A New York Times editor mingles memoir with music criticism in his first book, which connects classic country songs with his relatives’ hardscrabble lives.
“Country music made between about 1950 and 1970 is a secret history of rural, working-class Americans,” writes Jennings. Among those folks were his parents, just teenagers when they married eight days before he was born in 1957; his mother’s mother, Lilla George, who went to school in dresses sewn from burlap potato bags; his father’s mother, Grammy Jennings, who after her husband abandoned her lived with three children in a tarpaper shack with no running water or electricity; and scads of other kinfolk who, like the protagonists of country numbers like Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” worked hard, drank hard, loved hard and had no illusions about a better future. The author belied their low expectations by getting an education, getting out of Kingston, N.H., and getting a white-collar job, but he still loves their music. In chapter after thematic chapter, he shows how his family’s world is captured in such great songs as “Sing Me Back Home” (Merle Haggard), “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn) and even pop crossovers like “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (Jeannie C. Riley). There’s a certain amount of romantic wallowing in blue-collar bad behavior, but for every trite description like that of Grammy Jennings (“all she ever wanted was an ice-cold beer in one hand and a red-hot man in the other”), there’s a bone-chillingly bare sentence like the one Jennings’s mother wrote to his teacher in fourth grade, the year he missed 73 out of 180 school days: “I kept Andy home from school to help me out around the house because I didn’t feel good.”
The down-and-dirty prose sounds a little affected coming from a guy who lives in Montclair, N.J., but there’s no doubting the sincerity of Jennings’s love for his kin and passion for country music.
Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.
Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").
Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)