Jason Aldean has been on my mind, although not for any reasons dealing with what you can or cannot try in a small town.
Steve Martin has been on my mind, too, but not for any reasons dealing with his comedy.
Georgia’s been on my mind, too, and I’ll explain why — and how all these things are connected.
If you came for politics today, I’ll deal with Virginia’s latest early voting trends in our free weekly political newsletter, West of the Capital, which comes out on Friday afternoons. You can sign up for that and any of our other newsletters here. Instead, today I’ll deal with culture, and how it shapes popular impressions of where we live.
Allow me to explain: This week I went to see the musical “Bright Star” at Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke. In the world of musicals, it’s still relatively new — it premiered in 2014, so it’s still a babe compared to the old standards that often appear on local stages. It’s written by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell (famous for her 1988 hit “What I Am”). Perhaps of more interest to many of our readers, it’s the rare musical built around bluegrass music, not traditional show tune styles. If this interests you, I have good news and bad news: The good news is seats are still available; the bad news is you need to hurry because the show closes Oct. 1. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of this yet, perhaps now is a good time for me to plug our events calendar and our weekly events newsletter, The Weekend.
I won’t give away the plot except for this innocuous bit: Part of the story deals with a young North Carolina writer in the late 1940s who’s trying to get published in the fictional Asheville Southern Journal. This is the first thing that caught my ear because Roanoke has long considered Asheville to be its southern rival, another city along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but one that’s long had a more upscale image. This musical plays on this by portraying Asheville as the home of a prestigious literary magazine and name-checks the Asheville-born writer Thomas Wolfe.
I was pondering how Asheville gets yet another image boost in this musical when I walked past Sidewinders, a popular country music nightspot in downtown Roanoke. It was karaoke night, billed as “Jerry-oke” because Jerry Wimmer was on stage playing and the audience was invited to sing along. When I walked by, he was singing the Jason Aldean hit “She’s Country.” Don’t get me started on Aldean; he rarely writes his own material. This particular song was written by Nashville songwriters Danny Myrick and Bridgette Tatum. For my purposes today, that doesn’t matter; Aldean is the one who sang the song when it became a hit. Here are the lyrics I heard as I walked past Sidewinders:
She’s a party all-nighter from South Carolina
A bad mamma-jamma from down in Alabama
She’s a ragin’ Cajun, lunatic from Brunswick
Juicy Georgia peach with a thick Southern drawl
Sexy swingin’ walk, brother she’s all
This is a song that eventually name-checks five Southern or near-Southern states (Kentucky and Mississippi get their turn in a later lyric), references another (Louisiana, with the ragin’ Cajun line) and one Midwestern state (“she’s a Kansas princess”) — plus one county, presumably the one in Georgia.
My 10 favorite songs that mention Virginia
“Sweet Virginia Breeze” by Steve Bassett and Robbin Thompson
I think this is required, right? It is, after all, now one of Virginia’s official state songs.
“Amtrak Crescent” by Scott Miller
The Augusta County-based singer provides a travelogue of the Amtrak route from New Orleans to New York: “Lynchburg to Danville is a ghost-filled rail.” This also includes a brief lesson on how the North and South gave different names to the same battles: “You better say Manassas if you say Bull Run or in Virginia you won’t get along with anyone.” (Miller has other Virginia-themed songs. Check out “Highland County Boy.”)
“Super 8” by Jason Isbell
I don’t want to die in a Super 8 motel, either, in Bristol or anywhere else.
“Deaver’s Crossing” by James McMurtry
This has a reference to how mountaineers living on the Blue Ridge were displaced by the creation of the Shenandoah National Park: “He was there when Uncle Sam took away the neighbors’ land to make that Shenandoah Park / The woods got thick and the woods got dark.”
“Wreck of the Old 97,” multiple versions
Nobody’s quite sure who wrote the song — there was a famous copyright suit in the 1930s that ended with the Victor Talking Machine Company winding up with the rights, even though Victor clearly didn’t write the song. The 1924 version by Vernon Dalhart, linked here, is said to be the first country song that sold a million copies.
“Carrie Brown” by Steve Earle
A classic Bristol song: “I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee.”
