Dear Dana

Lina's picture

If you're visiting this site before Tuesday, you can already post your questions to Dana.

gregoryknapp's picture

Thanks for spending the day

Thanks for spending the day with us at Titlepage.

While I was watching your segment, a couple of questions came to mind:

Question #1

You mention the dramatic fact that your parents had 8th grade educations and you now work for the New York Times. Clearly, we are in Horatio Alger territory.

This is a two part question:

A) Please talk more about this extraordinary affirmation of the American Dream of upward educational and social mobility, and how it has shaped your view of American Society today.

B) Isn’t your story, in fact, the antithesis of the Country Music Song Narrative Paradigm? Isn’t, in some way, Country Music essentially about characters who DON’T end up better off than their parents, and whose parents’ lives end in maudlin tragedy, i.e. “Mama’s In The Graveyard, Papa’s In The Pen?”

Question #2

You say that country music portrays, among other things, the “dark side of the American Dream,” and also that you had a “Northern Gothic” childhood growing up in rural New Hampshire.

Please say more about where, and how, those two things intersect in your life.

Kevin Longrie's picture

Are you familiar with "freak

Are you familiar with "freak folk?" It's a genre emerging right now with strong Appalachian influences. Anyway, my question was more along the lines of this: Whether it's dark, happy, or reverent, you believe true country music is "raw." You also believe that, and probably rightly so, country rose as music by poor people for poor people. Do you think that their, the early country singers, poverty led directly to this rawnress? Do you think country music would be different if it was championed by the upper class, or would it have come about at all?

dana's picture

Dana here -- First,

Dana here -- First, Gregory's questions: QUESTION #1A) The difference between my life and my parents' lives does affirm the American Dream. But for me, there's the mystery of it. Why was I the one among us four kids who got to leave? My sister is a clerk for a company that sells exotic woods; my middle brother works in a hardware store; and my youngest brother drives truck. They work hard, they all own their own houses, and they're happy enough. That mystery is the big question of my life, and one that suffuses my life as a writer. And that mystery has made me very class conscious, and skeptical of the ways in which we talk about class today.

QUESTION #1B) You're right. In the mythological land of Country Music, you're not supposed to get above your raisin' -- and there ain't much talk about those who escaped. And those who escaped are often expected to come back, because the wider world is no place to live. One vivid example is Johnny Cash's "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," where the main character, who has become a movie starlet, moves back home to marry the boy next door, who works at the candy store. Sorry, boys, but I ain't goin' back.

QUESTION #2 Our National Myth, the American Dream, declines to address darkness. And we're a country ripe with darkness: slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, our relentless and murderous Manifest Destiny, the shame of poverty -- both urban and rural. And if you listen closely to classic country music, you sense those dark undertones, which much of our culture denies. And growing up rural in the 1950s and 1960s, that sense of the dark and Gothic was as palpable as it is in a Flannery O'Connor short story -- there was always an atmosphere of dark violence among the people I grew up among.

KEVIN'S QUESTION I am a bit familiar with "freak folk," and have to admit I find it hard to listen to. I'm old-fashioned enough that I like a real melody and traditional "good" voices. Twanging is good, shrieking isn't. And there's no question that rural poverty led to the rawness in the music. It's unmediated music from the heart, without the patina of uptown pretension. Hank Williams's voice epitomizes that raw feel.

JMW's picture

Dana, Because music fans --


Because music fans -- myself included -- seem hopelessly drawn to lists, how about your 10 "desert island" country CDs. The only 10 you'd be allowed to bring with you.... That way, I can see which ones I already have, and get the rest.


dana's picture

hey jw -- because country

hey jw -- because country is so singles-oriented, it's harder to come up with indispensable albums the way you can with other kinds of music. with country, you're best served by going with greatest hits collections -- or, if you're musically insane, the wealth of boxed sets that're out there, including those put out by Bear Family Records. two albums that jump to mind are: "At Folsom Prison" by Johnny Cash, "Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar" [his first album on Sun Records] and "Shotgun Willie" by Willie Nelson.

Here are the 10 singers i need on that desert island with me: Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe and Iris DeMent.

dana's picture

um ... make that three

um ... make that three albums that spring to mind.
more on DeMent: her first two albums, "Infamous Angel" and "My Life," are two of the best albums of the 1990s -- period. and her gospel album, "Lifeline," is downright transcendent.

Dan's picture

Thanks for being on the

Thanks for being on the program, Dana. I'd like to follow up on our conversation by asking if you listen to any contemporary country music. And have you had to bear the cultural scorn that most of us who like this music have borne, or have you (until now) just remained silent about it?

JMW's picture

Thanks, Dana. I love the

Thanks, Dana.

