The city of Bristol lies on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, and the state line runs down Main Street. That means that when Bristol holds a parade - if you’re lucky - you can march down the street with one foot in each state. When David Massengill was growing up on the Tennessee side, he thought that was about as exciting as things could get. But today, when David looks back, he remembers many other stories, some scary, such as the time he chased a bobcat, and the bobcat chased him back; some funny, such as the time he first heard Aunt Gladys cuss. Other stories he has learned since growing up by listening to friends and reading family letters and newspaper articles. They all add up to a personal history that David shares with his listeners.
“Basically, I tell true stories about friends and family,” he says. “Basically true . . . or,” he adds after a pause and a smile, “stories I made up about friends and family.”
As distinctive a performer as he is a writer, David Massengill accompanies himself mainly on the Appalachian dulcimer, which he slings over his shoulder like an electric guitar. The sound of the dulcimer has an intimate, detailed quality that complements the easy graciousness of Massengill’s stage presence. He has achieved virtuosity on the traditional instrument that enables him to wring from its few strings music of a complexity and richness far beyond anything it was ever meant to produce, drawing the listener in to his lyrical imagery and the close-up focus on human foibles and experience that is the substance of his best songs.
Jesus escapes from a mental hospital, history’s greatest villains gather for a dinner party, a New York restaurant kitchen crew saves an illegal alien cook from the immigration man, a young woman and a bandit fall in love as he robs her … these are just some of the vividly imagined scenes and characters with which David Massengill captivates audiences wherever he performs. Massengill’s songs are rich with insight and poetic imagery, they’re upbeat and engaging but full of subtle complexities; this Appalachian dulcimer player with the soft-edged vocal style and offhand stage presence is acknowledged to be one of America’s finest songwriters.
Even when Massengill tackles large-scale social and political themes, he approaches them through stories about people, in the best folk tradition. In “My Name Joe,” for instance, Massengill conveys some complex feelings about the plight of illegal immigrants through his empathetic portrait of Joe the Thai cook, a hopeless outsider in an alien culture; at the same time, he paints a picture of the kitchen worker’s milieu-and tells a good tale too-with an arresting, brief appearance by an incidental character or two for extra spice.
In the mesmerizing eight-minute-long ballad, “Number One in America,” Massengill tells the epic story of the struggle for racial equality through a series of anecdotal first-person vignettes spanning three decades; the central incident is a 1986 march by the Klan in Bristol, Tennessee, Massengill’s home town. The story gains dramatic power as, in the refrain and elsewhere, the same words recur in different people’s mouths, expressing dramatically different-even opposite-sentiments, a device that imbues the song with powerful irony and a touch of ambiguity that deepens its ultimate impact.