JAMerica: Scene Reveals More Than Just Hippies and Noodling

JAMerica: The History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene By Peter Conners Da Capo Press, 320 pp., $25.99

"Hippies and noodling are lazy signifiers tossed up to fill the vacuum of word-count deadlines," Peter Conners writes about the perceptions of "jam" bands in his new book JAMerica. And it's true.

For while those two signifiers certainly describe part of the jam-band (or, as it is sometimes written, "jamband") groups and culture, listeners would be hard press to find another genre that encompasses everything from blues, bluegrass, funk, and jazz, to rock, psychedelia, and even techno.

Conners (who also wrote Growing Up Dead, about his experiences following the Fathers of the Jam), here tells the tale via oral history of players, along with other movers and shakers; or, as you might imagine, spin-dancers.

So the book contains mostly original interviews -- and some from previous sources -- with members of the Grateful Dead (from whom all jam roads spread out), Phish, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Railroad Earth, Umphrey's McGee, moe., Jane's Addiction, Widespread Panic, and others. It would have been helpful had Conners notated his subjects' band affiliations, though.

The advantage here is that JAMerica presents a lot of first-person voices and anecdotes from the people who where there. The disadvantage of an all-oral history, though, is that readers don't get that objective context and full story of events and unfolding history. It makes for at times tedious reading, and the reminisces often veer into the self-congratulatory or even martyrdom (i.e. "jambands are more than just hippies and noodling").

Chapters detail how the modern scene developed in the early '90s and took on another life after Jerry Garcia's 1995 death, the importance of actual songwriting and not just improvisation, development of the jam-band festival circuit, and the army of tapers who spread the gospel of the groups (though, oddly, not much on the Internet as way to share the music, which gave the bands and the genre a huge boost).

Other nuggets of info detail Col. Bruce Hampton's eerie ability to guess someone's birthday by just staring in their eyes, when Umphrey's McGee got their name from a drunken Rodney Dangerfield, and how Perry Ferrell -- unable to get his kids appreciating music like he wanted them to -- garners a group of new elementary-school fans by simply playing a school and letting the kiddos spin-dance.

JAMerica is not the definitive detailing of the genre and is suffers from some limited narration (and a few niggling spelling errors on musician names), but it's a worthy account for jam fans and those who appreciate single songs that might last as long as other artist's entire albums.


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