His Town, My Town, Our Towns

What a wonderful stroke of luck to be born and grow up in a quaint town like Summerville, South Carolina, with its verdant, lush, flowery neighborhoods and old-fashioned downtown one-story shops and cafes. Of course, nowadays, the nowhere-that’s-everywhere sprawl of Walmarts, strip shopping centers, and hotel chains have grown outward from the town proper, creating traffic tie-ups and spritzing stress. Nevertheless, to live in the Old Village, on Sumter[1] Avenue, let’s say, is to reside in a lovely neighborhood that hasn’t changed significantly in nearly a century. Perhaps terrestrial and architectural beauty counteract humans’ inherent inclination to seek adventure because many natives spend their entire lives in Summerville.

408 Sumter Avenue

These thoughts have come to me this gorgeous May 11th after listening to Robert Earl Keen’s cover of James McMurtry’s minor masterpiece “Levelland,” an anti-ode that dismisses an uninspiring town in west Texas. McMurtry was born in Fort Worth and grew up for the most part in Leesburg, Virginia, the son of the celebrated novelist Larry McMurtry.[2]  Nevertheless, his first-person narrator comes across as a living, breathing human being born and bred in an American wasteland.[3]  Unlike the unrestless denizens of Summerville, he can’t wait to get the hell out of a town that makes Dodge look like an oasis of cultural richness.

from a real estate ad for land for sale in Levelland, TX

Here’s the first stanza:

Flatter than a tabletop
Makes you wonder why they stopped here
Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one
On the great migration west 
Separated from the rest
Though they might have tried their best
They never caught the sun
So they sunk some roots down in the dirt 
To keep from blowin’ off the earth
Built a town around here
And when the dust had all but cleared
They called it Levelland, the pride of man
In Levelland.

What follows is a family history fraught with agricultural hardship and the depletion of the land, his grandaddy growing “dryland wheat,” his daddy growing cotton “so high” that it “sucks the water table dry” while “rolling sprinklers circle round bleedin’ it to the bone.”

He’s seen jets flying overhead and has promised himself he won’t be in Levelland when the soil “dries up and blows away.”

In Keen’s rendering, the last stanza ends in an insistent heroic thrust as the narrator engineers his escape.

Mama used to roll her hair
Back before the central air
We’d sit outside and watch the stars at night
She’d tell me to make a wish
I’d wish we both could fly
Don’t think she’s seen the sky
Since we got the satellite dish and
I can hear the marching band
Doin’ the best they can
They’re playing “Smoke on the Water”, “Joy to the World”
I’ve paid off all my debts
Got some change left over yet and I’m
Gettin’ on a whisper jet
I’m gonna fly as far as I can get from
Levelland, doin’ the best I can
Out in Levelland – imagine that.

I suspect, alas, that even in picturesque Summerville, many mamas haven’t seen the waning of the moon in the nighttime sky since the advent of cable television and social media.

And yes, some of us natives do move away – I, though, only about thirty miles to a town not unlike Summerville, a community with Spanish moss and small shops, though with a greater influx of tourists and many more drinking establishments and restaurants per capita.

Folly Beach isn’t exactly Summerville by the Sea. It’s more like, to echo Winston Foster, aka Yellowman, a “little Key West.”

It, too. is about as flat as you can get, but it’s no Levelland, though; come to think of it, no one has come close to writing such as good song about Summerville or Folly Beach as McMurtry has about the desolation of that West Texas hellhole.


[1] The towns of Sumter and Clemson share the strange linguistic quirk of having an invisible P-sound in their pronunciations.

[2] James went to Woodberry Forrest School and studied English and Spanish at the University of Arizona. By then, his father was back in Texas living in an “little bitty ranch house crammed with 10,000 books.” [BTW, the Wikipedia version of this quote (cited here) irritatingly had the period outside the quotation marks]. But since this post is perhaps riddled with typos, I should perhaps STFU.

[3] Of course, creating true-to-life characters is what fiction’s all about. In this sense, James is Larry’s son.

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