Sing Me Back Home

Love, Death, and Country Music

Dana Jennings

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Sing Me Back Home
Hillbilly Fever
Country Music, 1950-70
Country music is the backfire of a rattletrap pickup truck creaking down a dirt road and the lowing of a lone cow. It's music for scouring junkyards, setting out to the porch, and shooting horseshoes. It's tar-paper shacks, shoveling chicken shit for a living, and chugging cheap whiskey. It's TB music, orphan music, and outhouse music. It's potato-sack dresses, loyal three-legged dogs, and water lugged from the well.
Listen now!
Country is the incandescent keening of Hank Williams and the preternatural harmonies of brothers like the Monroes, the Delmores, the Stanleys, the Louvins, and the Everlys. It's the hick jazz of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Moon Mullican, and the Light Crust Doughboys. It's Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the fore-mothers and forefathers of commercial country music, being discovered in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. It's the bleak chasms ofJohnny Cash and the deep pop of Patsy Cline, and the feisty example Patsy set for her musical heirs like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. It's Hollywood's singing cowboys--those primal "Hat Acts"--like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and unexpected yet essential black men like DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride, and Ray Charles and Chuck Berry; if you don't think Chuck Berry is country, give a hard listen to "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode." It's the fierce 1950s honky-tonk of Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, and Faron Young, and the fine Cajun pining of Harry Choates and the Kershaw brothers, Doug and Rusty. It's Waylon, Willie, and the boys. It's the blackface minstrelsy of Emmett Miller and the pill-fueled brilliance of Roger Miller. It's consummate git-tar pickers like Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland, and Grady Martin, and that Bakersfield, California, riot sparked by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart. And, yeah, country music is that greasy punk from Memphis-by-way-of-Tupelo, Elvis Aron Presley, breaking the sound barrier.
I said, "Listen!"
It's two-stepping rats, poverty-stricken existentialists, and gravel roads that wash out each and every spring. It's patches on the knees of your britches, voices coarse as rasps, and a Depression that lasted thirty or forty years--now that's a Great Depression. It's music heard from the back of flatbed trucks at Laundromats, drive-in movie theaters, and quarter-mile stock car tracks. It's living for overtime up the mill, and living for your weekend case of Schlitz down home. It's tremoring at the kitchen table at four in the morning, in the grip of a George Jones moaner, as you wonder where the years of your life have flown.
Are you listening?
It's crazy arms and cold, cold hearts, heartaches by the number and setting the woods on fire ... It's the wreck of the Old 97, awreck on the highway, and that honky-tonk angel who made a wreck out of you ... It's waltzing across Texas in thrall to the "Tennessee Waltz" and the "Kentucky Waltz" ... Seeing the light, preachin', prayin', singin', and hearing Mother pray ... The great speckled bird and the bird of paradise that flies up your nose ... Pistolpackin' mamas, daddies that walk the line, and being your own grandpaw ... Mountain dew, white lightnin', and whiskey rivers ... Slippin' around, backstreet affairs and dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music ... Six days on the road, sixteen tons, and being busted ... Waiting for a (mystery) train, the Fireball Mail and the Golden Rocket, the Wabash Cannonball and the Orange Blossom Special ... Being king of the road on that Lost Highway where there's a tombstone every mile ... Wildwood flowers, tumbling tumbleweeds, and flowers on the wall ... Rough and rowdy ways and walking on the sunny side ... Hungry eyes watching the ring of fire on which you keep your skillet good 'n' greasy ... Drivin' nails in your coffin and slapping down cash on the barrelhead ... Bloody Mary mornings and blue suede shoes, heartbreak hotels and jailhouse rock ... Being so lonesome you could cry, cry, cry.
With the deepest country music, there are no casual listeners because the music is curse and redemption, the journey and the homeplace, current events and ancient tales. The very best country music is prayer and litany, epiphany and salvation. That's why it's still with us.
