I moved from Garner, North Carolina to Portland, Maine at 14. I brought with me the southern notion of New England: milquetoast, middle class, and metropolitan. In my head, Portland was a second Boston and I did not leave the city much before I was 18 and going to the University of Maine. Here I learned that Maine is a divided state between urban and rural. Soon after arriving at UMaine, the sound of my hometown was back in my ears. That sound was country music, and not just the radio friendly pop country of Florida Georgia Line, but traditional and alternative country music as well. I began to investigate what it is that resonates about country music this far above the Mason-Dixon.
Country music is often looked down on by the upper classes: it was referred to as “hillbilly music” until 1949. Some Mainers hold the “too good for it” attitude. In 1926, the editor of Variety magazine referred to country music artists and their fans as “illiterate and ignorant … poor white trash … with the intelligence of morons.” This attitude is prevalent in the cities of Maine. From my experience, many residents of urban areas in Maine seem to believe that all of the state’s residents outside of the southeastern part of the state are “hicks” and “rednecks.” Residents of the urban part of the state might write off southern states and rural Maine as deplorable, but in doing so they overlook the true value of rural Maine with its stunning views, vibrant wildlife, and friendly communities. Many Maine residents, fans of country music and otherwise, take pride in the “hick” or “redneck” labels, and many see that pride as a way to thumb their noses at those who would use those labels to denigrate them, their tastes, and their lifestyles.
Common experiences are a driving force in making country music relatable. A common theme in country music is work, or the lack of it. In the south, this reflects the constant struggle to find good work. A similar parallel in Maine is the decline of mill towns. Department of Labor statistics show that “pulp and paper mills employed 18,000 workers through the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.” By 2016 the industry provided “approximately 4,000 jobs statewide.” It is a cycle seen throughout the south: boom and bust. Steve Earle sums up the feeling of bust well in the song “Snake Oil”: “Well you lost your farm so you moved to town / You get a job, they shut the factory down.” The lyrics capture the feeling of never being on stable footing, which speaks to Mainers and Southerners alike.
The politics of the south and Maine are another commonality, and I do not mean along party lines. I mean that the welfare of the community as a whole is the most important issue. In the South this is typically the job of tight-knit churches and religious organizations. This is seen in Maine in the importance of local politics and community support systems. According to Mainehistory.net, Maine survived the Great Depression because neighbors were expected to “donate money or food, contribute labor, or cut wood for families in an emergency.” This mentality is seen in country music, the best example being Farm Aid, a yearly concert series where many acts, including Willie Nelson, perform to raise money for family farms.
Country music is just as poignant in rural Maine as any place in the south. It is less about the music and more about the common ground between folks in the scalding south and the great white north. A lot is different, but concrete facts of life and community remain the same, even if they take different forms.