My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m not giving Sing Me Back Home 5 stars because I think everyone should read it. I’m giving it 5 stars because it hit home for me, and I’ll be thinking about this book for a long, long time.
New York Times editor Dana Jennings grew up hard in New Hampshire, descended from hardscrabble people who were not quite in sync with the times. In Sing Me Back Home he tells their story synchronized with a history of country music from 1950-1970.
Jennings is a year older than me, and our family’s circumstances were not as rough as his, although we also weren’t that far off. But the music was the same. My mom’s records were Lefty Frizzell, Jim Reeves, The Wilburn Brothers, and Johnny Cash. The sounds that came from those records form my childhood’s soundtrack too.
While analyzing the grand themes of country music–death, family, religion, drinking, prison, hell-raising–Jennings draws upon the characters of his family and puts them alongside insightful analysis of the country records and trends of the time.
Particularly impressive is the way Jennings finds the heart and soul of a single record sometimes through analyzing the way a specific syllable is delivered, as in Patsy Cline’s “She Got You”:
“I’ve got your memory…or has it got me?”
That pause, and the ever-so-slight erotic moan on the word ‘or,’ make for one of the most devastating moments in all American music. It’s the pause where every American woman was stuck in 1962, the pause that gave rise to feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.”
Jennings also finds the sweet spot between entertainment and significance as he goes beyond the surface of the songs to uncover the misery underlying pretty much everything in country music and country living. Here’s what he says about Roger Miller’s “Chug-A-Lug,” a song I’ve easily listened to 500 times:
“All the while, he reminds us that he’s just a kid by singing the refrain,’Burns your tummy, don’t ya know.’
It all sounds funny, but it ain’t. Not one damn bit. it’s the upbeat lament of a drunk remembering how all that sorry drinking started in the first place.”
This book has forever changed the way I will hear certain songs. Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode” are country songs, according to Dana Jennings. I’ve never thought of them that way, but he’s exactly right. And I didn’t know The Big Bopper wrote “White Lightning,” but it makes perfect sense.
Thanks, Danny, for recommending this one.