I love the Folsom Prison record, but need to pick up Hot & Blue Guitar. And I'm a big Iris Dement fan, and love both those '90s albums you mention. "No Time to Cry" is an epic, great song. Haven't got "Lifeline," though, so I'll have to check it out. "Downright transcendent" is blurb enough for me!


dana's picture

hi dan -- until my cable

hi dan --
until my cable provider knocked CMT off my basic cable recently, i used to watch that network's Top 20 country videos of the week every couple weeks. on a typical week, i'd like about half the songs, sometimes more.

Modern country is well-crafted, well-played and, certainly, well-marketed. i like artists like toby keith, julie roberts and sara evans. my main problem is that so much of modern country is simply meant to amuse -- which is o.k., but doesn't give it much of a shelf-life.
and when today's country does try to be serious, it comes off as heavy-handed and very Republican -- i'm thinking about so many of the post-9/11 songs. i think that what's going on in bluegrass today -- Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Del McCoury Band, Longview, Ricky Skaggs -- is more interesting than modern country.

dana's picture

hey JW -- "Hot & Blue

hey JW --
"Hot & Blue Guitar" won't disappoint you. it's one of the absolute touchstone's of my childhood, and a huge part of my musical education. and you get to hear Cash's voice before it went to hell and back.

Lina's picture

Dana, Can you explain the

Can you explain the popularity of country music overseas where, because of language barriers, lyrics may play less of a role? There was a documentary, for example, that came out a few years ago called 'The Ballad of Bering Strait' about classically trained Russian teenagers who come to the United States to find success as a country music band.

dana's picture

hi lina: i think that people

hi lina: i think that people who don't know english are responding to the passion and the heart in the singing. in the same way that we're moved by sacred music from other cultures, these people are moved by the deepest country music. i don't think it's a surprise that the same people from other countries who love country also love soul music.
and when it comes to bluegrass music -- which, for example, has a strong following in Japan and in Eastern Europe -- the listeners are also responding to the instrumental virtuosity.

Dave O.'s picture

Dana, I am an aspiring

Dana, I am an aspiring writer and always curious about the process. You are a Times reporter so pitching an idea may be easier for you than for other people. You've also written quite a few books before! I've noticed that it's become almost necessary to be "connected" to what you be personally involved with the subject.
Can you share with us how you originally pitched this book to your agent, and how much the personal angle played a role in getting the publisher to sign you up?

dana's picture

hi dave -- first, just to be

hi dave --
first, just to be clear, i'm an editor with The Times [Escapes section], not a reporter -- though i write for the paper once in a while.
as far as "Sing Me Back Home," at this point in my career, i want to write books that i want to read. and there weren't any books out there, as far as i knew, that had such a personal take on country music. so ... i had to write it.
and i think that by combining the socio-critical and the personal made for a stronger book. i might've been able to sell a straight-ahead book about country, probably to a small publisher. and i might've been able to sell a memoir. but by combining the two, my goal was to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
both my agent and my editor liked the idea, and liked my voice on the page.
more than ever, i think we're in a literary environment where the voice on the page needs to be as distinctive as possible -- in the same way that the old country singers' voices -- Cline, Cash, Hank -- were distinctive.

Dave O.'s picture

Thanks Dana! Always wonder

Thanks Dana!
Always wonder -- sometimes I think that this need to create a personal relationship with the topic is what leads to the "fake" memoirs etc.
In your case, it's great....and I guess that what you are describing is very much part of the creative process we all have to work on as writers, and artists for that matter. Thanks for being online!

dana's picture

hi dave -- one thing you'll

hi dave --
one thing you'll notice, if you read the book closely is that my voice certainly pervades the book, but that i'm rarely one of the characters -- more an observer. as i wrote the book, i sometimes thought of each of these brief family tales as me singing my own 45-rpm-records, and as each chapter as an "album."
if i could carry a real tune and play three chords, these stories might've ended up as songs, rather than on the printed page.
when you read this book, i hope that you can hear me "singing."

gregoryknapp's picture

Dana: You recommend two


You recommend two early Johnny Cash albums.

As a long time fan, what did you think of his last series, called "American Recordings."

One thing that struck me about them at the time they appeared was that they were produced by Rick Rubin who at that time I knew only as the producer of The Beastie Boys.

How do you think this collaboration worked for The Man in Black?

Dave O.'s picture

Heard you sing on the front

Heard you sing on the front page ;-)) -- keep it up!

dana's picture

hey gregory -- i like those

hey gregory --
i like those late albums a lot. his version of trent reznor's "hurt" on "the man comes around" is almost holy, as is the title song.
in the same way that we try to pare our lives to the essentials as we age, rubin got Cash to pare his art to the essential. Sam Phillips discovered the young & spare Cash in the 1950s, and Rick Rubin rediscovered that artist in the 1990s -- the way you'd find a vintage pickup truck buried under hay and shit in the back of some old broke-down barn. Rubin dragged the truck out the barn, and got it running again -- and we're all the better for it.
as the greatest poets are most fascinating in the autumns of their lives, the same can be said of Johnny Cash on his final recordings.

gregoryknapp's picture

Thanks for that excellent

Thanks for that excellent analysis, Dana.

