Well, I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob'ly die in a small town
Oh, those small communities...
-- John Cougar Mellencamp
Photo courtesy Browntown Community Center Association
On the Fourth, we went to Browntown, a "wide spot in the road" nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Having been in the States for four years now, Sal wanted to see what an "old-fashioned Fourth of July" looked like. Browntown is one of a number of hamlets in the region that have one, in the sense that there's a parade, a festival near the firehouse, and a fireworks show. And while a sudden downpour did break the momentum, it didn't cancel the event. (During the rain, the four cars in the parade went by quickly, but once it died down they all came back.) You could tell who the regulars were, and I overheard expressions even I hadn't gotten wind of before -- like "Looks like it's gonna rain like a cow p**in' on a flat rock."
We were going to stay for the fireworks, but the magic died (at least it did for us) when the band started to play. Now, this town has a monthly bluegrass jam that is known throughout the valley, and to hear music that actually had some history in the region might have been worth the trip. But did they get anything resembling that? Oh, no, they got a quintet of redneck rockers playing Kenny Chesney and the like, with the volume turned up entirely too damned loud following one of those self-indulgent sound checks. The lead guitarist-singer had some good chops, if not enough good sense, or he and "the boys" would have known better. I'd probably go to a roadhouse outside of Front Royal to hear these guys. But a town with a population that could fit into one? What were they thinking???
They probably would insist that their marriage of country-western and rock-and-roll is what makes them innovative, which really is a bunch of hooey. After all, the two genres have had a symbiotic relationship since Carl Perkins first walked into the Sun Records studio in Memphis and shook hands with Sam Phillips. That was over fifty years ago. But to this day, when Rolling Stone interviews some rising young twerp while covering the Nashville beat, that's the standard spin, and it manages to float downstream from there.
Unfortunately, small towns are dying everywhere, and the cause is not always from the outside. It's not the fault of the little general store that the EPA raised the standards for underground gas tanks and they had to take out the pump. Nor is it avoidable that the one-room schoolhouse had to give way to the "consolidated school" near the county seat and become a "community hall." But if people want to have all the features of city life that a satellite dish won't give them, they should move to one.
Maybe someday, an enterprising group of Catholic homeschooling families will buy up the houses in one of these towns. Maybe not all of them, just enough to have an influence. The general store can continue to run as it always has, and the town hall can become a once-a-week "home school co-op" and be like the little red schoolhouse once again. The local diocese would have the imagination to buy a boarded-up church and make it a suitable place for the Lord's Presence. The people would learn what it is to know their neighbor, which makes it easier (if not simply possible) to love their neighbor. But that's a story for another day...
Meanwhile, we took the scenic route home, and watched the fireworks on the National Mall from the exit ramp to Pentagon City. A lot of other people had the same idea, as every route near the Pentagon that isn't blocked off becomes a parking lot -- and a long way from the Blue Ridge.
Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who's in the big town
Gonna die in this small town
And that's prob'ly where they'll bury me.
Photo by Rob Harding