Richard Manning is a lifelong journalist, the author of eleven books. He is a contributing editor for Harper's magazine, was a John S. Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University, and has received many awards, especially in environmental journalism. His book One Round River was named a significant book of the year by the New York Times. His work was featured in Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2010 and Best American Travel Writing of 2017.

Rick Bass is a writer and environmental activist. Bass won the Story Prize for books published in 2016 for his collection of new and selected stories, For a Little While. He was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2006 for his short story collection The Lives of Rocks. He was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award (autobiography) for Why I Came West. He was also awarded the General Electric Younger Writers Award, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

If It Sounds Good, It Is Good by Richard Manning

Music is fundamental to human existence, a cultural universal among all humans for all times. It is embedded in our evolution, encoded in our DNA, which is to say, essential to our survival. Academics in a variety of disciplines have considered this idea to devise explanations that Richard Manning, a lifelong journalist, finds hollow, arcane, incomplete, ivory-towered, and just plain wrong. He approaches the question from a wholly different angle, using his own guitar and banjo as instruments of discovery. In the process, he finds himself dancing in celebration of music rough and rowdy.

American roots music is not a product of an elite leisure class, as some academics contend, but of explosive creativity among slaves, hillbillies, field hands, drunks, slackers, and hucksters. Yet these people—poor, working people—built the foundations of jazz, gospel, blues, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll, and country music, an unparalleled burst of invention. This is the counterfactual to the academics' story. This is what tells us music is essential, but by pulling this thread, Manning takes us down a long, strange path, following music to deeper understandings of racism, slavery, inequality, meditation, addiction, the science of our brains, and ultimately to an enticing glimpse of pure religion.

Use this book to follow where his guitar leads. Ultimately it sings the American body, electric.



  • "Richard Manning is the most significant social critic in the northern Rockies. We're fortunate to have Dick Manning as he continues his demands for fairness while casting light on our future."

    – William Kittredge, author of The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology and The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays
  • "Richard Manning's work has always been something special, distinguished by its intense passion and its penetrating insights."

    – George Black, author of Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone
  • "Richard Manning is at the head of his class."

    – Larry McMurtry, author of over two-dozen books including The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove




Rick Bass

I'll be brief. At its mediocre worst, an introduction or foreword can rush the reader and give away the goods. Why attempt in three pages to speak for the author who for the last many years has relentlessly pursued the subject with depth and, inhabiting the dream of the book into which the reader is about to descend? There's no answer, really. I'm reminded of the anecdote regarding James Joyce and the publication of Ulysses. When someone complained jokingly that it might take a year or longer to read it, he is reported to have replied, "Well, it took me fourteen years to write it, so it can take you fourteen years to read it." This is a roundabout way of saying that three pages can in no way capture 250.

My hope for readers of this book is that they come to it as I did—sitting back and just listening, as if to a campfire round of expert picking: runs and riffs, progressions, harmonies, melodies, and improvisations that expand and then dissolve boundaries. I don't think I'm negatively influencing the forthcoming reading experience by revealing that this book, like so many of Manning's works, travels confidently from one major thought or subject to another, whereas another writer might require separate books to cover that same ground.

Fascinating to me is Manning's reminder that music, alone among the senses, requires no central processing in the brain: it reverberates against the cilia of the inner ear and simply is, without any translation or interpretation, no chemical transfer required, no synapses, catalysts, enzymes or other neural mechanisms. It's as primal and real as a drum. It's as much a part of our physiology as is breathing or the pumphouse contractions of the heart.

This being a book by Richard Manning, of course you'll encounter a concise exploration of not just American music history and culture, but also genetic appropriation and germplasm. Everything is as connected in a book by Manning as it is in real life—food, water, craft, religion, wild nature, family, politics.

Why do humans make music? Because we are human, and our brains have, like so many other radiations from the tree of life—including the brains of birds—evolved to absorb, and be moved by, sound waves.

One comes to understand, reading this book, that when the individual is hearing (or creating) music that the brain is most in harmony with, is most congruous with, its time-fitted self. (The philosopher David Rothenberg mines parallel veins in his book Survival of the Beautiful, exploring how birdsong and other "art" does not necessarily translate into either sexual selectivity for the singers or survival skills such as reduced mortality. Instead, art, or what we often call beauty, appears to exist simply, or not so simply, because the brain has been made to absorb it. Because we fit beauty.)

Why do humans make music? "Because the world and our body desire it" is perhaps not the most satisfying answer—but in Manning's narrative, this fact is shown to be both true and inescapable.

Where would we be as a species without emotion? Certainly, there are downsides, but here we are, nonetheless, with it, for better or worse. It is who we are and how we got here. It's an interesting question, though. The social, cooperative animals tend to traffic in it quite heavily. Whether as reward or punishment, praise or criticism, and manipulative, no matter: it, emotion, like music, amplifies the brain's activity and therefore power, or potential.

An active brain is, well, a brain that fits the dynamic world in which it evolved.

Music feels good. Beyond this, I think music heals.

Manning describes wonderfully this phenomenon as dramatized in Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain, where the Civil War deserter, Stobrod—otherwise a seemingly irredeemable ne'er-do-well—picks up a fiddle and, in due time, begins to reconstruct not only himself but also his war-damaged compatriots: balm and salve in a hard time.

Manning discusses also the common observation that many if not most musicians seem to hurt a great deal. Does their art push them into estrangement or is it the other way around? It is likely as unanswerable as chicken-or-egg, but I think it is fair to say that all species and populations experience and grow from pain, that it is transformative, and that this is one of the evolutionary advantages of, and reasons for, the existence of, music.

Not that all things must, in the moment, have utility to be valuable. I believe also that beauty matters, on its own. But how wonderful to see the care and fittedness with which the larger world tries to make a place and a space for us, even now, in these crowded, tempestuous, and often solipsistic times.

Because this is a Manning book, music doesn't just define culture and evolution, doesn't just rescue species, individuals, and populations; here, the human, Manning, rescues a guitar.

It occurs to me at this point that it might be easier to describe what scant little might be left out of this book, rather than introducing some of the elements that a reader will encounter within it.

The brain, beautiful though it is, and natural, can be, we are reminded, "a prison of the self," as the philosopher Barbara Ehrenreich writes.

Manning also quotes neuroscientist Walter Freeman concerning the essence and identity of music: "Here in its purest form is a human technology for crossing the solipsistic gulf. It is wordless, illogical, deeply emotional and selfless in its actualization of transient and then lasting harmony between individuals."

It—music—pours into us, it pours out of us. It gives us avenues to step away from the lovely prison, for a little while.

Again, as with all of Manning's books, the same effect is accomplished by reading. Fill your bookshelf with each of his books. Build a new shelf if necessary. Keep a copy of this latest work for yourself, but buy plenty to share with all the musicians—and music lovers—you know.