Songs about rural America

By Jeff Smith


There are songs that feature the abundance of perks found in small towns. Many songs feature a type of church where everybody goes, there is usually an emphasis on Friday night football games and small towns being a place where everybody helps each other out.

However, there are a fewer songs that tell about the challenges of being or staying in a small town. Small towns have problems too and many songs just write about the idealized version of these towns.

One of my favorite singer-songwriters Jason Isbell writes songs that are honest feelings about rural life. His songs are melodic, heartbreaking. Sometimes they are dark and unforgiving.

He wonderfully captures the deep misunderstanding of these towns and conveys the hardships of life in a small town perfectly.

Everyone knows you in a small town. One of Isbell’s songs starts off with the lyrics “She said, “It’s none of my business but it breaks my heart”/ Dropped a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart.” It goes on to narrate a man’s inner thoughts who is thinking about his father in the hospital and even people he doesn’t know well know who he is and his father’s situation.

Conflict and compassion can arise anywhere in a small town — especially in grocery stores. It’s hard to hide anything in a small town. People understand your family history, your background as well as your struggles.

Isbell has said in an interview that music helps people to build an understanding of what other people are like. Bad art makes people feel alone while good art does a good job of connecting people to each other and helps society gain empathy.

When I first heard the song “Hope for the High Road” by Isbell I was struggling with the political atmosphere of rural America and what it means to be someone who appreciates the lifestyle but not necessarily all of the baggage that comes with it. I never had to challenge the ideologies of the right-wing politicians until last year.

In his songs Isbell has a similar state of mind, although sometimes it can come off as more about feeling guilty for being white. “Hope for the High Road” is his plea to be vigilant but stay classy.

To take a break from Isbell’s work there’s another song that is a nostalgic tune that features a place that someone wants to live again. “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” is very catchy and more lighthearted than Isbell’s songs. Tim McGraw’s song is about a man who feels suffocated by the economy and having to borrow what he doesn’t have. He remembers his mama’s as a place that is welcoming and sings about supper on the stove, beer in the fridge and his dad smoking cigarettes.

He misses a lot of things in his small town such as “a little dirt on the road”, “corn growing in a row” and “being somebody everybody knows”. It’s home to him and he understands that he doesn’t fit in where he is at.

The song has a positive spin on small town life. But not everything is all that great in a small town.

Isbell’s song “In a Razor Town” tells a story about a man who feels stuck on if he wants to leave his small town or spend the rest of his life there with his girlfriend. If he stays in a small town he is worried that he won’t ever live up to his potential. One of the lyrics is “ So, say your last goodbye/ Make it short and sweet/ There ain’t no way for you to fly/ With her hanging on your feet.”

To me the “razor town” in the song is a place that makes you feel guilty for leaving. It cuts at you and you are going to have regrets about leaving when you take that leap. There is no happy ending here. The man in the song either has to choose between a life that is hard and soul-crushing or leave the town. When you leave the town you lose the relationship and also the town suffers. The song is one of Isbell’s shortest but packs a big punch.

Small towns are not perfect hideaways. No one has it easy in a small town. I think more people are understanding this. I hope that in the future there are more songwriters like Isbell who can sing honestly about life in a small town.