The Broken Road That Led Us Here: The Story of Small Town America

The weekend before the election, I needed a distraction and so did what any good American would do — turned to TV.

As I settled in to watch the 2016 CMAs, I noticed some striking differences from other things I had been watching. After a fantastic tribute to the past 50 years of country music, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley unpacked a “basket of deplorables,” cracking joke after joke about the election — even that it would continue “forever and ever, and ever and ever, and ever and ever….” Unlike the cracks SNL and Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert had been making for months, “Crooked Carrie’s” punchlines were going the other way.

In hindsight it’s easy to understand — the backbone of “real America” leads straight through country music’s audience. The same “real Americans” who watched the CMAs elected Donald Trump to be our 45th president a few days later.

It’s the same group of people who listen to country music because it reminds them of home, the places where they’ve come from and where they’ve poured their lives into.

“Here in a small town that feels like home, I got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.” — The Zach Brown Band

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much country music idolizes small town nostalgia. Don’t believe me?

Homegrown. Wide Open Spaces. Give Me Back My Hometown. Meanwhile Back at Mama’s. I Hold On.

Country isn’t merely a Southern thing and it isn’t necessarily just a rural thing, but it is a genre that idealizes the symbols we associate with small town life. And while I acknowledge that it has deep flaws — including constant objectification of women and lack of diversity — country music has a tendency to describe small town values and the simple life. (Case in point: John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16)

Michael Kruse of Politico recently wrote a — fairly scathing — profile of my hometown, in which he called the place I love a “dying little city stuck in the hills of mostly rural, depressed western Pennsylvania.”

And I guess that’s fair, if you only look where you want to look.

When I look at the same town, I see the same corner pizza stores that have been feeding me for as long as I can remember, I see the same neighbors who have watched my sister and me grow up, I see the same ladies who have been working at the same salon for at least the 16 years I’ve been going there — including the one who asked me what I thought of the election results while she was waxing my eyebrows this week.

“I’m pretty glad he got in, myself,” she said, as I struggled to pivot our small talk to turkey and stuffing and mountains of dirty dishes.

Some call it a dying city in the rural hills, I call it home.

In the fortnight since the election, the Rust Belt suddenly seems interesting, worth paying attention to, and perhaps even more enigmatic.

One thing that I hope has become clear: The story of the 2016 election has to include the flyover states.

Without the places that voted for President-Elect Trump, America would be in pretty sorry shape. Who would raise the people who end up in cities? Who would grow and make food? (Farm to table dining is pretty difficult without the farms, I would imagine.) Who would make cars and appliances and teach the people who know how to fix them?

Without the people with whom you disagree, our country wouldn’t work.

The 2016 election revealed — and reinforced — the elite vs. non-elite divide in our country. It told the story of growing diversity, the story of a need to compromise, the story of American democracy and the voice of the people.

Our lives together as Americans only work if both groups — every group — respect those that aren’t like it. And short of shipping city kids to the country and vice versa to gain exposure and empathy, I don’t have a solution.

A confession — when I was trying to title this rant, I wanted to call it a “defense of small towns.” But really, that’s one of our problems. We’re all so defensive about what we care about. While I appreciate the passion and commitment to what we think is right, it’s time that we be less defensive and try to see where others are coming from.

Maybe my hometown is a “dying little city,” and I just don’t see it because I’m nostalgic for the past. But maybe I’ve seen a different side than those who drive into town to find the latest “Trump voter” profile.

My small town experience made me who I am. It taught me that you work for what you get. It taught me that everyone deserves dignity and respect, regardless of the clothes they wear or car they drive. It taught me that you don’t need a formal education to be wise, and certainly don’t need an advanced degree to know more than I do.

How many “coastal elites” have this experience?

We can’t ever forget where we came from, or else we won’t know where we’re going.

To ignore small towns in parts of America we don’t understand isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid. These small towns are filled with good people who are working hard to provide for themselves and their families, whose lives are not rocked by election outcomes they don’t like, who don’t waste tears on a show that mocks them.

And they’re not going away.

While many of us were mourning on November 9th, rightfully so — because many have real fears for the future of our country, the majority of Americans were getting up and going to work, taking their kids to school, figuring out what to put on their table that evening.

Our friends at the CMAs got it right this year when they honored Dolly Parton for her lifetime achievement in country music. A modest upbringing never hurt anyone. Even country’s sweetheart turned pop star Taylor Swift had to start somewhere.

I’ll never self-identify as a “coastal elite,” and I hope I never lose the experiences of my small town upbringing. My parents worked hard to get where they are. My grandparents worked hard and started with less. Their parents? Same thing.

The American Dream is real. It is achievable. And as Americans, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors — particularly those with whom we don’t agree or have much in common — to make it even more accessible.

The answer might be somewhere just over those rural hills.

Let’s find out.

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