25 February 2008

Small Town Southern Man

I have never been much of a country music fan. Frankly, with a few exceptions, I find almost ALL pop-culture music idiotic. That includes country music. Before my conversion, I was an Allman Brothers/Marshall Tucker/CCR/ type. Admittedly, some of the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker tunes have a distinctive "country flavor" to them, but more specifically were classified in the "Southern Rock" genre, "Southern" being the operative word here. Those days are far behind me now, as my real love is now for Gospel Bluegrass--American music at its purest. But I have always been a fan of Bluegrass--even as a teenager, sneaking into my first Bluegrass concert (Orange Blossom Park in Dooms, Virginia - what?! never heard of it?) when I was just 15, while many of my peers were weirding out at Alice Cooper concerts.

That being said, I've recently come to admire some of the music of country music legend Alan Jackson. I don't care for his honky-tonk ditties as those types of songs bring back unpleasant memories--at least the ones I can remember. However, Jackson's lyric writing abilities are, in my opinion, poetic and profound, if I may be so dramatic. Consider his latest single, "Small Town Southern Man."

Every stanza brims with simple, yet beautiful, subtle (and not so subtle) meaning. As reviewer Chet Flippo has opined about this song:

"There is no other word than 'grace' to mark the skillful writing and economy of words in lines such as this: 'And he bowed his head to Jesus/And he stood for Uncle Sam/And he only loved one woman/He was always proud of what he had/He said his greatest contribution/Is the ones you leave behind/Raised on the ways and gentle kindness/Of a small town Southern man.' "

No need to expound on the obvious, but I will anyway. Many "small town southern men" still "bow their heads to Jesus and stand for Uncle Sam." The South is still the Nation's Bible Belt and still sends more men--proportionally--to the armed forces.

As I write this, I realize many will roll their eyes as they condescend such sentiments. "Cornball, redneck hokum, 4 wheel drive, shotgun-totin', rural backwoods simpletons, etc, etc." I'm immune to such elitist attitudes--it used to make me angry. Now it just bores me.

Flippo continues:

"In some ways, Jackson has become the Ernest Hemingway of country music. In writing, that is. Not necessarily in lifestyle. At Hemingway's best, he told stories very simply, getting directly to the point. He knew his subject inside out, whether it was bullfighting or deep-sea fishing and could brilliantly tell a vivid story about it in as few words as needed. Similarly, Jackson, has staked out his turf and can write and sing about it in a simple and direct style."

Here are the complete lyrics to this soon to be classic Southern/Country theme song:

Born the middle son of a farmer
And a small town Southern man
Like his daddy's daddy before him
Brought up workin' on the land
Fell in love with a small town woman
And they married up and settled down
Natural way of life if you're lucky
For a small town Southern man

First there came four pretty daughters
For this small town Southern man
Then a few years later came another
A boy, he wasn't planned
Seven people livin' all together
In a house built with his own hands
Little words with love and understandin'
From a small town Southern man

And he bowed his head to Jesus
And he stood for Uncle Sam
And he only loved one woman
(He) was always proud of what he had
He said his greatest contribution
Is the ones you leave behind
Raised on the ways and gentle kindness
Of a small town Southern man
(Raised on the ways and gentle kindness)
(Of a small town Southern man)

Callous hands told the story
For this small town Southern man
He gave it all to keep it all together
And keep his family on his land
Like his daddy, years wore out his body
Made it hard just to walk and stand
You can break the back
But you can't break the spirit
Of a small town Southern man

(Repeat Chorus)

Finally death came callin'
For this small town Southern man
He said it's alright 'cause I see angels
And they got me by the hand
Don't you cry, and don't you worry
I'm blessed, and I know I am
'Cause God has a place in Heaven
For a small town Southern man

(Repeat Chorus)

The song is rich with rural, Southern themes. The upbeat melody combined with the sawing fiddles sets the song's mood perfectly. For those of us who grew up in the South, attached to a local church, a close-knit family whose connection to the land is generational, while immersed in the region's hard-core patriotism, it would be hard to imagine a song better suited to voice these sentiments: "Son of a farmer", - "daddy's daddy", - "working on the land", - "married up and settled down", - "pretty daughters", - "a house built with his own hands", - "keep his family on his land", -"bowed his head to Jesus", - these simple, yet profound words paint rich images for many Southerners. Its very easy for us to relate and grow wistful about the images conjured up by Jackson's moving lyrics. I was born in a small Southern town. I have four pretty daughters. I built (along with the only woman I ever loved) the house in which we live. I'm the great-grandson of farmers. I am patriotic. And I've bowed my head to Jesus.

It is these cultural sentiments and values which seem to be under constant ridicule and attack in modern America. Yet, strangely, in many ways, these sentiments remain respected and honored; at least outside of academia and Hollywood. And it is these same values that I strive daily to pass on to my children and grandchildren believing, as Alan Jackson does, that the "greatest contribution is the ones you leave behind."


Lawrence Underwood said...

Yep, one of my favourite tunes on the radio right now. I cried the first time I heard it. It reminded me of so many that I know. God give us some more small town Southern Men.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Destined to be a classic.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally ... and he's a Georgia boy too!

FL Deputy

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

That he is.