Twang Thang: Small-Town Songs Spur Big-Time Sales
Heartwarming Civic Pride Heats Up Country Charts

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.

The symbolism and prideful sentiments of the songs are intended to create a sense of belonging among people with similar backgrounds and lifestyles, or at least people who romanticize life in the rural South. (It's not a place; it's a state of mind.) To some listeners, though, it might sound as if the artists are closing ranks.

"Some of these songs seem to fall into the 'we're from Real America, and you're not' camp," says Peter Cooper, who covers country music for Nashville's daily newspaper, the Tennessean. "Seems like being divisive while the industry around you crumbles is a poor decision."

Atkins's latest chart-topper, "It's America," is actually a more generalized celebration of nationalism via a checklist of all things Americana: a high school prom, a Springsteen song, a man on the moon, fireflies in June. But more typical of his fare is "About the South," which is exactly that, and "In the Middle," in which he sings of "a way of life worth fighting for."

Similarly, Eric Church isn't really aiming to be inclusive when he sings "to tell the truth, I think we're the chosen few" in "How 'Bout You," a boisterous 2006 hit about redneck living.

"It's putting the flag down, saying: 'Here's who we are,' " Church says.

Not unlike hip-hop, in other words, a genre in which artists repeatedly reference where they're from and with whom they're aligned as a means to establish their bona fides and, especially, connect with their tribes. (It's also not unlike the work of Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp, though their small-town rock songs tend to be darker and less idealistic than the recent offerings from Music Row.)

"It's like a political party: You have to understand and reach your base," says Church, who grew up in Granite Falls, N.C., population 4,612. "The majority of our base is Middle America, so we try to do songs about what Middle America thinks and feels. Which I understand, because I'm from a small town and I grew up that way, too. God was important, hard work was important, family, honesty, patriotism were important. So you see those things in my music."

Church, of course, was hardly the first country artist to celebrate his rural roots and way of life. Alabama recorded more than a few songs about . . . Alabama. The 1981 Hank Williams Jr. hit "A Country Boy Can Survive" is something like a field guide to Southern living.

More recently, the theme has been explored by the likes of Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson, who has recorded multiple tributes to Georgia, including "Home" and "Where I Come From." Last year, Jackson reached No. 1 with "Small Town Southern Man," which celebrates the titular figure and all that he stands for.

The form isn't quite dominating country playlists, which continue to be filled with giddy love songs and bereft breakup ballads and songs about partying and parenthood and patriotism and such; but it's increasingly prevalent on the charts.

"It's become a staple of the format," Church says. "There always seems to be at least one on the radio. The one thing we really have to be careful of -- and we're really bad at this in country music -- is that it can become very cliche."

But that might have happened already. Says the Tennessean's Cooper: "While these songs' lyrics tend to celebrate the special and idiosyncratic nature of the rural South, the music itself is often as distinctive as the Applebee's restaurant out by the interstate that runs next to so many 'small towns.' "

Moore's "Small Town USA" doesn't exactly break new ground. But then, that wasn't the goal.

"It's just a heartfelt song about who Justin really is, and it has a great singalong melody on top of it," says Scott Borchetta, the label chief who signed Moore to Valory Music. "He's a great writer and singer who really flies the flag of being a small-town Southerner in a very natural way."

Earlier this year, the pride of Poyen returned home to film the video for "Small Town USA." It was quite the scene, Moore says.

"Talk about shuttin' a town down for a day. Rolled in there with a tour bus, a film crew and everythin'. Needless to say, that's about the biggest thing that's ever happened in Poyen, Arkansas."

He adds: "Everybody likes home and going home. Wherever it is."

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