Growing up in Canton, Ohio, in the 1990s, I was surrounded by country music. Like so many other small cities/big towns in the Midwest, rock and country music were inescapable. The rockin’ and rollin’; the rueful nostalgia and lamenting for yesterday; it all meshes with the atmosphere of these places like a foreclosure sign or a drive-thru liquor store. While by no means my favorite genre, I have many memories of listening to George Strait, Patty Loveless, and Alan Jackson in the living room or riding around town in my dad’s pickup.
Rural and small-town America has a long history with country music. Born out of blues and bluegrass, with elements of Americana and immigrant musical culture, country music has become almost synonymous with working-class white America. A quick look at the charts bears this out, as country songs get significantly more airplay than other genres, on their respective stations, of course.
A lot of attention has been given to modern country – often called “Bro Country” – with its emphasis on cliches, interchangable lyrics, and essentially existing on the same chords and songwriters. Catchy pop beats with generic lyrics pickup trucks, Bud Light, moon light, “lookin’ pretty,” the “big city” and good times with a slice of lime, shot out of a factory somewhere in Nashville or Los Angeles, the substance of country music has largely eroded from Appalachian blues and messages of antiauthoritarian messages into rural and small-town party music.
Now, this piece is not meant to be an indictment on modern country music. That’s been done at length, and honestly, unless you haven’t heard a country song since 2005, you already know what I am talking about. Nor is this going to be the rantings of an old man, wanting country music to “return to it’s roots.” At no point are you going to hear me say “That’s not music” other than just now.
What I want to focus on is where did some of this imagey go, where did it come from, and what explains white America’s love for country music, even for those with only the loosest connections to the imagery and history evoked by the music.
Recently, I was back in Canton, escaping my isolation in Pittsburgh and also my dissertation, at least for a little while. One Friday night my parents decided to have a bonfire, a favorite pastime there.
I should pause here for moment to explain what a typical Midwestern bonfire is like. They usually fall into the following rhythm:
– someone tries to light the fire with just paper
– that fails; someone gets lighter fluid
– one eyebrow later it’s lit
– someone procures a large basket of food from seemingly nowhere, usually hotdogs, sausages, beans, chips, cookies, S’mores fixings, dips, and a whole host of other items
– an excessive, and I truly mean excessive, amount of beer is consumed
This was COVID, so the night was a bit more tempered. Especially since it was just my parents and me. We were listening to a 90s country music playlist, the kind of stuff I grew up on and could still tolerate. The 90s were a transitional period for country. While the hallmarks of classic country were still there – songs about relationships, authority, and rebelliousness – the door was slowly being pushed open for the party-centric, reductionist music of today.
As we were listening, a song I remembered (and even liked) came on: “Small Town Saturday Night” by Hal Ketchum. Released in 1991, the song was right on the edge of the transition, in terms of when it was released but also its content and sound.
On the face of it, and indeed you can glean some of this from the title, it seems like a a typical “going out for the weekend” song. Long held as the night for letting loose, the one day completely removed from the typical rotation of the 40-hour, Monday-to-Friday work week, Saturday night is the one night of freedom in our weekly Sisyphean slog. The tempo is very upbeat and the song infinitely catchy. It’s easy to sing along, especially the chorus, and the imagery hits very generally, evoking the hum-drum of life in small town. It immediately got stuck in my head all night and the next day.
I’m nothing if not a little compulsive and a lot inquisitive. The kind of qualities that make for good scholarship but make it a nightmare to be me. My mind is never really here, in the moment. I decided to go back the next day and look up the song, listening to the tune and reading the lyrics as I went along.
I was more than a bit amazed.
As I read and listened, I noticed that this song was nothing like it appeared. The tune was as catchy as ever, musically very upbeat. This, I think, was by design, meant to hide lyrical content, which was much darker in its implications that I originally thought. The song is not, as it would appear, a happy play-by-play of a fun weekend night. Rather, when examined only for its lyrics and stripped of the instrumental accompaniment, the songs resembles a sadness, an almost dirge-like resignation and lamentation of a time gone by and an inescapable present.
The lyrics present a bleak message. Characters fueled by regret (” Everybody’s broke, Bobby’s got a buck. Put a dollar’s worth of gas in his pickup truck“); desolation and nihilism (” Bobby told Lucy, “The world ain’t round…Drops off sharp at the edge of town. Lucy, you know the world must be flat, ‘Cause when people leave town, they never come back“); everyone’s life tinged with the bleakness that alcohol fixes and make worse (“Lucy’s got her lipstick on a little too bright. Bobby’s gettin’ drunk and lookin’ for a fight. Liquor on his breath and trouble on his mind. And Lucy’s just a kid, along for the ride.“). (I should point out that I have no idea where the late Hal Ketchum sat on current American politics, and this song way predates Trumpism).
Dressed up in catchy piano riffs and that twangy, crunchy sound of a steel guitar so ubiquitous with country music, the song sounds like an ode to a wild and raucous weekend but is really a dirge to a way of life that no longer exists and the people trapped by what remains.
You see this anywhere you go across the Midwest and the South, two parts of the country that people think they understand but truth be told don’t know shit about.
This piece is not meant to be an apology for the racist-fueled anger that created and sustained Trump’s popular authoritarianism. Those people were racist before Trump; he just gave them an outlet while the Republicans made racism and authoritarianism a viable political ideology.
What this piece is meant to illuminate a little bit is the ideology and nostalgia that sweeps around the small towns that make up a great deal of the country. These ideas came from somewhere, and despite all of the evidence you could imagine that this faux-country neo-yeoman lifestyle never really existed, that it was clearly a phantasm, it has a hold on people that is very real.
Modern century music by no means created the casual misogyny, racism, substance abuse, Christian conservativism of middle America. But you can see those ideas expressed in loving detail in the lyrics and the imagery of an small town Saturday night.
“Small Town Saturday Night“ Hal Ketchum (wr. Patrick Alger, Henry M. Devito), 1991.