News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 15, 2013

Telling stories in song

New album features ‘everyday’ characters in Terre Haute’s bygone, infamous past

TERRE HAUTE — Pieces of Terre Haute’s infamous past gather dust in the town’s metaphorical attic. Closed-up, old baggage — forever linked, like it or not, to the historical record.

Real people lived through those times, but as generations pass, memories of those characters fade and disappear.

David Hanners came across their stories a few years ago. Born in Terre Haute and raised in nearby Casey, Ill., the saga fascinated Hanners, who now lives in St. Paul, Minn. The 58-year-old singer-songwriter — also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist — turned those tales into music. His new album, “There Are No Secrets in This Town,” explores life in Terre Haute as seen through the eyes of a madam in the city’s notorious “Red Light District,” also known as the West End. An interviewer from the Vigo County Oral History Project captured the recollections of this former brothel proprietor in 1981. The madam, whose identity was kept anonymous, was 78 years old then. She had operated a prostitution house in the district from the 1920s to the ’60s.

That setting provides the context of Hanners’ lyrics, but merely amounts to the backdrop of the album. The stories aren’t salacious. The madam discussed everything but sex in that history project interview 32 years ago. Instead, the 11 songs Hanners drew from her words are poignant, sad and intriguing, emotions enhanced by his gritty vocal narrative and the authentic, sparse, prairie-folk sound.

“I don’t mean any of this to condone her line of work,” Hanners emphasized. He quoted a line from the 1960s rock song, “House of the Rising Sun,” that the vice “has been the ruin of many a poor boy or girl.”

“But the fact is, I found her just so fascinating in what she talked about and the way she talked about it,” Hanners said. The madam described the lives of those she encountered. As Hanners wrote in the notes for the CD, “She talked about politics, culture, Prohibition, fashion and anything else that came into her head.”

The album “is a snapshot of how a certain group of people lived,” Hanners said in a telephone interview from St. Paul.

Telling such stories has long been Hanners’ vocation. He covers the crime and courts beat for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Indiana State University grad won a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism in 1989 while at the Dallas Morning News, following a 22-month investigation into a plane crash. During his years in Texas, a music hotbed, Hanners began writing songs. His study of the craft grew more serious after moving to St. Paul in 1994. Hanners now performs his folk tunes at clubs and coffeehouses around the Twin Cities. The Wabash Valley remains an influence for him, even from hundreds of miles away.

Writing, journalistically or musically, contains a common thread.

“You’ve got to be a good listener,” Hanners said, “and that’s what journalism trains you to do.”

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