Recent weeks have brought a lot of attention on Jason Aldean and his song “Try That In A Small Town.” Some call the song a racist dog whistle while others say it is just a defense of small town values and a rejection of the values held by those “city folk.”
Putting aside Aldean’s song for the moment, the good news is that there are some great songs about small towns. Ones that don’t need to wade into culture wars to make a point about small town living.
Small Town – John Mellencamp
No list about small town life would be complete without mentioning John Mellencamp’s “Small Town.” Mellencamp doesn’t need to attack others when examining small town life. In fact, one line even says “got nothing against the big town.” Then, the very next line says “still hayseed enough to say ‘hey look who’s in the big town'” eluding to a fascination with cities. But then immediately points out that his life is in a small town and that is where it will and should be.
This song celebrates small town living without having to tear down other folks.
One Horse Town – Blackberry Smoke
This band gets it right. the song tells the tale of a typical small town father. He tells the story of how his life is regulated to that ‘one horse town” as a result of doing what was expected of him throughout his life. There was a time when he had a shot of “making it big” in an unnamed sport, possibly the rodeo circuit. Now, he hopes baseball will be his boys’ ticket out of that “itty bitty town.”
No blaming or ill will against city folks necessary.
Paradise – John Prine
John Prine had a way of encapsulating things in a way that few people ever could. Paradise is a reminiscing story of life going back to a place in western Kentucky where great memories were made. Unfortunately, now, those memories cannot be relived as “Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away” — referring to the owner of a coal company that stripped the land of all that made it special.
Prine knew that people in cities weren’t the problem for country folks. Prine put the blame for the decline right where it belonged, in the lap of corporate greed that exploited the rural resources then left it to die on the vine when all the coal was extracted from the land.
Two People Fell In Love – Brad Paisley
The fact is, many of Brad Paisley’s songs could be chosen for this list. He has made a career out of writing about life in small towns and rural areas. But on his 1st album, the track “Two People Fell In Love” is a special look at life. The song basically puts aside all the different aspects of life except one — the fact that all of our family relationships and everything and everyone else in our lives that we currently enjoy are the result of two people finding each other. Brad sums it up in the stanza where he says, “Yeah, there ain’t nothin’ not affected – When two hearts get connected – All that is, will be, or ever was – Every single choice we make – Every breath we get to take – Is all because two people feel in love.”
Whether someone is in the city, suburbs, or country, we are all connected. This song drives that point home in a beautiful way.
Little Big Town – Boondocks
This song celebrates the rural life without putting down anyone else’s life choices. The country band shows that such choices aren’t necessary to promote country living. The main refrain sums it all up. “I feel no shame, I’m proud of where I came from, I was born and raised in the boondocks – One thing I know, no matter where I go, I keep my heart and soul in the boondocks.”
John Denver – Take Me Home, Country Roads
This classic is one many know the words to. It is probably one of the biggest “sing a long” songs ever, and for good reason. It is a Bob Ross painting in a song — and who doesn’t love a Bob Ross painting? Denver describes West Virginia with words like “almost heaven” and reminds us of the beauty of things like the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River — and that is even before we get to the chorus.
Denver’s picture isn’t one sided, however. He does elude to how the coal industry has made “blue water” an impossibility in a poetic way that John Denver was a master of.
But just like the other songs on this list, any problems in rural West Virginia weren’t caused by people in cities who don’t live like them, it was corporate greed that turned the water from blue to brown and made the sky dark and dusty.
This is really a literal “scratch of the surface.” Country music, along with some rock and roll, and Americana artists have been writing about small town living as long as there has been country, rock and roll, and americana. These are just mere examples.
They celebrate small town life without inciting violence against those “others” like many feel Jason Aldean did. Even Merle Haggard’s iconic “Okie From Muskogee” didn’t incite violence by his words or inference while still drawing a sharp line between city and country living.
Those songs that celebrate and examine country living paint pictures that are sometimes a ray of sunshine, and sometimes darker, or at least a more mixed and complicated bag are what we need more of. We could also use less of songs that seek to divide us based on where we may happen to live and the population of the area. Aldean isn’t the 1st to go this route, not by a long shot.