“Cumberland Gap” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
OK, this isn’t very inspiring either — “maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole” — but it definitely rocks. It’s also not geographically correct: “There’s nothing here but churches, bars and grocery stores.” The last time I was at the Cumberland Gap, there wasn’t nearly that much development. This is called literary license.
“Russell County Line” by 49 Winchester
See the story that Ralph Berrier Jr. wrote for Cardinal about the chart-topping band from Russell County.
“Runnin‘” by Pharell Williams
This is from the soundtrack to the movie “Hidden Figures,” much of which is set in Virginia: “Summertime in Virginia was an oven … “
“One More Summer in Virginia” by the Statler Brothers
A sad song but that’s OK: “Let me spend just one more summer in Virginia before I die.” Fun fact: The Staunton-based Statler Brothers had more hits make the country Top 40 (58) than the Beatles did in the pop Top 40 (50). They also had one more number one song than Fab Four.
Left off the list:
“My Old School” by Steely Dan (“Oh no, William and Mary won’t do”). The band apparently just used the college name because it fit the meter; the events described in the song took place at Bard College in New York and the Annandale reference is Annadale, New York, not Annandale, Virginia.
“This Perilous Night,” by the Drive-By Truckers, inspired by the ugly white supremacist march in Charlottesville. A rocking song but not a happy moment in Virginia history.
Disqualified: “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The song is geographically incorrect. The “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River” are mostly in Virginia, not “almost heaven, West Virginia.”
All of that — “Bright Star” set in Asheville and “She’s Country” listing almost half the South — swirls together in my mind to produce this question: Why isn’t Virginia mentioned in more literary works? Granted, Barbara Kingsolver sure helps make up that deficit with the Pultizer-winning “Demon Copperhead,” set in Lee County. People listen to more songs than they read books, though. So, why isn’t Virginia mentioned in more songs? Country music came out of Appalachian Virginia — that’s why the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is in Bristol — so isn’t there more lyrical homage paid to places in Virginia?
Yes, there are certainly some songs that mention Virginia or places in Virginia but not nearly as many as other Southern states. As a Virginian, I’m feeling cheated. Some of that is surely because Virginia is a hard word to rhyme. The database RhymeZone lists only one word that rhymes precisely — the name Lavinia, not a name I’ve heard recently. By contrast, RhymeZone lists 337 rhymes for Tennessee — the “ee” sound on the end makes it easy. Clever songwriters can cheat with some other states — Alabama can become “Alabam,” Mississippi can become “Mississip” and North Carolina and South Carolina can get merged into “Caroline.”
Still, that doesn’t explain all the song titles with non-Virginia place names in non-rhyming positions, such as “Georgia On My Mind” by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, neither of whom was from Georgia.
RhymeZone cites only three words that rhyme with Georgia but the Peach State still gets a lot of songwriting attention: “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips and “A Rainy Night in Georgia” by Brook Benton are classics by now, while “Forget About Georgia” by Lukas Nelson and the Real is far more recent.
I can understand why Tennessee, with Nashville as the country music capital, gets mentioned so much, but why Georgia? It has “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels and “Georgia On a Fast Train” by Billy Joe Shaver and, well, a lot more. And we won’t even mention all the references to cities in Georgia — from “Statesboro Blues,” written by Blind Willie McTell and popularized by the Allman Brothers, to “Macon” by Jamey Johnson, to more versions of “Oh Atlanta” than I can count.
By contrast, Ranker.com says the most popular song with Virginia in the title isn’t even about the state of Virginia at all — it’s “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones. (I’m not sure who that Virginia is, but the “honey child” the Stones reference is apparently in California and, if you know the song, you know why I can’t repeat the key lyrics here.)
On a thread on the discussion site Reddit — which is admittedly somewhat old now — participants attempted to quantify which states are mentioned the most in songs. They found seven clear leaders: New York (5,911), California (3,259), Texas (2,783), Tennessee (1,700), Mississippi (1,587), Georgia (1,454) and Kentucky (1,364). After that, there was a big gap and no other state drew more than 800 mentions. The writer with the screen name “Waja Rabbit” concluded: “Florida is under-represented, by proportion to its population. As well as a lot of the Northeast (minus NY and NJ).”
