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Friday, June 13, 2008

Sing Me Back Home

OK, I admit it. When it comes to real country music, and those whom I believe truly appreciate it as the art form that it is, I am prejudiced. Never in a million years would I believe that some guy from New Hampshire, a writer and editor for the New York Times, of all the newspapers in the word, for crying out loud, would know much about the real thing; no way would someone with that background actually understand the music and those who created it. Well, that was before I read Sing Me Back Home, by Dana Jennings, who is exactly the guy I just described.

I want to apologize, Mr. Jennings, and I salute you, sir.

Sing Me Back Home is not a straight forward history of country music. Books like those serve their purpose, certainly, and there are many worthy ones out there already that take that approach. Jennings, on the other hand, turns the history of country music into something very personal: a way to share his own family story.

As most country music historians (and knowledgeable fans) agree, the years from the late forties to the very end of the sixties mark the period of classic country music. The music reached its peak during those years and has faced a steady, downhill slide since 1970 with the exception of a small (and poorly rewarded) group of pickers and singers that refuses to let classic country music completely disappear. But, overall, country music has probably never been in a sorrier state than it is in today. According to Jenkins, in fact, “It can be entertaining, but the difference between today’s country and the summits of the 1950s and ‘60s is the difference between the lightning and the lighting bug.”

As Jennings puts it, “country music was made by poor people for poor people.” At its best, country music reflected, and maybe even justified, the lives endured by the rural poor who lived all around the United States, not just those from the South or the mountains and coal-producing regions of the Southeast. It is the history of working people, those who made livings with their hands, often at the sacrifice of their health or even their lives, during those two decades. Nothing for them came easy and, when they finally made it to Saturday night, they became walking, talking country songs themselves. They lived the cheating songs and the drinking songs; they spent time in prison, went hungry in the bad times, hit the road out of desperation or despair, had love affairs end badly, and repented on Sunday mornings with the full knowledge that they would backslide again come the very next Saturday night.

But what makes Sing Me Back Home so memorable is the way that Dana Jennings readily fits a member of his own family to every kind of classic country song there is. He lived it – and he remembers it because it made him the man that he is today despite the fact that he sits behind a desk at the New York Times. Song by song, the reader meets members of Jennings’ family who could easily have been the inspirations for those same songs because, not only did these folks love and surround themselves with country music, they lived the lifestyle at its heart.

For those of us of a certain age, and of a certain upbringing, this book is like preaching to the choir. We already knew this deep down in our souls. But having someone as frank, and just as importantly, as articulate, as Dana Jennings come along to tell the real story of country music’s golden age and how its listeners related to those songs, is a real bonus.

Sing Me Back Home fits longtime country music fans like an old glove. But the book is also a perfect primer for those newer fans who wonder about the country music legends that are barely more than names to them today. In fact, the discography at the end of the book is worth its whole $24 dollar cover price. Those willing to spend the money and time required to surround themselves with the albums and box sets listed by Jennings in that discography will learn more about the history of America’s working class than they could ever learn from any textbook.

Despite what David Allan Coe says to the contrary, I do not believe in the perfect country music song. But there just might be a perfect country music book. If so, this is it.

Rated at: 5.0

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