DeMarco: Why I Live in a Small Town

The Op-Ed Page

The Main Street of Marion, S.C., via Google Maps Street View.

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

Jason Aldean’s song, “Try That in a Small Town” has become yet another cultural battleground. Rather than talk rationally about what makes small-town living satisfying or depressing, each side has set up a caricature for the purpose of slamming it. I’ve read a number of commentaries, most by writers who have either never lived in small towns or have left them with nothing but harsh memories.

Here’s what I know about small towns: I’m glad I live in one. I came to Marion (population approximately 6,300, about 20 miles east of Florence) because I was obliged to; the state paid my medical tuition for three years of service in a health workforce shortage area. But I stayed because I wished to.

Jason Aldean via Wikipedia.

I realize this gives me a uniquely optimistic vantage of my small town. I came as a new doctor into a community that needed one. I was welcomed when I arrived, and have, for the most part, felt welcome here.

I think we can agree that small towns and big cities have their own particular attractions. If you want an easy commute, come to Marion, where mine is traffic-free and downright therapeutic, offering back roads where deer, ducks, herons, and bald eagles are not uncommon. If, on the other hand, you frequently crave late-night home delivery of premium-grade sushi, Marion will disappoint.

Most of the furor over the song derives from its ability to slide easily into each side’s narrative. For liberals, the song is a Lost Cause anthem. The fact that Aldean is a conservative who has not made a secret of his support for Donald Trump has fueled that assessment.

For conservatives, CMT’s pulling of the video is a perfect example of “wokeness” and cancel culture. The left, they would argue, is running out of actual examples of racism, so they invent them.

What some dislike, including myself, is the misplaced bravado in the song, the Hestonian “out of my cold, dead hands” vibe. But I think we need to give Aldean the same poetic license that we give hip-hop artists, who often purposely provoke with their lyrics (and then are rightly criticized). My other criticism would be that while the video shows people of all colors behaving badly, there are no black or brown people in the scenes showing the richness of small-town life.

Aldean is expressing an attitude more than a threat. He’s not planning to murder you if you cause trouble in his town, as some pearl-clutching liberals would have you believe. He’s pointing to a legitimate difference between small towns, not only in the South but in any region of the country, and larger cities.

Paul sent this view of Main Street, taken from almost the same vantage point as the one above.

Aldean’s song is built upon this truth: the structure of a small town makes it impervious to riots and mass violence. Almost everyone who lives in Marion has some connection to Main Street. We shop there regularly and know or are related to the business owners and employees, both black and white (Marion’s population is 70% African-American). We’ve watched them struggle and mostly survive the pandemic. It would be inconceivable for Marion’s citizens to burn down Main Street in protest of anything. Our connections to one another would douse our anger. It’s hard to throw a rock through a window when you know who is on the other side

Aldean’s song asks us to imagine what might have been accomplished if the George Floyd protests had been completely peaceful. BLM’s strength as a voice for the black community would have been immeasurably enhanced. In the aftermath of a year of well-organized, nonviolent marches against racial injustice, those who supported the January 6th Capitol riot would have had no cover. But instead, they have been able to successfully point to the lives lost and the billions in damage caused in the BLM protests as a defense, arguing that violence is an inevitable and necessary part of advocating for societal change.

The South will be forever stained by our history of racial hatred. Small towns in the South, were, and can still be, oppressive and racist. But my sense is that in 2023, the racial barriers that remain in this country do not vary significantly by zip code.

Small towns are, in some ways, better than they have ever been. Although many are poorer than they once were, they have never been more inclusive. My neighborhood, once completely white, is browning. I now have a retired black woman as my neighbor who has become a good friend for my wife and me. Many small towns are redefining their identities after the offshoring of their major manufacturing plants. I would counsel any young person, particularly an entrepreneur, to consider small town life. The internet has done much to ameliorate the isolation of rural places, and has given rural-based businesses a way forward.

So y’all come and visit. If, like me, you end up staying, you will be glad you did.

A version of this column appeared in the Sept. 1h edition of The Post and Courier, Pee Dee.

6 thoughts on “DeMarco: Why I Live in a Small Town

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Note the footer on that column: Our boy Paul has moved up to the bigs now! Which made me smile.

    Coincidentally, he sent me this the same morning I shelled out 99 cents to download a copy of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, which I hadn’t read in years. It’s an “epistolary novel” by Ring Lardner, written as the letters a ballplayer sends home to his friend Al in about 1913.

