Country Music Is Crazy Right Now for Artists Who Sing About Small-Town Life

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009

Country singer Justin Moore grew up in Poyen, Ark., where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are fewer than 300 residents. "Actually, the population sign says 272," Moore says. "I wouldn't know that, but the sign is in my grandparents' front yard."

Seven years ago, after graduating from Poyen High School, Moore moved to Nashville, where he began writing songs. Among the first was "Small Town USA," a love letter to Poyen on which Moore sings: "A lot of people called it prison when I was growin' up/But these are my roots and this is what I love."

The song -- which Moore says he wrote when he was homesick "and thinkin' about missin' home and mama's cookin' " -- references old dirt roads, six-packs, hard-working blue-collar folks, Hank Williams Jr., Saturday nights with his girl and Sunday mornings with God. It concludes thusly: "Give me . . . a simple life and I'll be okay/Here in Small Town USA."

If the tropes sound familiar, they should: Songs about small-town-pride and Southern living have spread like kudzu throughout the country landscape lately. "There's always been artists doing songs like this, but it seems like there's a real movement right now towards the small-town-down-home-type things," Moore says in a telephone interview from Nashville, where he still lives. "People are really latching onto it."

Moore's take on the theme is clearly resonating with country music fans, for "Small Town USA," which was only recently released nationally, is the fastest-rising single on the new USA Today/Country Aircheck chart, having zoomed 10 slots this week to No. 26. That puts Moore in close company with Jason Michael Carroll, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Youngsville, N.C. -- and whose "Where I'm From" is a Top 20 hit.

Both Moore and Carroll will perform at the WMZQFest at Nissan Pavilion this afternoon. The two big acts on the bill? Little Big Town, whose breakthrough single, "Boondocks," is about, well, growing up in the boondocks and being damn proud of it. And headliner Rodney Atkins, whose chart-toppers include "These Are My People," in which the singer from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., flies the flag for the rural South, declaring: "These are my people/This is where I come from."

"The essence of the song is that we're in this together," Atkins says in an interview. "That's what country music is; it's about giving folks something they can relate to, and it's about that sense of community. But it really doesn't matter where you're from."

No? So somebody who was born and raised in a big Northern city or suburb -- like, say, Rockville, where country station WMZQ-FM is based -- can relate?

"Without a doubt," says Atkins, who argues that "These Are My People" includes some universally applicable lyrics and, therefore, is for everybody. (At least everybody who grew up down by the railroad tracks, shooting BBs at old beer cans, playing church-league softball and singing "loud and proud" to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Southern rock anthems.)

"The funny thing about it is that Rivers Rutherford was one of the songwriters on that, and he grew up in Memphis, which is a big city. He wrote it with a guy named Dave Berg, who grew up in Portland, Oregon. But they came up with a song that I could really relate to, and I grew up in a town of 1,500 people in East Tennessee."

Says Meg Stevens, the WMZQ program director: "It's a global theme: Wherever you're from, that's your place. You see what's happening with the economy and what's going on in the world, and people are getting in closer to their roots and their community, whether you're from rural Virginia or downtown D.C."

But the Atkins song and others of its ilk -- from Jason Aldean's "Hicktown" and Miranda Lambert's "Famous in a Small Town" to Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried" and Josh Turner's "Way Down South" -- are narrowcasting to a specific community: the core country audience, whose roots aren't exactly in America's urban centers.

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