Small towns. Desperation. False piety.

February 15, 2016

Evan Webb

“God is great, and God is good

But he’s never gonna save this town

The way I see it, there’s two ways out

We can dry up or drown

We’re gonna dry up or drown”

— Evan Webb

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McClure, Illinois is just another small town USA. Like most small towns, the well-being of the community is heavily contingent upon outside forces, whether government or corporate. In the case of McClure, this includes the closure of a state prison, a source of employment in a fragile economy. But then there’s nature. Nature often likes to beat a man when he is already down. In this case, McClure was hit by the flooding of the Mississippi River this winter, thanks to unusually warm temperatures.

So Evan Webb and his bandmates wrote a song:

The images in the video are from their community. Evan himself was displaced by the flooding.

It is rare to find an artist who can communicate this devastation, honestly and without an exaggerated sentimentality. It requires, first of all, a songwriter who is embedded within the community. Secondly, it requires a songwriter who is willing to write from this perspective, instead of writing from some generic, universal platform.

This was, in fact, how country music was born. As Southern men moved from the farms to the mill towns in the 1910’s and 20’s — as in Gastonia, North Carolina — they longed for the sounds of home with all of its peculiarity. Some entrepreneurial businessmen decided to fill this need, as businessmen do, and enlisted the first recording artists in this new and as-yet-undefined genre, like Jimmie Rodgers. This is a genre that has given us Merle Haggard’s “Pride in What I Am,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.” I only mention Haggard because he is my favorite songwriter. Others could be enlisted.

As for McClure, Illinois, we have Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers. Evan is no Merle, as I am sure that he would readily agree. Most people have never heard of him or his band. Yet, he has given us something special — a reminder of what country music is supposed to be about. His hometown, with a tiny population, was devastated, and he put it into song.

God is great?

The standout lyrics, in the sense of grabbing one’s attention, are the “God is great” lines that I quote at the beginning of this post. These lines could upset some people. If God is great and good, then of course he will “save this town”? Right? That is the false piety that Evan is criticizing. It is a piety that excuses ourselves and indeed privileges ourselves.

Evan is not denying that God is great or that God is good. He is not posing a contradiction for our dialectical amusement. He is saying that God is not the simplistic and self-serving God of our common piety. Evan is calling for action. It is a call for responsibility. This has nothing to do with any Pelagian scheme. It is the opposite. It is a call to service, just as Evan and his friends worked hard to contain the flooding with sandbags.

It is an understanding of a God who is not in our back pocket, so to speak — a cheap comfort and readily at our disposal. That is refreshing.

So, may God bless Evan and his band and his town. Amen.

_______________

Image: Evan Webb (source)

6 Responses to “Small towns. Desperation. False piety.”

  1. Joel said

    I really liked this. Not just the lyrics, but the overall sound is great.

    I’ve heard it said that good country is usually from an outsider’s perspective in some way (even when it’s happy), while bad country is purely about celebration. Do you think that’s accurate?

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, the overall sound is great, with some nice pedal steel guitar.

      There is something to be said for the “outsider” perspective as prominent in the most distinguished country artists. There is much of that in Hank Sr., especially his “Luke the Drifter” persona, and then again in everyone associated with the “outlaw” movement. Johnny Cash is, of course, “the man in black.” George Jones was fairly conventional as a country artist, but his heartbreaking songs and lonesome voice lent credibility to his music — and likewise for Randy Travis. George Strait is more difficult to access in terms of “outsider,” but he did embody the Texan cowboy persona with conviction.

      Before the term, “bro-country,” was coined, I called it “party country.” So, we’re talking roughly between five and ten years ago when it started. Kenny Chesney’s stupid beach songs are some early examples, as well as Toby Keith’s shift toward dumb drinking/party songs. It was a short jump from that to the dominance of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line on the radio today. I have no problem with silly songs about trucks, girls, and drinking beer. We all need to relax and cut loose. Joe Diffie’s 90’s classic, “Pickup Man,” is a good example. The problem is when the radio market is saturated with this stuff entirely. There’s no longer any real depth or real humanity as a result, and the artists are entirely one-dimensional. This is why it’s refreshing when Florida Georgia Line cuts a song like “Dirt,” which was a huge success and actually had substance. Unfortunately, those songs are the exceptions, not the rule, on country airplay. I still have some hope that this trend can change, and we do have bright spots — like Tim McGraw’s recent singles and the unlikely phenomenon of Chris Stapleton.

      • Joel said

        With a few exceptions, I have a hard time enjoying post-80s mainstream country. I just don’t like the sound and production (this isn’t a problem unique to country radio, to be fair).

      • Kevin Davis said

        We could probably agree in regard to sound and production in most respects, but I am certainly more inclined to appreciate both pre- and post- 1980 mainstream country at its best.

        George Strait is a rather easy example:

        An even better and more representative example is Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket” (reaching #1 in 2004):

  2. Mike said

    This is a lament. There are many laments in the Bible as well. Although faith may be tested and then strengthened we don’t always see the external circumstances restored.

    • Kevin Davis said

      That’s true. The category of “lament” would have been a helpful way to interpret the song, especially in dialog with the Bible, namely the wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Eccl.) and the gospels.

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