    And I had just read the first letter, in which the minor-league pitcher, Jack Keefe, has shared the news that he’s just been recruited by the White Sox. But he closes it by reassuring Al that he doesn’t see himself as having risen above his friends:

    Which is my roundabout way of saying we’re all proud of you ’round here, Paul, and we’re glad you’ll still hang out with us…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, as I’ve probably mentioned, all my roots on my mother’s side are in Marion — In the county, anyway, and a lot of it in the town.

    That vertical picture that Paul sent (as well as the horizontal one at the top that I grabbed from Google Maps) is — as near as I can tell — only a few yards (or no more than a block, anyway) from where my great-grandfather’s funeral home was, a century and more ago.

    Here’s a picture of him taken in front of what the family euphemistically called “the store,” with the hearse and his associates. My uncle “colorized” the image by hand years ago. The man standing on the curb behind another man in the street, and in front of the sign that says “CL Pace &Co., Undertakers,” is my great-grandfather, Charles Lexington Pace.

  3. Robert Amundson

    Thank you Paul. I am writing in my 1860 home in Cuba, NY. What an honor to be the third owner of this 2600 sf home, with wood that was around during the Revolutionary War. It has a servants’ entrance, but I hope to find an Underground Railroad connection.

    Cuba is a loser in the winner/loser game that challenges our society. So I am grateful that 50 years ago I left screaming “get me out of here!” and came back to find my hometown even worse. Because it is a lucrative financial opportunity for those not afraid to rock the boat.

    I am a “Picker” and my business model is simple – be fair and acquire “stuff” that can find a new home. Too often I make a good deal because people need money, but I believe in “enlightened self-interest” and strive to be fair. A riff on Robin Hood, buy from the poor to help them, and sell to the rich!

    I admire Kerouac and see myself in a similar, more modern way. Kerouac was not assaulted by the constant “if it bleeds it leads.” Brad will remember President Kennedy’s death in a way similar to my memory of that horrible time.

    That constant anxiety has lead to an enormous drug problem; I deal with the addicted, working poor that need help. But I can not throw a fish at them and say, “Here, aren’t I wonderful?” Teaching to fish takes times., patience, an investment in caring, in love.

    So back to now; the battle between good and evil is well documented. I struggle with the lethal retaliation that is forthcoming. Keep your children away from the news and love them. Jesus loved the Little Children; All the Children of the World. Be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves All the Children of the World!

  4. Ken

    If you enjoy your small-town life, just hope your small town isn’t close enough to any growing metropolitan area (Florence?) or it will gradually be eaten up by creeping (and not so creeping) development. We are losing too many trees and open spaces to sub-divisions suddenly plopping down 200 or 500 new homes – all of them much too large.

  5. Barry

    Trump calls Hezbollah terror group “Very Smart” as he spends some of his 2 hour speech in front of supporters Wednesday criticizing the Israeli Prime Minister.

    Mike Pence tells CNN what we all knew, that Trump had a tendency to praise dictators during his time in the White House. Pence said he heard him do it personally. Instead of realizing how evil they were, he admired them.

    Few House Republicans and Senators criticize Trump for praising a terror group. Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Neil Cavuto pressed several Republican members of Congress about Trump’s praise. They largely deflected. John Thune, the quiet Senate Republican in leadership did admit voters would have the final say. But he didn’t want to be critical of Trump. Instead choosing to make up stuff about Joe Biden.

    Republican Senator Ted Cruz lied about Joe Biden saying he waited too many days to express support for Israel. Many pointed out Biden held a press conference the same day the news broke of the initial attack stating the America stands fully behind Israel, and condemned the terror attack.

    Then Ted Cruz refused to be critical of Trump praising a terror group.

    My favorite radio guy – Sirius host (and Saturday CNN host) Michael Smerconish wondered this week on his Sirius show:

    Who are the people that will be willing to work in a Donald Trump administration? What kind of trouble could this cause us considering so many of his 1st term officials have been forced to spend so much of their own money on lawyers, and so many of them have been denigrated by Trump himself.

  6. Barry

    In school news – 2 stories grabbed my attention

    1st story:

    Texas has decided to send a young black student to an alternative school since he will not style his hair to meet the personal style views of the school superintendent.

    The young man in question wears his hair up, well above his ears, which meets the written policy. But this has not pleased school leadership.

    The family has filed a federal lawsuit. Good for them.

    2nd story:

    A school principal in Louisiana has requested a leave of absence after trying to revoke a scholarship recommendation for a high school female student and student body president who he punished for dancing at an off-campus dance with her friends – a dance that included the student’s own mother who was present at the dance.

    He also spent time telling her she wasn’t doing things “the Lord’s way” and printing out bible verses for the public school student.

    He has now backtracked. Soon after, he requested a leave of absence.


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