Country music made between about 1950 and 1970 is a secret history of rural, working-class Americans in the twentieth century--a secret history in plain sight. But, too, much of it is music that has endured, music full of wit and wisdom that has made the cultural migration from being "just" country music made by a bunch of hillbillies to being, simply, American music.
Commercial country music was whelped, came of age, and eventually thrived in the twentieth century. The traditional take on that century--the American Century--canonizes the United States as it soars in an unrivaled arc, with the occasional glitch like the Depression, the world wars, and institutional racism. Even so, convention has it, Americans gladly climbed aboard the Capitalist Express, a glorious train that only made stops at gleaming stations like Prosperity, Happiness, and Satisfaction.
Country music has a different story to tell.
Country music knows broader and deeper truths about the twentieth-century American Dream, universal truths that resonate well beyond the music's original audience. Country music knows that the Great Depression didn't conveniently end the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but instead lingered like an economic malaria in some regions deep into the 1960s ... and later. Poverty never goes out of style, as Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans painfully reminded us.
Country music knows that the dark heart of the American Century beat in oil-field roadhouses in Texas and in dim-lit Detroit bars where country boys in exile gathered after another shift at Ford or GM. Bobby Bare might've pleaded in "Detroit City" that he wanted to go home. But we all knew he wouldn't, that he couldn't. Country profoundly understands what it's like to be trapped in a culture of alienation: by poverty, by a shit job, by lust, by booze, by class. Country music knows that even in your hometown you can be a rank stranger.
If you truly want to understand the whole United States of America in the twentieth century, you need to understand country music and the working people who lived their lives by it.
Country music is a key to unlocking the lives of the rural white working poor from 1950 to 1970. People who, when the paycheck shriveled up and blew away in the middle of the week, had to beg a half gallon of milk and a loaf of bread on the cuff at the neighborhood grocery store. People for whom country music was holier than church. Because if there's a song that kills you, that brings tears to your eyes most every time you hear it--Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," let's say--you always carry a vital remnant of that song within you. And to own a record that killed you where I grew up was to reclaim a part of yourself that daily circumstance had erased; for a couple minutes you could forget that you were two months behind on the rent and that the light company was threatening to shut the electric.
That song is a divine spark in your starved soul, a healing presence. I find it impossible to conjure my dead without conjuring remnants of country songs. Hearing an old country tune is always a return to the homeplace, and listening to a classic country singer is like catching up with an old friend.
Decades before celebrity journalism turned its cynical eye on country musicians, "knowing" your favorite singer was an act of creation. In the days before the mass media tried to mediate our very lives away from us, you could decide for yourself what kind of person Ray Price or Loretta Lynn was. My aunts and uncles and grammies cobbled together imagined lives for "their" singers, quilting together record-jacket photos and bios, snatches of radio conversation gleaned from the Grand Ole Opry or the Wheeling Jamboree, and lucky glimpses caught on hick TV shows like Porter Wagoner's or, up in New Hampshire, Clyde Joy's.
Most important, my relations knew their favorites by their distinctive voices and styles. That's why artists worked so hard to fashion an idiosyncratic sound in the 1950s and 1960s. It didn't pay to be a musical chameleon. You were your sound:
Ernest Tubb was his gravel honesty, while Patsy Cline was her exquisite ache. Little Jimmy Dickens was a hillbilly cut-up, while Kitty Wells played the demure small-town housewife. A new single by your favorite singer was a fresh love letter from Nashville or Bakersfield or Memphis, another two-and-a-half-minute scrap of vinyl DNA from which you could conjure an entire human being.
Cultural historians like to obsess over the Jazz Age 1920s, ease into the romantic era of the big bands in the 1930s and '40s, then elaborate on the birth of youth culture and rock 'n' roll--oh, Elvis!!!--with a pit stop for Kerouac, Ginsberg, bebop, and the Beats. By the time we roar into the 1960s, our chrome-heavy '57 Chevy burning rubber, the Beatles and Dylan are demigods and we're nearly in the fevered grip of psychedelic hippie hegemony. (Hey, man, could you please pass the LSD? Owsley, if you don't mind.)
