It seems appropriate to meet Garth Cartwright in a pub near Tin Pan Alley, London's musical instrument district where aspiring rockers have long ventured to buy guitars or drums.

Just as bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks were inspired by American blues music in the 1960s, the 45-year-old New Zealand journalist has been obsessed with all things American since he was a child growing up in Mt Roskill in the 1980s.

Now, after two decades of travelling the globe, his passion has manifested itself in his second book More Miles than Music, which documents an eventful journey through America's musical heartland.

"I love New Zealand, but if you're interested in music, books and film you end up absorbing so much of what the rest of the world has done," he says.

"Americans can famously only watch American movies and television, read American books and listen to American records if they want to, they don't have to go outside of all of that. But New Zealanders don't have that chance. Even the most diehard follower of Maori culture is going to have to look elsewhere."

Cartwright was first introduced to American movies at an impressionable age. "My father loved westerns and he took me to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid when I was about 9," he recalls. "I remember coming out of the Civic thinking, 'There are no horses or cowboys here.' I also heard Bo Diddley, as those old rock'n'rollers used to come to New Zealand a lot back then on the touring circuit. I was just amazed by his name, his sound and his square guitar.

I absorbed all that early on, and as a teenager I knew more about Tennessee than Taranaki."

He first visited his beloved America in 1990, only to dislike what he found.

"That was the bursting of the bubble, as I realised that the United States of my dreams didn't actually exist. I went there thinking that there would be music everywhere and the girls would be really good-looking. But Bon Jovi was big back then and it wasn't the Mecca of great music I thought it would be."

Instead he settled in South London, travelling regularly around Europe. "It's a much more interesting place. I'd rather go to Spain than hang out in New York."

Ironically, it was the Roma Gypsy musicians he interviewed for his first book, Princes Amongst Men, who reignited his interest in blues music and beat poetry.

"I never fell out of love with the music, but American foreign policy and American culture is something that has been really detrimental to the rest of the world. With Princes, I learnt how to write a book about something not particularly mainstream that would hold a reader's attention. I thought it would be great to do the same thing with my first love, the States."

More Miles than Money is as much a travelogue as a guide to classic soul, country and other roots styles. "I was trying to take the pulse of America, as much as write about the music. I don't just want to write books for music fans, I want to write books anyone can read. I use music as a tool to find my way around the country. The music that I write about very much reflects the culture of the place it comes from, as it is made by those communities. It isn't imposed upon them, and they're not copying the Beatles or anything. "

As the title suggests, Cartwright travelled on a strict budget and sometimes found himself in sticky situations. "It was poor America I went to. I didn't go to Beverly Hills or hang out on Miami Beach," he laughs.

"Unless you're interested in music, I wouldn't recommend going to Mississippi or Memphis. Mississippi is a really poor, run-down place, although it's still got amazing music. Memphis is a city of ghosts. It has created so much great music, but sadly it relies on nostalgia nowadays."

He spent around three months journeying from San Francisco to Chicago, taking in Nashville, Austin and, most memorably, Nevada's Burning Man festival along the way. He admits that he has only scratched the surface of the vast nation, but is reluctant to pen a sequel.

"You've got Cajun and Zydeco bands in Louisiana, and the Appalachians has an amazing tradition of fiddlers and bluegrass music," he says.

"But it will have to be someone else who writes it. It wore me out. You don't realise how hard it is until you have spent 18 hours on a Greyhound bus, stayed in crap motels and wandered around trying to get some food, when all you can find is burger joints."

Instead, Cartwright intends to focus on somewhere closer to home.

"I'd like to write a travel book about New Zealand arts. Next year will be 20 years since I first left, so it will be a reflection on how I perceive New Zealand after being away for so long. But I want to report on 21st century New Zealand, not just the one I knew when I lived there."

* More Miles Than Money (Serpent's Tail, $39.99)