What Country Music Misses About Small Town America

A thousand country songs attempt to depict what life is like growing up in rural America, but most are wildly unsuccessful. For the last 10-15 years, popular country music has become the genre of choice, not for actual country people, but for white, middle class suburbia. The reason that most country songs fail so miserably at depicting small town life is because they are written by songwriters who didn’t grow up in small towns.  Not that it should come as a surprise to anyone, but many of country music’s mega-stars record songs for their albums that are pre-written by a small handful of Nashville insiders.

Dallas Davidson is a great example.  Davidson moved to Nashville in 2004 after growing up in Albany, Georgia.  Albany, by the way, is a city of nearly 80,000 people and is the eighth largest city in the state—hardly the “small town” that Davidson writes about in many of his songs.  Davidson has been credited with writing or co-writing mega hits like “Country Girl (Shake it for Me),” “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” “That’s My Kind of Night,” “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” and “We Owned the Night.”

It’s clear that Davidson has an odd obsession with the night—a fact that should itself be a red flag, because, as anyone truly from a small town will tell you, everything shuts down around 7:30 or 8 (and that’s on a weekend).  There is very little partying all night.  In fact, most real farm boys go to bed early because they have to get up in the morning to work.

Songwriters like Davidson are permitted to get away with such criminal descriptions of small town life precisely because most country music fans aren’t from small towns either.  The average country fan attends a large white suburban school, has never fed (much less milked) a real cow, and couldn’t even tell you what a “back forty” (mentioned in so many songs) refers to.  They wear studded cowboy boots to school not realizing that most real farmers don’t even wear them anymore because they’re inconvenient and cumbersome.  They drive their jacked up gas-guzzlers to Starbucks and Kroger thinking they are “country,” while real country boys putt around the farm in beat-up, manure-stained, 15-year old workhorse pickups.

farm truck

I grew up in the small town of Trout Lake, Washington.  And, no, I don’t mean small town in the “my town has 1,000 people but we are 15 minutes from a city of 100,000” kind of way.  Trout Lake has a population of around 600, and it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  If you head due north from Trout Lake, you run into a massive forest and wilderness area (that is, if you even can go north—the (mostly dirt) roads travelling that way are closed 9 months out of the year because of snow).  If you trek to the west, you run into the same huge forest, and thousands upon thousands of square miles of rugged wilderness, scarred by impassable lava beds, jagged peaks, and exceedingly dense timber.  If you go to the east, you hit a largely deserted Indian reservation and hundreds of thousands of acres of arid rolling landscapes.  If you go south, you will finally encounter some semblance of civilization in the form of 8,000-strong Hood River, Oregon (yay!).  If you miss Hood River, however, you will enter many thousands more acres of wilderness in the shadow of Mt. Hood.

tl2

Majestic Mt. Adams rises over the Trout Lake Valley in Washington State.  This photo was taken by my cousin Peter Schmid (follow him on his amazing Instagram channel @farmblog).  I worked on the Schmid dairy farm growing up.

 

That’s what I mean when I say in the middle of nowhere.

I went to the town’s public high school and graduated with a class of 18.  We were the largest class in the high school at the time.  We didn’t have nearly enough boys for a football team, and barely had enough for soccer (yet still made it to the final four in state my junior year).  We had one gas station (with no mini-mart), and it was the center of town.  Sometimes it ran out of gas during hunting season.  Trout Lake has no grocery stores, fast food, or hotels.  When I was growing up, there were no stop lights in the entire county.  Now there is one, on the very southern border of the county leading into Oregon. The population density in Klickitat County is an eye-popping 10 people per square mile.

goldendale

The city of Goldendale (above) is the largest metropolis in Klickitat County, Washington. 