A tidy notion, but country music's tale is different, earthier. The years 1950 to 1970 were a golden age of twang as the postwar giants of country walked the earth: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, George Jones and Merle Haggard, Webb Pierce and Faron Young. Women found their voices, too, with singers like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Many of the standards that still define the music were recorded then: "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ring of Fire" by Cash, "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Williams, "Mama Tried" by Haggard, "Crazy" by Cline, and "Stand by Your Man" by Wynette, to name just a few. In the popular imagination--then and now--country music, the deepest country music, is still Hank and Cash and Cline and their postwar peers. And some of these were songs that made a dent in the broader culture. You didn't need to be a farmer or raised in a holler to feel the cheatin' heat in "Ring of Fire" or the pain in "Stand by Your Man."
Still, in those years, country music belonged mostly to countrypeople. The music told us that we were something after all--just as postwar rhythm and blues and, later, soul told blacks that they mattered--even as America made its transition from rural nation to urban nation, from local culture to a national television culture. (In 1920, just before the dawn of commercially recorded country music, the U.S. Census characterized 48.8 percent of the population as rural, 43.5 percent in 1940, and 30.1 percent in 1960. Meanwhile, there had been just ten thousand television sets in America in 1947; by 1957, there were forty million.)
Performers like Red Foley, the Delmore Brothers, and Merle Travis were still stars in the early 1950s, but country music, like the entire nation, was in transition, and those singers sounded old-fashioned to the young men and young women who were still trying to sort out their lives in postwar America. In the voices of the best country singers of the 1950s--Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, Johnny Cash, and Elvis--there is struggle, yearning, and confusion. In a world of vanishing farms, the lure of the city and its jobs, and an unknowable Cold War shadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation, these singers didn't have the luxury of wallowing in traditional music's centuries-old tropes of God, mother, and home.
Many country people still could not manage to snatch their small piece of postwar prosperity, but Hank Williams was their sad-eyed Alabam prophet and Patsy Cline the smoldering high priestess of Nashville. My relations and I had more in common with the country singers we loved than we did with the snobs who lived in the colonial-dotted center of town. We had been peasants in the Old World, and we were peasants in America, too.
Though I was born in 1957, I grew up during the Great Depression. In my particular chicken-scratched swatch of New Hampshire, postwar prosperity was a rumor. The Depression had not ended for my people, who lived from odd job to odd job, for whomsupper was never a given. I was born into a ramshackle husk of a house that had no indoor plumbing except for cold running water that froze in the pipes come winter--and the occasional hot running rat. Everyone learned to chop wood and lug water. Flush toilets were another rumor, the outhouse the reality.
Back then, country music wasn't an accessory; it was a way of being. Through the power of radio and recordings, music became central to most Americans' lives in the twentieth century. Whether jazz and the blues, rock and pop, Cajun and Celtic, or country and soul, certain kinds of music became our music, certain songs became our songs, at our beck and call with the drop of a needle or the push of a button. Freed of concert hall and back porch, of schoolhouse and church, music became a cultural badge, seized us with its intimate intensity, granted us solace and meaning.
Yet, much writing on music spurns the listener's half of the equation. It succumbs to musicological mumbo-jumbo or mere dirt-and-dreams biography, or to that obsessive-compulsive disorder of music writing, infatuation with discography and recording-session lineups. It leaves no room for the listener.
Well, for me, my family, and all those like us, sometimes you couldn't distinguish the listener from the country song.
In 1970, country music began to change--it more doggedly chased the broader culture, sought crossover hits--even as our lives began to change. The interstates brought in wealthier people from Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire, and my old man's jobs started to pay a bit better. Times were still tough, but my folks were able to buy a modest saltbox with the help of the federal Farmers Home Administration.
The singer-songwriter Iris DeMent understands those hard old days. The first time I heard her "Mama's Opry," I cried. The next sixtimes I heard "Mama's Opry," I cried. And though I first heard it in 1992, the year it came out on DeMent's debut album, Infamous Angel, the song can still ambush me.
