The song remembers when... Hanners blends narratives with folk music
Marcy Shonk - Staff Reporter - Lincoln Trail Publishing

It's storytelling gone melodic.

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, David Hanners, is now writing and performing folk songs about people and events, often drawing from his blue-collar, small-town background, his two marriages, two divorces, politics and his love of history.

For instance, his song, ''Fields of Stubble Straw'' tells the story of the 1990 murders of Jerry Darling and Wesley Hall at the Mariah Pork Palace, south of Casey. It begins:

''In my hometown of Casey, Illinois
'neath a January sky so gray
They talk of a crime that was so bad
It's still talked of to this day.''

Although the murder happened after Hanners left Casey, his father knew the victims of the tragic case. ''Having lived in big cities like Dallas and St. Paul, you kind of get to a point where a double homicide doesn't seem as shocking as it should be, but it was a big deal in Casey,'' he said.

To gather information, Hanners called the Casey Reporter and asked for clippings related to the case. He read through them and highlighted the things that stuck out to him, story-wise, and wound up writing the song in about 20 minutes while riding home on the bus one night. ''It just came out that quickly,'' he said.

''It was such a horrible and tragic case,'' Hanners said. ''I don't write these songs to stir bad memories in the survivors, but to tell stories about people who were, as the song says, 'two good and honest men'.''

Research methods usually include personal interviews, online research, gathering photos, reading books and newspaper articles. For the more personal songs, he said there's not as much research involved as there is simply writing down feelings and figuring out what thoughts he wants to express and whether people would want to hear them. ''More often than not, the answer to that is 'no','' he said.

Videos of Hanners performing a couple other songs about murder cases are posted on YouTube. ''I've had family members write to thank me for writing the songs and saying they were glad that someone remembered their loved on and thought enough about them to write a song,'' he said. ''That's pretty humbling, but it also reminds you that if you're going to write songs that deal with real people, you have to be just like a reporter and you have to stick to the facts. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction, and the facts are usually a pretty good story all on their own.

His new 14-song CD, called ''The Traveler's Burden,'' includes other local songs, such as ''Ashes of St. Anthony's,'' about the 1949 hospital fire in Effingham and ''Fontanet'' about a 1907 powder mill explosion in the town northwest of Terre Haute, and ''Westfield Blues,'' a song loosely based on the story of a guy who was arrested by the feds for having a meth lab.

During his shows, he also performs ''The Vicious Murder of Milo Eames,'' about an 1875 attempted train robbery a couple miles west of Casey in which the train's engineer, Milo Eames, was shot by a couple of robbers wearing custom-made suits of armor and a story of James Jones' experience living in Marshall and writing at the Handy Writers' Colony, called ''The Day James Jones Came to Town.''

''While a lot of songs stick pretty close to history, there are some, like ''Westfield Blues,'' where the real events just provide the inspiration and I kind of make the story up from there,'' Hanners said. ''Sometimes, it is easier to write about an event that happened a century ago than it is about something that happened a couple of years ago.''

Subject matter varies from things that outrage him or things that make him unhappy to things that make him happy. ''Although I tend to write a lot fewer ''happy'' songs than the others,'' he said. ''And that's kind of odd, actually, because I'm a fairly happy and contented person, grew up in a very loving and stable environment, have had a fairly decent life, and I've been blessed that I've been able to work in my chosen profession.

''But for me, when I try to write 'happy' songs - and I have tried - they tend to get sappy, and there are enough sappy songs out there already. It's something I should work on, though,'' Hanners said.

He classifies his music within the folk genre. ''That term seemed to fall out of favor in the music world in the 1980's and 1990's and lots of musicians seemed to shy away from using it, but there probably isn't a better world for what I do than 'folk,''' he said. ''I'm not afraid of the term.''

His songs tell stories about people and events, and the people may be famous, infamous or unknown, and the events may be big stories or something small that happens between two people. ''But they should be songs that tell a story and invite people to think about something,'' Hanners said. ''And they should also be songs that people can relate to. I get tired of hearing all these various country songs about guys or gals who have finally made it big with their guitar, etc. and think that most people just can't relate to songs like that.

''But that's just my view. If I wrote a song like that and sold it to some artist and it became a big hit and I made lots of dough off of it, I might feel different about it,'' he said.