A more scientific accounting comes from — checks notes — Celebrity Cruises. It’s built an interactive map that pinpoints all the places mentioned in “the lyrics of over 200,000 songs that charted in the top 40 within the UK and US charts since the 1960s.” That Top 40 requirement leaves out one of my favorite songs that does mention a place in Virginia — “Super 8,” by Jason Isbell, who performed in Salem in August. If you’re not familiar with this toe-tapper, it starts off like this:
Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel
Just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well
If I ever get back to Bristol
I’m better off sleeping in the county jail
Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel
OK, this will probably never be a tourism jingle for the chamber of commerce (or the Super 8 chain, either), but hey, this is rock ’n’ roll, or whatever genre you want to put Isbell in. And very technically, we don’t know if it’s about the “other” Bristol. Because cities in Virginia are independent of counties, our Bristol doesn’t have a county jail, it has a city jail. If Isbell prefers the accommodations of a county jail, he’d best go sleep in the Sullivan County lock-up on the Tennessee side.
When I put in “Virginia,” I get 11 mentions, most of them rap songs. One of those is “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-n-Effects. (When I look up those lyrics, they’re not really appropriate either.)
When I put in “Lynchburg,” I get one reference: “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley but, upon closer inspection, the Lynchburg he appears to be referencing is Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel’s, not our Lynchburg.
When I put in “Roanoke,” I also get one reference: the Darius Rucker version of “Wagon Wheel,” not the Old Crow Medicine Show version, although both sing the same incoherent geography:
Walkin’ to the south out of Roanoke
I caught a trucker out of Philly, had a nice long toke
But he’s a-headin’ west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee
Dude, you’ve apparently had more than a nice long toke because if you head west from the Cumberland Gap, you’re never going to get to Johnson City.
Meanwhile, the five most-mentioned locations in the Celebrity Cruise database are:
New York: 161 songs
London: 102 songs
Los Angeles: 87 songs
California: 68 songs
Hollywood: 66 songs
True, there are a few classic songs that mention Virginia — “Wreck of the Old 97” memorializes the famous train wreck in Danville, and even lent its name to a short-lived minor league baseball team, the Danville 97s. And there are some deep cuts that mention Virginia. Tom T. Hall, who once attended Roanoke College and moonlighted as a disc jockey in Roanoke, sang about those times in “Ode to a Half a Pound of Ground Round”:
This is the song about the time
I nearly starved to death in Roanoke, Virginia
Rock’n’roll’s Virginia birthplace
Virginia’s most important musical connection involves a song that’s not about Virginia and doesn’t even have words. Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble” was first performed at a sock hop in Fredericksburg in 1958. The song is widely credited with being the first to employ the “power chord” that inspired a generation of rock guitarists, from Jeff Beck to Jimmy Page to Pete Townshend. Bob Dylan once called it “the best instrumental ever.” The sound was considered overtly suggestive in 1958, and the title considered a reference to gang fights. It remains the only instrumental to be banned from radio. There are many places that claim to be the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll but Fredericksburg is entitled to a share of that honor.
My point, though, is there aren’t enough songs about Virginia. For some reason, the songwriting muses have smiled on other Southern states, but not Virginia. When I heard the recent single “Belle Meade Cockfight” by Old Crow Medicine Show — whose lead singer, Ketch Secor, grew up in Harrisonburg — I thought it might be referencing the old Belle Meade Red Carpet Inn, once considered the finest establishment there. (I grew up in Rockingham County and we always considered the restaurant there to be pretty hoity-toity.) However, I see lots of references in the music press about how the song is really about Belle Meade, Tennessee.
I can’t relate this lack of songwriting references to anything we normally consider important. I can’t tell you that it’s costing us jobs — I’ve never seen a company say they chose Georgia over Virginia because it has more or better songs. Still, you’d think a state with such a rich musical heritage would have more hits. Who’s going to fix this?
I can tell you one person who is: Oliver Anthony. Whatever you think of the politics behind his “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the Farmville-based singer is at least giving Virginia a name-check. For my money though, he has an even better song in the very non-political song “Virginia”:
They don’t never sing songs about Virginia
But sweet Virginia, she’s always a-singing to me