The song is simple. DeMent, the youngest of fourteen children born into an Arkansas farm family, tells how her parents and grandparents loved country music, and how her mother dreamed of singing on the Grand Ole Opry. Simple. But when DeMent starts in with her wistful Arkansas keening--"She grew up plain and simple in a farming town"--I lose it most every time.
Suddenly it's 1960 again, Ma's hanging wash out to the cedar-post clothesline, I'm handing her the wooden clothespins ... and I'm once again undone by those floodwaters from the past.
"Mama's Opry" won't let me forget that even though I live in a prosperous New Jersey suburb, though I work in midtown Manhattan in an exquisite new building designed by the renowned architect Renzo Piano, I'm a son of the boondocks. I know more about old Ford pickup trucks than I do the New York City subway system. And just because I like Coltrane and cabernet doesn't mean, at heart, that I'm not a beer and Hank guy.
The journey from the outhouse to Renzo Piano's dream house has been long and full of mystery. But since 1992, anyway, the good tears that my hick sister Iris DeMent makes me cry have suffused that journey.
Like Kingston, New Hampshire, country music was still a tiny town in 1950. The singer and songwriter Tom T. Hall once compared it to an ethnic business that had realistic expectations; there was only a small segment of the American public buying country records back then. This was before Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash had network TV shows in the late 1960s, before the Urban Cowboy fad/debacle of the 1980s, before Garth Brooks sold CDs as if they were Big Macs,before Shania Twain's navel became the talk of Nashville. Hall, in his fine autobiography, recalls a time when the Grand Ole Opry could still make you or break you, when sales of 100,000 singles meant you had a No. 1 hit, when most country stars were still grateful to travel the Cornpone and Kerosene circuits of schoolhouses, town halls, and outdoor country music parks, when there were only 81 full-time country music stations in the land (1961)--by 1969 there were 606. The music executives in Nashville were determined to break country out of its ghetto holler; but the folks who loved the music didn't even know they were in one.
In its first fifty years or so, commercial country was music meant for those who'd been bypassed by the American Dream. For people who lived in shacks and cabins and farms off the Lost Highway, or who'd been grudgingly harried to the big city to try to make a living. It was outsider music for farm folk, for people who worked in small local factories that made barrels and boxboards and shoes. For broad-backed, eight-fingered men who limped and worked the woods or trudged along at the brickyard. For men and women who knew what work was. And who also knew that work wasn't meant for satisfaction, but merely as a means to tread water. Satisfaction had to wait. It might come from a six-pack ... or a hymn ... or a country song on the radio.
When you lived way back in the country, it seemed the radio could be a tool for revelation: news of more heartbreaking nonsense from Washington; a warning of evening thundershowers; or a song that, at least for a couple minutes, could change your life. A song that made you stop washing the dishes, or made you stare into your coffee. And if that song was good enough, strong enough, the next time you were in town you'd scrounge up enough change to buy that record at the Woolworth or the Western Auto.
You could hear the music away from home, too, but you had to pick your spots: On pickup truck radios as we shot rats at the towndump ... Down to Pines Speedway and at the Plaistow Drive-In picture show ... At junkyards, and twanging on the jukeboxes at the Eagles Club and the VFW Hall ... In select shack kitchens that reeked of burnt oak and fried doughnuts, and where the radios static-ed like an electric storm ... From Lucky Strike-killing gittar pickers holding forth on certain summer porches ... And, if you saved up, you could take a drive over to the Lone Star Ranch country music park in Reeds Ferry, New Hampshire, one weekend afternoon, ride the ponies, pig out on fried dough, then sit on plain wood-plank benches to hear honest-to-goodness Nashville stars like Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Little Jimmy Dickens and, even, Johnny Cash.
What always startled me, though, was how you could hear the music even when it wasn't playing. How watching a tumble of tires burn turned into Cash's "Ring of Fire" ... How watching a Western got me humming Marty Robbins's "El Paso" or Hank Williams's "Kaw-Liga" ... How when our car broke down one night on the Epping Road, I could hear Bill Monroe soaring away on "It's Mighty Dark to Travel."