Hanners also writes some songs that fall into the ''bluegrass'' category and some that could be called ''alternative.''

''When I was in a rock band, I wrote stuff that was more rock-and-roll, but it still had a folk sensibility to it,'' he said. ''Whatever I've written, I've tried to include good storytelling and a certain literary sense.''

He became interested in the guitar when he was 15 and in high school. ''I didn't have many other talents or abilities, but I was able to teach myself to play the guitar. My brother had an old Stella guitar that didn't have a pickguard on it and he left it behind when he went off to college,'' Hanners said. ''So I got a book out of the library that had chord diagrams in it and taught myself to play. I didn't know I was holding it upside down (he's left-handed) until I had learned to play.''

He also started playing mandolin while in Dallas and still does. He said if he had his way, the thing he'd probably like to do most is play mandolin in a bluegrass band.

Soon after he started playing, he started writing songs. ''I don't remember any of the early songs and they were all terrible anyway,'' he said. ''I started writing seriously when I lived in Dallas because there is such a rich music environment in Texas and lots of great songwriters to listen to and learn from.''

His first live performance also happened in Dallas, but didn't become a serious venture until he moved to St. Paul. ''There are just lots of places to play up here,'' he said. ''Lots of coffee houses, too. You can't make a lot of money from it, but you can work on your craft and get your music out there.

''I used to be in a band or two and that was fun when I was younger, but as I get older, I hate staying up real late and since I don't drink, I'm not big on hanging out in bars anymore, and if you're in a band, that's usually part of the deal.''

''Traveler's Burden'' is 99 percent mixed with a completion target between Thanksgiving and Christmas. ''I should point out that Ric Lee, the guy who produced and engineered the CD, and also plays violin with me, is related to Doc Lee, who was a physician in Casey for decades. ''We were rehearsing one night and I was doing a song that mentioned Casey and he said, 'You're not talking about Casey, Ill., are you?' and I told him that I was, since that was where I was from. 'I've been there!' he said.

''And, as it turns out, he has. Ric said that when he was a kid, his family would come down to Casey from Minnesota and visit. So it really is a small world,'' Hanners said.

Hanners, and his Dallas Morning News colleagues, photographer William Snyder and artist, Karen Blessen, were awarded the Pulitzer in Explanatory Journalism in 1989 for coverage of a 1985 airplane crash, the follow-up investigation and the implications of air safety.

To honor his accomplishment, the City of Casey named a one-way street (east-west north of Preferred Bank) David Hanners Avenue. But Hanners said not to expect a song about that anytime soon. ''For one thing, it would be a short song since the street isn't that long,'' he quipped. ''Don't get me wrong - I was really honored that the city did that, and it is a humbling experience,'' he said. ''I owe Casey a lot. But I try not to write too many songs about myself, at least lately.

''I think the whiny singer-songwriter thing can get old pretty fast, and there a lot of people out there writing that kind of stuff and it gets hard to listen to after awhile,'' Hanners said. ''I mean really...who cares about my problems? Me, and that's about it.

''It's a lot more interesting to tell somebody else's story, to look at the world through somebody else's eyes. As people go, I'm fairly normal (at least I think so) and most of the interesting stories involve people who aren't normal.''

A Casey native, Hanners now lives in St. Paul, Minn. where he works as a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is the son of the late Deon and Ruth Hanners, and has an older brother, John, who is a department chair at Texas A&M University at Commerce.

Hanners graduated from Casey High School in 1973, attended Indiana State University and finished there in 1977. His journalism career includes work at the Amarillo Globe-News, the Brownsville Herald and the Dallas Morning News. He's been at the Pioneer Press since 1994.

He's married to Sharon Jernigan, who is a published author and has had artwork displayed in the Smithsonian Institute. She works at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He has one son, Ian, who was born in 1989 and is currently enrolled at St. Paul College and also works.

Hanners' album ''Nothingtown'' was released in 2004 on the Mercy Recordings label, and was named a Critic's Year-end Top Ten selection by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He's earned a number of songwriting honors as well, has opened for national touring acts and his music has been featured onstage in Laura Lundgren-Smith's ''Digging Up Boys, a play entered into the 2007 Kenned Center American Theater Festival, a production of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Marcy Shonk is a staff reporter for the Casey Reporter.