Dana Jennings, Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music (Faber and Faber, 2008)
The scene opens with a flourish of horns, strings, and cymbals, on a panoramic strip of sun-dappled Tennessee forestland. Shot from below, a man dressed in black enters the frame; the magisterial stylings of the opening bars cede to rhythm guitar, percussion, and a distinctive, towering voice. At the end of the first verse of accompaniment, the leather-clad woodsman—none other than a coiffed and rambling Mr. Johnny Cash—stoops to sip a handful of water from a barely-babbling brook. The message of his music-box-out-in-the-sticks trickles through the weary refrain: “And it looks like I’m never going to cease my wanderin’.”
This scene kicks off The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1976, the star of which is an important musical symbol in Dana Jennings’ cathartic family memoir, Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music. Although filmed several years past the “golden age of twang,” the special’s opening number (“Wanderin’”) and the man who sings it illustrate the time, place, and kin to which Jennings wants to return. Cash’s choice of Christmas carol—with lyrics like, “Been a working on a railroad, been a working on a farm/But all I got to show for it is a muscle on my arm”—gives expression to those troubled, exiled souls that drift through the cheatin’ heart of pure country, and through the heart of Jennings’s story.
Sing Me Back Home sets the life of a postwar family scraping by in the backwoods of New Hampshire to a soundtrack of now canonized country music recorded between 1950 and 1970. Whatever was happening at the forefront of American culture, Jennings’s people marked their time by vinyl grooves, radio static, and the jangle of jukebox change. “We had no expectations except that life was hard. All we needed was music that understood that harshness, music that leavened it.”
This music includes Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, and Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton—coalmine canaries whose backgrounds informed their art, and whose original fan base, the rural poor, took solace in the fact that a coterie of folks who came from nothing were singing about the way it was for those who still had nothing: those for whom the Great Depression “had not ended,” for whom “postwar prosperity was a rumor.”
Sometimes he lives in the country, sometimes he lives in town: the adult Jennings, an editor with the New York Times, takes (metaphorical) leave of his home, “in a prosperous New Jersey suburb” and his office in “Renzo Piano’s dream house,” so that he might “stare unflinching into the still-festering wound” of his family history. In chapters divided by standard country music topics—poverty, crazy love, prison stripes, and seeing the light, to name a few—Jennings profiles those who sang of the realities faced by families like his, living on back roads deep in the recesses of the country’s consciousness —and conscience. These stars are meant to guide the reader toward the hermetic roots Jennings left behind in pursuit of big-city dreams.
Because much of the music history Jennings provides is well-trod territory, his most affecting passages are the ones that wander into the misty hollows of the self, personal vignettes about characters and character-building experiences from his youth: his summer job “catching drums from the burner” at Kingston Steel Drum, named “one of the one hundred most dangerous Superfund waste sites in the country”; his paternal step-grandfather, dead from cancer, who could “make a mute ax…speak in a riven tongue”; his mother at age five, sent away to work so her own mother could take a job “at her cop boyfriend’s hamburger joint.” Early on, Jennings revisits the cretin-infested fairytale located out back: “The outhouse shimmers, simmers, in the summer swoon…Come mud-kill, Jake Marble, rimed and greased, scours our outhouse, ghosts up from his Cedar Swamp lair through murk and muskeg, sandpit and mist.”
This memoir is part American songbook, part family album, and at times the chord it means to strike is muffled; the correspondence between the two traditions wavers. However, when it is in tune, the story is moving, as when Jennings describes his grandmother in the context of Patsy Cline’s sonic anguish. “Patsy’s pure ache smolders in Grammy’s bones. She savors the crack, pop, and hiss—like bacon sizzling—of the needle-seducing vinyl. The flaws in the record are the flaws in her life…Cline sings her life better than she can say it herself.”
The ache Cline’s “She’s Got You” induces in the bones of a woman who only “ever wanted…an ice-cold beer in one hand and a red-hot man in the other,” who “waits at the crumb-specked kitchen table…stalled on the train tracks of her life”: that is pure country, trusting a three-minute song to explain why one’s own skin and bones don’t feel like home.