Dana Jennings’ new book, Sing Me Back Home is trying to do a number of things at once. It is a personal history of Jennings’ childhood in New Hampshire. It’s a love letter to country music. It’s an attempt to change the myth of regionalism that surrounds country music, to take it out of the South and claim it as part of not a region but a nation. It’s an ambitious list of goals for such a slim volume. But, for the most part, Jennings is successful in chasing these ideas down.
As a personal history, it is often striking. To hear Jennings talk of working at Kingston Steel Drum, surrounded by men pock-marked with burns and sooty with metal dust, it seems almost impossible that he got out of Kingston, New Hampshire, that he went to college and wrote novels and works now at The New York Times. He captures the trap of the town, the miasmic poverty and endless work days, by relating their everyday routine straight-up. They work hard, scrub their hands with stinging chemicals to get them clean, then drink cheap beer and cheaper liquor hard in the twilight.
And all the men from Jennings’ past, his dad and uncle and granddad and neighbors and other workers, all sound like they walked right out of country songs. So when Jennings starts to make the connections—between Johnny Cash and those workers, between Carl Perkins and his dad, between Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and his mother’s struggle with depression—they may be obvious, but they are too tied to earnest heartache to ignore.
Throughout the book, Jennings veers away from his own story to talk about classic country hits. He smartly avoids obscure songs, using the most famous country tunes to show how popular music reflects cultural values. When he talks about, for example, Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”, he gives us all the basic info—its peak on the country and pop charts, who wrote it (Tom T. Hall), where and when it was recorded and released—and then he dives into a short explication of the song. His summaries are simple, and again obvious, but his better trick comes in how he ties them to a shifting society. The fiery woman in Riley’s song, who outs the sexual exploits of some big to-do men in Harper Valley, is the kind of hard lady country music, and the rise of feminism, was championing.
Later, we see Jennings connect Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to the inherit masculine stubbornness behind the Bay of Pigs. He paints Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” as a scathing response to the myth of universal prosperity in the Eisenhower days. “Blue Suede Shoes” is, in Jennings’ mind, not a party song, but a tune full of the frustration and hurt pride of the terribly poor.
He makes these connections throughout the book, weaving them through his own story—his family has enough lying, cheating, drinking, and crying in its past to fill a few country discographies. And behind it all is Jennings’ irrepressible love for country music. You can feel him get giddy with joy over Hank Williams or Merle Haggard. You believe him when he tells you Iris DeMent’s “Mama’s Opry” makes him cry every time. He loves it so much that he wants to claim it, and does. He takes it out of the South, and gives it to all of America. But he also recognizes that there is a class of people that country music is made by and for—the poor and ignored.
The argument behind all parts of the book is that we tend to paint country as Southern—and, to take it a step further, we treat the South as uneducated, slow, stubborn, racist—because we are not willing to face the problems it brings to light. To embrace country music as a part of New England, the way Jennings does, is to admit that abject poverty, with all its horrible, violent baggage, is going on in our backyard. The implicit hope in Jennings book is that we will all embrace country music not only because it is great—and his overstuffed descriptions of the songs are infectious enough to convert anyone—but because by embracing this music, we embrace national troubles that we can then begin to tackle.
He hurts his cause a little by falling into a false hardscrabble slang in his writing from time to time. He drops the ‘g’ on his gerunds and fires “ain’t” around, and rambles a little. His natural way of writing is clear and affecting, and by slipping into a strange version of country talk he saps his voice of some of its honesty. It’s a playful move, meant to tie him to his past, but it’s also unnecessary. His encyclopedic knowledge of country music, his ability to tell heartbreaking tales of his past, his adroit comparisons between songs and culture—these are what make his book work as well as it does. He doesn’t need to overplay his country hand to get his point across, because his point is clear without it: We are all a part of country music, and country music is a part of all of us.