If I took a shot for every time a Top-40 country song mentioned the words tailgate/moonshine/creek/gravel/back roads I would be dead, dead, dead.
The current crop of country “stars” like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and the like have beaten this horse to death, or rather their songwriters have. As a recreational country radio listener, this heinous bro-country makes me gag. It feels fake and soulless. These dudes, slick with Nashville gloss, probably don’t know how to drive a stick shift or work in a sugarbeet field. I don’t believe a word they say, especially not when it comes to small towns.
Rural life has always been a trope of country music; many country musicians come from small towns and sing about the people and places that shaped them. But where Blake Shelton and company get it wrong, some country stars get it right.
Kacey Musgraves, Merry Go Round
I grew up in a tiny town of approximately 350 people and one stoplight and while I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world, I could never stay there. Kacey nails the occasional despondence of someone stuck in the town of their birth. Small towns are wonderful, but they’re also boring. People take up residence at the local bar, get married and have children because they’ve got nothing else to do and society says that’s the next step of life.
George Strait, Heartland
My boyfriend George Strait’s 1992 song “Heartland” espouses small-town values like smiling at your neighbors as they drive by and working hard until all the chores are done. In the heartland, says George, the skies are blue and the sound of fiddles and steel guitars sounds just like the soul of the folks who inhabit it.
Hal Ketchum, Small Town Saturday Night
I heard this 1991 single on the radio a few days ago for the first time and thought, “That’s exactly how it is!” Small towns are super boring when you’re of a certain age. I mean, the nearest mall/movie theater was 30 miles from us. So you make your own fun, and usually the only thing you can do is raise some hell. In the country, that means driving fast and getting drunk out in the woods. Not that I did any of those things! (False. Many, many Smirnoff Ices were consumed in my high school years. It was 2004, OK?)
Miranda Lambert, Famous in a Small Town
It’s true, everybody does die famous in a small town. “Who needs their faces in a magazine/Me and you, we’ve been stars of this town since we were 17,” she sings.
Everyone knows everyone, especially if your hometown is as small as mine was. (An aside: To illustrate how small my town is, I always tell the story of pulling my car over to pee in the ditch one summer day. There was nobody around except a tractor in a field two miles away. I pulled over, peed and drove home. No big deal, right? The next day, my mom asks me, “What were you doing pulled over yesterday? [Name redacted] saw your car on the side of the road.” Yep, the guy in the tractor saw me stop to pee and then TOLD MY MOM. Seriously.)
Miranda’s song also highlights the gossipy nature of a small town; if you’re not in church, people are going to wonder where you are. But the best part of “Famous in a Small Town” is this line: “Every last one, route one, rural heart’s got a story to tell.” And that’s true as hell. I’ve never met anyone from a small town who didn’t have a good story for me. You just have to ask.