But we'd never hear the songs we loved in the places that we'd walk into already cowed, our eyes down, our voices small. Places like Dr. Lee's in Exeter, Simons Department Store in Plaistow, or the loan company, which, with its thieving interest rates, stole from the poor people who could least afford it. In those places, all you ever heard was some sham of music--music that didn't sound much like music at all.
Most my relations could barely read. Some not at all. Being able to sign your name to "a paper" was reason for pride. Nobody read magazines or novels or even the Holy Bible. Country songs were their novels, their Bible:
"Wreck on the Highway" by Roy Acuff, "Back Street Affair" by Webb Pierce, "Wings of a Dove" by Ferlin Husky, "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry. Songs for working people, songs for country people. My relations knew where whiskey and blood pooled out to the highway--and nobody prayed; knew the ravenous arms of men and women who weren't their husbands and wives; pondered the power of God's love, even as they doubted it; whispered about the suicides, the boys found hanging in barns, the pregnant girls drowned in the lake, the pickups hammered into oaks at ninety miles an hour--stuck throttle, my ass.
In Kingston, New Hampshire, in 1957, there were no traffic lights, and cows outnumbered the nine hundred people who lived there. Because we lived in such a backwater, where national and world events were a mere murmur, our most reliable news was whatever was in the air. What mattered back then? Johnny Cash's latest record. Who had won that week's feature race at Pines Speedway. What pictures were playing at the Plaistow Drive-In. Whether the old man got that dime raise. There was little sense of caring about what happened beyond the town line. But that was okay. The best country music was oral history, the kind that never made the textbooks.
We were country people, you know. We had no expectations except that life was hard. All we needed was music that understood that harshness, music that leavened it.
Which brings me to "The Myth."
The myth, perpetuated these days by Nashville music executives who probably believe that Garth Brooks represents "classic country," is that country music is purely a white, rural, and Southern art. It's the same cultural arrogance and/or memory loss that makes Nascar proclaim the roots of stock car racing as a solely Southern phenomenon.
There is no question that the South is vital to country music andits history. But the scholar D. K. Wilgus reminds us that while country music's manifestation was Southern, "its essence was of rural America"--like Kingston, New Hampshire, in the 1950s and '60s. (By the way, my old man also raced stock cars.) Country musicians come from all over: Hank Snow, one of the music's biggest postwar stars, was from Nova Scotia; Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who owned the charts in the 1960s, defined the Bakersfield, California, sound; Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings?--Texans through and through; and, heck, Dick ("A Tombstone Every Mile") Curless hailed from Fort Fairfield, Maine.
And the African-American influence runs strong and deep in musicians as diverse as Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley, whose first hits came on the country charts. Hank's breakthrough, "Lovesick Blues" (1949), was written by a vaudeville piano player and a Russian-born Jew and popularized in the 1920s by the blackface minstrel Emmett Miller. So much for regional purity.
A good country song lets me become the person who loved it, and even--for a mayfly moment--lets me enter the lives of the dead. When I hear Webb Pierce sing "There Stands the Glass," I can become my late uncle Lloyd, who was devoured by emphysema and cancer after a life happily spent drinking, smoking, and whoring. Musical alchemy.
And all music, not just country, is a kind of architecture in time, a house shared by those who love it, a habitation that can carry us explicitly to the past. Take "No Depression" by the original Carter Family. During the worst of the Great Depression, Nanna George, my great-grandmother, hears that song and, perhaps, gathers a shred of solace, wonders when she'll be granted the right to fly to the land where there's no Depression. I hear it today, and Nannaand I are now--decades apart--living together again, for a couple minutes, in the same sacred house of want. Then I invite my sons inside, and suddenly they are swaddled in the Depression-gray skirts of their great-great-grandmother.
Country lets me, and my sons, listen with our fathers and mothers.
