I didn’t toss it all to move to Montana two decades ago because of a song. My primary affliction was trout, and there’s a lot of trout-rich habitat in the Northern Rockies. When I finally bailed on Southern California I landed in Montana because it represented something more than just a good place to fish. But a song did play a role in that destination.
I was looking for the opposite of the place where I had lived since childhood. Montana was as far away from SoCal, figuratively at least, as I could get while remaining in the lower 48.
I was something of a wannabe hipster in my youth. During college I worked at a record store. Being a record store clerk required any self-respecting hipster to adopt a disintersted affect as we contemplated the dismal tastes of the record-buying masses. While we filled the store’s airspace with the latest punk rock offerings from England, cranked up to 11 of course, those fools just kept buying Phil Collins LPs, carrying copy after copy of “Face Value” up to the register despite our sneers.
I might have continued on that trajectory, becoming another jaded musical moron (think Jack Black’s character in “High Fidelity”) if not for a bit of serendipity. One day a copy of Merle Haggard’s “His Epic Hits: The First 11 (To Be Continued…)” turned up in the defect bin. Due to the uneven quality of turntables of that era, it was common for folks to return perfectly servicable albums as defective. The records skipped on cheap home stereos, but played just fine on our pricier equipment at the store. Defects were a great way to try out music we’d ordinarily never buy.
I sent that Haggard LP for a spin, no doubt in some attempt at hipster irony. There was one problem: about halfway through side one I realized the man was a damn genius, every bit the poet of the working class as my punk faves of the time, The Clash. Then the album came to the track “Big City.”
I suspect most Montanans are familiar with the anthem-like lyrics from the song in which Haggard proclaims the state’s status as the ultimate anti-city: “Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana.” Back when I played that album there was already a soft spot in my hipster armor as I’d recently taken up the decidedly un-hipster like hobby of fly fishing. I guess I’d already jumped off the “High Fidelity” trajectory and was headed somewhere else. That song just helped me pick the destination.
Last weekend I got to hear Haggard sing “Big City” in person for the first time. This was the third time I’d heard the man in concert, but the first time he’d included it in the set list. And since we were in White Sulphur Springs at the time, dancing in a dusty field at the Red Ants Pants festival, I’m not sure a line ever rang more true. If there’s any place that fits the description of “Somewhere in the middle of Montana” it’s White Sulphur. Otherwise best known as the jumping off point for epic Smith River floats, the place is just another Montana ranch town.
Towns like this are unremarkable only to the extent that folks from elsewhere are hard pressed to understand what is really remarkable about them. My former in-laws have roots in White Sulphur. Once, during a family reunion, we visited the Meagher County Museum and discovered the horse-drawn coach of a great grandfather on display. Due to our status as relatives, we were allowed to ignore the signs and roped off displays, and I burned a roll of film getting photos of all the cousins behind the reins.
Like Haggard, I’m a California native. But as I’ve long said, you don’t choose the place you were born, and often not the place you die. But once you’re out on your own, you do get to choose the place where you live, mostly. A song helped me pick a place years ago. I’ve been having fun ever since.
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