Sing Me Back Home

January 01, 1970

(Faber
& Faber)

www.fsgbooks.com

I
read Sing Me Back Home the same week
that Jerry Reed died, which seemed somehow fitting. Not just because it’s a
book about country music and Reed was a great country musician, singer and
songwriter but because of the kind of
country performer Reed was. Songs like “Amos Moses,” “The Bird,” and even “East
Bound and Down” from Smokey and the
Bandit
are just this side of parody, saved from novelty status by the fact
that Reed’s cornpone humor, exaggerated hillbilly vocals, and redneck aphorisms
all came from an insider’s perspective, delivered with affection and intimacy
rather than scorn and detachment.

Sing Me Back
Home
is that kind of book. On one hand, it reinforces almost every damned hillbilly
stereotype in the book-hard-drinking, quick to fight, not too bright,
promiscuous. On the other hand, well, Jennings is writing about his own family
and his own life, and his portrait of his people is as loving as it is
unflinching. Growing up in Kingston, New Hampshire-yes, Virginia, there are
hillbillies north of the Mason-Dixon line-in extreme poverty in the 1950s,
Jennings couldn’t wait to get out, and on his way to becoming a New York Times editor, he rejected his
people just as adamantly as he rejected the country music that gave them succor
and solace in the face of squalor and heartbreak. Over the years, though,
Jennings realized that to reject them was to reject himself, and Sing Me Back Home is both a moving tale
of coming to terms with your past and an exceptionally insightful and
illuminating look at country music’s role in American lives.

As
music criticism, the book obviously owes a huge debt to David Cantwell and Bill
Friskics-Warren’s Heartaches by the
Number
, which in turn owes a debt to Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock and Soul (the debt would be evident even if Jennings
didn’t cop to it in the acknowledgements). All of them write about the music
absolutely without pretension and with an emphasis on how an entire
record-music, lyrics, and performance-works in a sort of call-and-response with
the listener, echoing, amplifying, and sometimes even clarifying our own
experiences. Dividing the book into chapters around common themes-yes, prison, trucks,
drinking, and mothers are included, but so are home, social status, death, and
spirituality-Jennings alternates between family biography and reflections on
particular songs and artists. All the usual suspects like Hank Williams, Merle
Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn are here, but so are names less familiar
to those outside country music: The Bailes Brothers, Brother Claude Ely, and
Billy Lee Riley. (The book’s primary fault lies in the fact that Jennings
believes that, save for Iris Dement, there hasn’t been a decent country singer
since roughly 1970.)

Jennings
also alternates between a terse journalist’s style and the language of his
people, often within the same paragraph, sometimes within the same
sentence-i.e., “Most of us Americans, for better or worse, don’t know what real
work is no more” or “Plain as barn cats, my relations and I all lived in ‘the
other America,’ busted, hurting, silent.” It’s a bold rhetorical move, one that
could have backfired, but Jennings’ prose is sure enough that it feels
completely natural-and for Jennings, like most of us, it probably is, even
though we’re taught to write one way and speak another.

And
over it all lords the shadow of the author’s Grammy Jennings, a woman he says
only wanted to “fuck and drink,” a woman who, like Patsy Cline, knows “what it
is to go walkin’ after midnight searching for her man, to fall to pieces, to be
crazy-you don’t go chasing your oldest son with a butcher knife if you ain’t
crazy.” Grammy is her grandson’s spiritual and emotional lighthouse, someone
who, like the best country music, is full of both heartache and joy (but mostly
heartache), the spirit that sings Jennings back home to who he really is, with
neither sentimentality nor illusion. ERIC SCHUMACHER-RASMUSSEN

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