I don't want to give the impression that my love affair with this music has been one long, smooth ramble down lonesome back roads. There has been flight and return, rejection and reconciliation, times when the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and Black Sabbath--but never, ever Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer (you have to draw the line somewhere)--mattered much more to me than Cash, Cline, and Haggard.
Well, we're all allowed to be young and stupid once upon a time, right?
Now, when I was a kid my folks, my relations, and all their friends called me Andy--my middle name is Andrews--because my Dad's name is Dana, too. (Maybe folks got confused more easily back then.) No one called me Dana till I got to first grade, though I proudly knew I was named after my old man, and Ma had taught me to write my "true" name. While it was Andy who liked to go fishing, hang around when the guys worked on their cars, and listen to the music the old man listened to, it was Dana who fell head-over-heels for books and learning (and pretension, too), who decided in third grade to become a writer, and who knew by fifth grade that he was going to college--no matter what nobody said.
My old buddy Andy probably would've been happy to stay in Kingston, marry some broody, porch-sitting girl, and maybe teach English for fifty years up to the high school. But Dana took one long look around and said, "To hell with this."
I had to reject it all, those first eighteen years of my life, before I could become wise enough to start reclaiming what mattered mostfrom childhood: the peepers chorusing in the frog pond ... stock car racing ... and country music.
I gradually realized in my twenties that not only did I like Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, but that if I was going to understand my life--and the lives of my relations--I needed to understand that album and why it moved me, understand why I'd claimed to have spurned country music even as I sang along to songs by Cash, Jones, and Williams.
I was the quiet child ... the one who heard everything and forgot just enough. I thrived on stories, craved family tales. I just had to know, had to know:
Bristling with questions, I whistle through thistle groves, vast family graves. I'm just five years old, but not a one of 'em trusts me. My mother's mother, Lilla, quails every time I speak, cringes, I know, the way she did when I stole my first blue breaths. It's like I'm pricking needles in her sun-smoked Slim Jim arms.
"When'd you'n Grandpa get married?"
"Why'd you'n Grandpa go and split?"
"Why'd Nanna quit Great-Grandpa, then marry him up again?"
"Why'd Nanna keep Auntie Helen on the tit till she was eight?"
Lilla flinches, balks, ducks each question like a jackknife, her answers a quivering covey of grunts, sighs, clucks, squints. Then, chapped lips peeled, charred stumps bared, Lilla rears up--I sink into the crick-ed creeks of wickedness scored on her cheeks--and snaps: "What're you, writin' a g.d. book?"
Lilla Britton would not like this book. She would scowl, accuse me of "getting too big for my britches"--then take a switch to me. She would want to know how come there's so goddamn much cursing,how come I spilled so many family secrets, and how come I'm so hard on my relations.
But, if I could, I'd take her hard bony hand in mine, look her square in the eye, and tell her that--using the country music that we both love--I needed to stare unflinching into the still-festering wound of my extended family, of my childhood. I would tell her that good stories untold--strong medicine left on the shelf--do no one any good. Would tell her that there's so much cursing because the mouthy bastards I grew up among couldn't stop swearing.
As for being hard on our family, I would tell her that I wrote this book out of love--for the fierce people who raised me up, and for the country music that gave them solace and that they gave to me. I would tell her that this book is a loving letter to our dead.
When I was five years old, the contrary state of New Hampshire tore down my house--a former shoe shop where the rent was six bucks a week--and Great-Grandpa Ora's place, which had stood next door for more than one hundred years, to widen Route 125 through Kingston, to improve the road so that tourists from Massachusetts--Mass-holes, we affectionately called 'em--and Connecticut could get to the White Mountains quicker. Thus was I exiled for the first time. And I'm still not over it.
There aren't many of us left who speak the language of that time, of that place. Like Iris DeMent, all I have left are the memories of the watchful child that I was ... and the country music that my people loved.
Using country music from 1950 to 1970, I mean to reveal my people's vanished world to you. And using my people's lives, I mean to tell you what country music is really about. I will tell you why it's my music, but also why its emotion-drenched wisdom also belongs to you, belongs to all of us.
Copyright © 2008 by Dana Jennings