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SING ME BACK HOME by Dana Jennings


Love, Death, and Country Music

by Dana Jennings

Pub Date: June 3rd, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-86547-960-9
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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.