A Review of Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Jennings
Despite his highfalutin Noo Yark media job, author Dana Jennings wants you to know he’s as country as corn liquor. ‘Course he might be dragging around too many liberal-elite signifiers to be the populist hero he’d like to be: for one, he works for the New York Times (to some good-ol’ boys, this is like writing for the former Soviet Union’s Pravda ). Plus, he lives in upper-middle-class suburban New Jersey. Nevertheless, he insists he’s “still a goddamn hornpout-eatin’, rat-shootin’, stock car lovin’ hick.” And in his often loud, bull-horned prose, Jennings similarly plays up his über-bumpkin self-image throughout much of Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music .
Although he’s a little too juiced-up by middle-age poverty-nostalgia, Jennings does write passionately and intelligently about the classic honky-tonk music that shaped his hardscrabble working-class upbringing. Born a “whiskey baby” to teenage parents in 1957, Jennings reflects on the musical roots of his raisin’ in the snake-infested ponds, outhouses, dumps and tar-roof shacks of Kingston, New Hampshire. Along the way, we learn that New England can be as hick as anywhere below the Mason-Dixon (and that the term “hick” can even be used non-pejoratively).
As Jennings sees it, from 1950 to 1970 country music was made strictly by poor, hard-livin’ drunks for poor, hard-livin’ drunks. Not surprisingly, he just cant get it up for contempo cock-knockers like Keith Urban, or any other god-durn Nashville countrypolitan sumbitch. And if you enjoyed that previous line’s hickory-smoked colloquial quality (or if you’re a fan of, say, Jerry Reed’s citizens-band jabberjawin’ in Smokey and the Bandit) you’ll enjoy the corny rube-speak Jennings often integrates into his prose; he’ll sometimes strategically omit the preposition “of” to assumedly mimic his native North Appalachian tongue—e.g. “he got out the car”; a song “jumps out the speakers.” Instead of being born, he was “borned.” And you didn’t drive a truck; rather, you “drove truck.”
Jennings’s writing style generally boot-scoots back and forth between this affected backwoods porch-talk and the more refined culture-critic argot of a jacket-and-tied Times scribbler. In fact, Jennings’s perceptive capsule summation of Bluegrass music manages to be both pithy and eloquent, yet minus the Walter Brennan-ish hayseed bluster: “Bluegrass is when sonic innovation and conservative sentiment rub up against each other and make sparks fly.” His insightful alternate reading of Tammy Wynette’s classic “Stand By Your Man” (as an underhanded neo-feminist anthem) deserves particular note, as does his mini-treatise on the ahead-of-its-time significance of Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues”: “a mess that changed the course of country music,” as he deems it.
The book’s simple structural formula is comfy enough. Each chapter features a different thematic sub-category of country song and how it related to the author’s coming-of-age in a town that never quite shook off the Great Depression. He includes chapters on drinkin’ songs, lonely songs, gospel songs, poverty songs, rockabilly songs, trucker songs, prison songs: all sung by the immortal likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline. Jennings also salutes some often-neglected near-greats: Faron Young, Johnny Paycheck, Wynn Stewart, Jimmy Martin and the aforementioned Jerry Reed, to name a few.
And Jennings does make a pretty convincing case that he and his kinfolks lived lives worthy of representation in classic honky tonk songs: Heck, it was as almost if ol’ Hank & co. were cataloging every detail of the Jennings clan’s hellacious existence in their rough-n-tumble tunes. As we find out, all Grammy Jennings ever wanted to do was “fuck and drink,” and she courted “hard bastards who liked to drink and fuck.” And what did working-class men like his father do back then? “They worked, they drank, and they fucked,” he says. His truck-drivin’ relative Bub Jennings “drank like a trucker, fucked like a trucker, and owned thick trucker arms.” The comedian of the family, sixth-grade-educated Uncle Lloyd, tried to fly off a roof using umbrellas and also once ate poison ivy—deliberately. Sounds like Ray Stevens or Tom T. Hall lyrical territory there.
Sing Me Back Home closes with a righteous condemnation of the slick contemporary Nashville sound and its hegemonic reign, as Jennings bashes Music City’s empty meta-country ethos: “What’s marketed as country music today is actually country-style music...country music about country music.” Hard to argue with that. But it’s tougher to embrace his theory on why purebred honky tonk was ultimately put to pasture: “The times and circumstances that produced classic country music between 1950 and 1970 mercifully no longer exist…just as living way out in the sticks is generally a thing of the past.” Oddly enough, this assertion echoes essayist Tony Scherman’s similar-but-more-focused idea that “country music was born of the trauma of rural people’s adjustment to industrial society…but that fight has been fought.”
But can we really blame mainstream country’s devolution into goofy Big & Rich-style twang-pop on a paucity of antiquated Cable Hogue-types suffering through industrialist progress? True, it’s easy to see that the bleak realist sensibilities of Depression era-bred country singers don’t jibe with post-millennial America’s rah-rah Gilded Age-like optimism. But more important, despite the occasionally annoying verbal eccentricities, Sing Me Back Home confirms the seldom-kicked-around idea that country music used to be more than just an aesthetic choice—it was an all-encompassing experience you had to be born into and live. – Michael Sandlin
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