I like those recordings.

Now I know why.

To follow up on Dan’s question about the fact that -- certainly in the big cities -- it is socially acceptable (indeed, probably encouraged) for one to look down on country music (Curiously, I think Cash is an exception to this. I think it’s safe to say that even if they didn’t care for his music, or for country music in general, Americans never looked down on The Man in Black. I was never aware of it, at any rate. But I digress):

Do you think country music bears any responsibility for this attitude, in that there is a element of self-parody in country music?

Again I will, perhaps unfairly, use the same example as above:

“Mama was a looker
Lord, how she shined
Papa was a good'n
But the jealous kind

“Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Mama's in the graveyard
Papa's in the pen”

Or would you say that in fact such self-parody is a feature of “bad” country music?

Zibbie's picture

Good afternoon! I was

Good afternoon! I was speaking to someone in the country music industry recently who told me that country music is listened to almost exclusively by whites - to an extreme degree. I found this surprising as the narratives of classic country wouldn't, to me, seem to be so limited in their appeal to just one ethnic group. Can you speculate why there is this divide?

Thank you for participating in this Q&A.

dana's picture

sure, there's always been

sure, there's always been an element of self-parody in country music, going back to its shadowy roots in vaudeville and the old medicine show circuit, all the way on up to "Hee-Haw" and beyond.

But there's a lot at play here:

-- if you're living a hard life, you've got to be able to laugh at yourself, or you're going to wind up killing yourself or somebody else. that's why country has always had a healthy crop of novelty songs: "White Lightnin'," "A Boy Named Sue," "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose." and if you're an out-and-out hick, you want to be entertained by a hick who's even hickier than you -- someone like Minnie Pearl or Junior Samples on "Hee-Haw"
-- but it gets complicated when you have uptown folk "playing down" to the hillbillies. in the same way we cringe at whites who go blackface, how are we supposed to feel about folks who go "hick-face"? Sarah Ophelia Colley, who played and created Minnie Pearl, was a woman of privilege, born and raised in Nashville. Dr. Humphrey Bate [and His Possum Hunters], an early Grand Ole Opry star, was an actual medical doctor who liked to get his hick on.
even so, country fans liked them. but was it right?

dana's picture

hi zibbie -- i suspect that

hi zibbie -- i suspect that today's country is "whiter" than it was back in the 1960s, even though there was more overt racism back then. Today's country music is marketed to the white middle class -- the class that president bush pretends to belong to -- and makes that divide clear. Back in the good old radio days, even as white kids were listening to R&B and soul, black kids were listening to country music. soul and classic country share a common, primal bond of heartache and despair.

And the list black musicians who say they loved country is long & distinguished -- off the top of my head: Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and James Brown, who once appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.

gregoryknapp's picture

I'm sorry, Dana: but you

I'm sorry, Dana: but you brought it up:

Can you explain the mainstream popularity of "Hew-Haw?"

It ran for years on television.

dana's picture

"Hee-Haw" didn't last on CBS

"Hee-Haw" didn't last on CBS all that long, maybe two or three seasons, but it lasted forever in syndication.
it's real appeal was simple: in the pre-cable TV landscape, it was about the only place you see real country music stars. and country music fans would put up with cornpone humor to spend some time with their favorite singers

dana's picture

i have to head out soon,

i have to head out soon, buckaroos & bucka-rettes.
if anyone posts after this, i'll try to catch up tomorrow.
it's been fun

gregoryknapp's picture

Happy Trails, Dana. It's

Happy Trails, Dana.

It's been a pleasure.

paul's picture

I'd like to follow up on

I'd like to follow up on Zibbie's question in terms of the racialization of country-western markets. What about other social groups that are attracted? I am thinking particularly of the appeal to the queer market through the camp and the melodrama? You use the term "self-parody" but isn't that a euphemism for camp? Does the camp aesthetic, ironically, make many country songs self-critical of any kind of stable essential identity? I am thinking particularly here of the female singers and their cross-over appeal, not just the classics like Cline but even the moderns like the Judds.

Do you think all of that ambiguous appeal makes the genre more (potentially) critical or more easily subsumed within any dominant discourse of the moment, racial or otherwise? As a gay-boy country fan myself, I have often wondered if I am part of the problem or part of the solution!...

dana's picture

mornin' paul -- the camp

mornin' paul --
the camp element is interesting -- country camp followers?!? -- and you see it as far back as Grandpa Jones, more recently in Riders in the Sky, and certainly in Cowboy Troy and Big 'n' Rich: "save a horse, ride a cowboy," indeed. and i loved that song, as did my sons, and it would've been a hit in 1973. the good thing about it, is that it probably attracted new country fans who would've never considered themselves country fans.
but we both know, i suspect, that modern country's primary demographic is not especially gay-friendly. in fact, i bet that most the artists are much more open than their listeners.
on the other hand, any art that's willing to make fun of itself is a healthy art.
hope this makes sense, if not helps