By Royal Young
Dana Jennings might be one of the only editors at The New York Times who can proudly call himself a “redneck Jew”. His debut memoir, “Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music” (Faber and Faber; 227 pp.) due out this May, is full of fascinating anecdotes from his underprivileged youth set to the throbbing beat of old-school country crooners.
Fifty-year-old Jennings was born to a poor family in a New Hampshire town. In his youth, postwar prosperity was a rumor with his family outhouse to prove it. Jennings decided to be a writer as a third grader and was the only member of his family to finish high school let alone graduate college. In 1982, when his wife’s life savings could either be used to buy a house in New Hampshire or study language in France, they flew to France.
Upon returning to the U.S., Jennings was hired as a junior copy editor at The Wall Street Journal where he worked for eight years; his first novel was released in 1989.
In 2004, Jennings converted to Judaism, his wife’s religion. “That’s certainly a question that folks back home might have asked. It is a place, after all, where ‘jew’ is still used as a verb. But for all the apparent strangeness of my decision to convert, my parents and my siblings accepted the decision without a yelp or a flinch. They already knew that I, as my mother used to say, ‘Sure was different.’”
While reminiscing about his marriage, Jennings recalls that the only rabbi in New Hampshire who would preside over the ceremony had the nickname “Marrying Sam.” Sam’s conservative Jewish daughter had been plagued by her abusive Jewish husband, causing Sam to decide that a marriage between two loving people was more important than religious divides.
Jennings started as an editor with The New York Times sports section, moving later to the metro section before finding his niche in the Escapes Section. He likes poetry, Judaica and well-written fantasy, but his greatest love is for the country music that infused his childhood. Finding most new country music “Self-conscious” and pointing out that “regional differences don’t exist the way they did” in the ’60s and ’70s leading to a homogenized sound. Jennings is fascinated with “lives that don’t get written about,” adding, “There isn’t much written about the working class.”
Coming from a rural town full of people who lived from odd job to odd job and where “old age was a middle class luxury,” Jennings’ early world was filled with the vibrant, expressive songs of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. These singers provided an outlet and inspiration for Jennings who talks about the history and importance of country music in shaping his youth as well as large chapters of America’s history. He provides keen insights, noting sadly that most country music does not address racial issues, and that many country singers including Willie Nelson, Bill Munroe and Jerry Reid were orphans.
Jennings is a humble man whose background is reflected in his boisterous, charming laughter. When asked what his family thinks of his memoir, he says that his grandmother would have been “tickled” if she were alive to read it, but that he needs a disclaimer before giving it to his parents “There will be things you might not like in here.”
Working at the prestigious New York Times and boasting a successful literary career, Jennings strives for improvement, but honors his roots. He echoes his favorite Johnny Cash song by truly walking the line.
Jennings will be reading from “Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music” on Tuesday June 24th from 8 to 9:30 p.m. at) at The National Arts Club (15 Gramercy Park ).