. It turns out Freud more than earned his status as co-writer, and more scholars should check out Campbell’s work.