Sign up for newsletter
 

Sing Me Back Home

By Dana Jennings

Faber and Faber, 257 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by C. Eric Banister, November 2008

Find it on Amazon
Country music, at its purest form, is about stories. It is the one characteristic that artists from other genres note about in what draws them to country music. In the golden age of country, roughly 1950 to 1970, nearly every song told a story. Every song had a story like every person has a story. In the life of Dana Jennings the stories of people and songs are inextricably woven.

Jennings, now an editor for the New York Times, grew up in a hardscrabble part of New Hampshire. Born 8 days after the marriage of his parents in 1957, his memories of youth populated by his rough-living family - Aunt Lee, Uncle Billy and Grammy Jennings - and his adopted extended family - Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash.

What Jennings has managed to do with "Sing Me Back Home" is successfully weave his memories of youth with the songs that played over his radio or on the family's record player. At one point, he talks about looking at an old picture of his father, whose eyes are dark and unrecognizable to him, filled with "country darkness" that scares the hell out of him to this day. This country darkness comes through all of the songs that popped up in Jennings' life, revealing a main theme running through them all - prison.

According to Jennings there are two types of prisons sung about in these songs. The first is a literal prison, the ones sung about by Cash, Webb Pierce and The Blue Sky Boys. The second are the metaphorical prisons we build around ourselves with alcohol, infidelity or by simply selling ourselves short and settling for less.

"Sing Me Back Home" presents a bit of history about certain songs and artists, but what it does masterfully is take away the geek factor of biographical discographies that concern themselves with who played what instrument where and uses gritty, real life examples that illustrate the lyrics or tone of many of these classic songs.

Like when he talks about his Uncle Lloyd, a sort of redneck Lothario who would sing his favorite Faron Young songs as he got ready for a night on the town when he would sidle up to the lady in his sights and coo, "Hey good lookin'." From there, Jennings segues seamlessly into a discussion of the lyrics of the Hank Williams chestnut Hey Good Lookin' and how they were written after World War II, Hiroshima and the Holocaust when there was little innocence left and were perhaps not as innocent as they first appear.

Jennings conversational style makes it seem as if he and the reader were sitting on the porch sharing a beer and a record player as he spins yarn after yarn about growing up. And growing up was rough, at times, and so is some of the language in the book. Readers easily offended by the occasional f-word or g.d. might steer clear, but without that raw, honest language the book wouldn't be the same, it wouldn't have the same realness.

The book is very well-written, as one might expect from a New York Times writer, and the story flows so easily and smoothly that one could read the story in a couple of sittings. What Jennings has done here is very hard to pull off - weaving memoir and artistic examination - but he does it extremely well.