While movies we watch tend to portray life in the “big city” because it’s more practical to film in larger cities, I would say that the settings of Country songs portray what life was like for most of us while growing up, whether the hometown is in the South or not. In fact, I can’t really think of anyone I personally know who grew up in the heart of a big city. Small towns and suburbs seem to be much more relevant to America as I know it, compared to the city life I grew up seeing on John Hughes’ movies set in Chicago (like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Saved by the Bell which was set near Los Angeles. Somewhere between Seinfeld and Little House on the Prairie is the setting of my real life.
Spending my first 18 years in Fort Payne, Alabama, it seemed everyone I knew pretty much knew everything about me. Actually, I should say that everyone knew everything about everyone. There was no avoiding it. I graduated in a class of 183 students, most of whom I knew from at least Kindergarten. Their parents had seen me grow up. We pretty much all went to one of four main churches (either Baptist or Methodist).
Just saying the name “Fort Payne” has the same connotation to me as the word “cousin” or “aunt” or “1st grade teacher”- people who knew me as a kid that cried when E.T. had to leave Elliot to go back to his home planet. People who I could never try to act too cool around- they simply know me too well. That’s what my hometown is to me.
And that’s not a bad thing, at all. There definitely is a unique comfort in a home town. Hence the word “home”.
Back in February, my wife and I had a free weekend so we decided to spend it at a free bed-and-breakfast in Fort Payne (my parents’ house). We noticed how quiet and peaceful the city is. The opposite of the life we often know in Nashville. My wife wanted to take a driving tour of the place, so since I had already shown her the tourist spots (the canyon and the waterfall) I decided to drive her around the neighborhoods I spent time in.
As I drove up the big hill where we as Cub Scouts had a box car race, I saw my friend Alex Igou’s dad working in the yard. My wife was amazed that he knew who I was right away and that we talked a good 10 minutes before we went on our way to get some coffee at the local coffee shop. Which is owned and ran by my other friend Alex Pate’s mom. While there, the other customers who came in also greeted me by name. That caused my wife to say, “Do you know EVERYBODY in this town?!”
Pretty much. Nearly all 13,000 of them. Or I would least be recognized as “Jack Shell’s boy”. I learned that the same reasons an 18-year old kid was ready to leave his small hometown on Graduation Day became the same reasons I found the town endearing today, ten years later.
The town that for a brief time in 1989 held the record for the world’s largest cake. The town that the Country music super-group Alabama put on the map. The town with the self-proclaimed title “Sock Capitol of the World”, which is proudly displayed on the green Fort Payne City Limits sign with the word “capitol” being misspelled. Maybe one day they’ll finally fix that sign.
This article was posted in The Franklin News of Franklin, TX in July 2009.