 

As a recent Forbes article pointed out, “There is a widening and not fully reconciled distinction between country as a genre (i.e., what gets played on the radio) and country as a set of lived practices (i.e., what country folks do).” Here are some real observations about life in a small town as compared to how it is portrayed in popular country music:

  • The first thing you’ll notice is the silence, which is almost never written about. The air is quiet.  No traffic or machines to break the calm. You start hearing things like birds and coyotes and grasshoppers.  You don’t know how loud the world around you has become until leave it for awhile.
  • Country artists are always talking about outsmarting the police. That’s not a problem in real small towns, because there are no police to outsmart.  Most small towns don’t have police departments.  The county sheriff patrols the area but is rarely seen.  You might occasionally see a state highway patrol car.  I saw maybe two police cars a year in Trout Lake.  Here in Dayton, I see or hear maybe 5-10 a day.
  • If you listen to contemporary country music, you get the idea that there are always these new girls you haven’t noticed before at bonfires, parties, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Not only do you personally know every girl your age in Trout Lake (and have since you were 5), you definitely wouldn’t want to date most of them, because they are either (1) related to you, or (2) have dated 2 or 3 of your friends within the last two years.  The whole genre’s obsession with songs about girls is just sloppy and lazy.
  • There aren’t many jobs, and people can feel trapped in a small town. Trout Lake was a great place to grow up, but many small towns are dying.  Whether the mill has shut down (as in Klickitat), or very few jobs exist (as in almost every small town), it can be hard for residents to make ends meet.  Many people live on the edge of poverty, and life can feel lonely and hopeless.  While it’s in vogue right now to focus on urban poverty in this country, many of the poorest people in America live in isolated rural areas, including Indian reservations.  These areas will never get mentioned in a State of the Union Address, but real pain and suffering do exist.  I applaud artists like Kacey Musgraves who bring these types of issues to light in songs like “Merry Go Round”.
  • Subaru’s, and other good, all-wheel-drive cars, are just as popular as pickups.
  • We had some great bonfires, but none of them were the alcohol- and sex-fueled raves that artists like Luke Bryan make them out to be.
  • Everyone really does know everyone. There aren’t a lot of secrets in a small town, and news spreads like wildfire.  Miranda Lambert’s song “Famous in a Small Town” is on point.
  • The pace of life slows way down in a small town. Not everything needs to be done right away.  Even the idea of being “on time” to something is relative (in Trout Lake, “on time” is about 15 minutes late).
  • There is relationship accountability in a small town. In suburbia, you can pick and choose who you will like and who you will interact with.  If you don’t like someone, you can conveniently structure you life to never see them.  You can fade into the crowds, become anonymous and become unaccountable in relationships and friendships.  In a small town, that’s impossible.  It is impossible to not run into people.  You know all of your neighbors, as well as their neighbors, and their  Friends don’t grow on trees, so work needs to be done to keep, maintain, and prosper the friendships you have.
  • There’s so much more to do in a small town. As a kid growing up, I had a million choices every time I had free time. I could choose between things like: playing in the creek, building forts, going on hikes, raptor-watching, shooting guns, exploring the woods, making money by mowing someone’s lawn, riding bikes, making a fire, inner-tubing down the river, fishing, wood carving, model-making, catching small animals, destroying ant piles, climbing a nearby peak, or picking wild berries.  And that’s only a small list of things we did in the summer.  The kids I did all these things with were the same kids I went to school with in the fall, played basketball with in the winter, and went to church with on Sundays.  We rarely, if ever, went to the movies, to the mall, or out to eat—those options were either too far away or largely unappealing.
  • Because almost all popular country artists are white, people get the impression that rural America is all white. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rural Washington State, for example, is quite diverse (and not just racially). Trout Lake High School competed in the Greater Columbia B League for sports, which consisted of around ten schools in south-central Washington.  One of the schools was a tribal school, part of the Yakima Indian Nation.  Another was 95% Hispanic.  Another school is in a community where the per capita income is $11,717 and 30% of the population is below the poverty line.  The whole region is infused with wonderful Mexican traditions and customs.  Native American culture reverberates in countless ways throughout the region.  While the mainstream media has consistently pushed the black/white racial diversity narrative, you’ll find that many from rural America have a much more holistic idea of what real diversity looks like.

This all, of course, is just a snapshot of what small town life looks like in one town in rural Washington State.  More broadly, it shows that rural America is a much richer tapestry than popular country music leads its listeners to believe.  Small town life is an integral part of America’s uniqueness. It’s a shame that it has been reduced to the same, tired three or four tropes that dominate contemporary country music.

tl1

My cousin, Pete, in the Trout Lake Valley.  

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