Most people know Mary Chapin Carpenter as a great songwriter. Her name suggests songs like “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Feel Lucky,” “Passionate Kisses,” “Down at the Twist and Shout,” and “I Take My Chances.” Yet, you may have forgotten one of her most emotive songs, “I Am a Town.” Let me remind you of this song.
I Am a Town
(Words and Music by Mary Chapin Carpenter)
I’m a town in Carolina, I’m a detour on a ride
For a phone call and a soda, I’m a blur from the driver’s side
I’m the last gas for an hour if you’re going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave behind
I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl
I’m the pines behind the graveyard,
And the cool beneath their shade,
Where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.
My porches sag and lean with old black men and children
Their sleep is filled with dreams, I never can fulfill them
I am a town.
I am a church beside the highway
Where the ditches never drain
I’m a Baptist like my daddy, and Jesus knows my name
I am memory and stillness; I am lonely in old age;
I am not your destination
I am clinging to my ways
I am a town.
I’m a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the fields
I’m an old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my wheels
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American, and “Southern Serves the South”
I am tucked behind the Jaycees sign, on the rural route
I am a town
I am a town
I am a town
Even as a poem, the words affect my heart. “For a phone and a soda, I’m a blur from the driver’s side… I am dust you leave behind.” Wow, that is great writing. I can see those places flashing by on the highway where you never stop unless you really need something, or you are really bored.
“I’m a cadence and a drawl.” One time as a visiting professor to a small college, I found myself lost in my rental car driving from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Joplin, Missouri. I pulled into a gas station for directions and was met with a “cadence and a drawl.” “Let’s see, I think yur lookin fur a place in Arkansas. I don’t rightly know where Joplin is, but I think you want to head on into Arkansas and get some help there.” I did know that Joplin was in Missouri and so I avoided the mistake and bought a $5 map to see where I needed to go. Emergency over, and I would never, again be in that small town. The “cadence and the drawl” was part of the culture; not knowing where Joplin was, was just who that person was.
“Where the boys leave their beer cans, I am weeds between the graves…dreams, I never can fulfill” You can see that scene of beer cans and unfulfilled dreams. We have all seen that town. You can also see the “old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all [its] wheels.” It is the same town where many would say, “I’m a Baptist like my daddy, and Jesus knows my name.” And perhaps the most definitive line, “I am not your destination.” It must be said, but we know it already. We would never make this town our destination unless Grandma lives there and is “lonely in old age.”
This is the definitive town of which MC2 must speak. It is the place where souls are lost, and dreams lay like raindrops on a dusty road. This is the town, southbound, and clinging to its ways.
Like Copperline by James Taylor, the emotions, scenes, and images are there to spill over our brains and our emotions. They remind us of all of the small towns we have ever seen. The disappearing places that no one will miss; the “dust you leave behind,” and the “last gas for an hour.” God bless the small town hanging on with all their strength even when they have no idea where Joplin might be.