David Oke
Tennessee and Alabama,  April 2016

Mule Day. People come from all over to buy sell and show mules at the Columbia fair ground in Maury County. It has happened every year since 1934. There are mule races, a Miss Mule pageant and you can snack on chocolate dipped bacon.  There was a  pretty good representation of Amish folk and others who rely on, and are just plain proud of ‘mule power’.

The family had come over to Tennessee to see Dan, our oldest, who is half way through a university exchange. He was attending Belmont University in Nashville studying music and writing. Our aim, during our catch up with him, was to see some of the American culture that was outside of mainstream tourism.

Our next destination was Memphis. Rather than boarding another freeway we wound our way along some ‘B’ roads. As well as passing through the bright green undulating farmland that once was bloody civil war battlefields we started to regularly pass through some small towns. When passing through one, which had neat, white family homes contrasting with mobile homes that were so full that the contents had spilled outdoors, and had up to four or five vehicles in various stages of decay, Small Town  came on the radio. What I was viewing from our van was exactly in sync with the song I was hearing.  Unbelievable.

Well I was born in a small town,
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town,
Oh those small communities.

Some of the small towns we passed through were obviously buoyant and surviving well. Others had a few too many vacant stores with grimy windows and closed down gas stations sans pumps. However, no matter the state of the local economy, there were always many places of worship. Some small towns had up to four, five or six Baptist churches. Even when the businesses are failing, the church car parks were overflowing.

All my friends are so small town,
My parents live in the same small town,
My job is so small town
Provides little opportunity.

Educated in a small town,
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town,
Used to daydream in that small town,
Another boring romantic, that’s me.

Have you ever wondered what happens to unclaimed airline baggage? If it is in the USA it will probably end up in the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama, just over the border from Tennessee. There is a huge warehouse store called Unclaimed Baggage Center where there is endless clothing, shoes, camera, books, computers and more for sale, all far far away from their original owners.

While there I was looking through the sunglasses rack and a local, with his partner, recognised the accent. “Excuse me, would you be Australian?” My good-natured response: ‘‘Would you be American?”

He was tall, probably in his 20s, dressed in overalls and had studs in his nose. She was blonde, friendly, demure. We struck up conversation and talked about music. He told me that he plays in a punk band. All I could think was that punk is pretty far removed from country and bluegrass. He went on to say that “Scottsboro is only known for two things – this store and extreme racism.”  (Later I researched the true story from the 1930s where nine black men were accused of raping two white women. The women admitted that they had fabricated the story but eight of the nine accused were executed anyway.)

The punk musician reminded of Mellencamp’s Small Town song again: it’s a pretty gutsy individual who dares to play and record his punk music in a very, very conservative small town.

No I cannot forget where it is I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me,
Yeah I can be myself here in this small town.
And people let me be just what I want to be.

It was not too much later that we said goodbye to our son Dan and we were jetting our way back to L.A. to make our connection to Australia. The flight was so bumpy that people were screaming, but from 10 000 metres I watched the patchwork of fields, criss-cross of roads, dried river beds and collected dots of houses that make up the little communities now guessing that the residents far below were comfortable in their familiarity, routines and predictabilities of their small towns.

 

©David Oke. More stories by David Oke

 

David is a Melbourne musician, music teacher and primary school teacher. His debut Stereo Story was about playing Great Balls of Fire at Sun Studio in Memphis. He has assisted in the organisation, and leading of gospel music workshops and Sunday gospel celebrations at the Anglesea Music Festivals, and is a member of The Seddon Jammers. His son Dan is the creative force of the band Jarrow.