[In celebration of the release of Nick Hornby’s Songbook, we will be publishing brand-new essays all this week on the subject of favorite songs. Read day one.]
You know the way a person’s face looks, when they talk about a place they plan to move to. You can see them seeing their whole new perfect life in that place. It’s practically playing behind their eyes like a movie, like a Frank Capra movie. I’ve seen a lot of those looks — I grew up in a pretty poor place, a place that many people end up having to leave in order to find work. I’ve seen that look on the faces of my friends, I’ve seen it on the faces of my parents, and on my brother’s face, I’ve seen it on my husband’s face, and I know that they’ve all seen it on mine. Ron Sexsmith’s wistful, beautiful, hopeful, hopeless song “Lebanon, Tennessee” sounds just like that look:
I’m going down to Lebanon, Tennessee
From where I stand, it’s as good a place as any
I don’t know anybody there and
Nobody knows me
There’ll be a job in Lebanon, Tennessee
I’ll work on a farm, I’ll work in some factory
And I’ll buy myself a home down there
You can get one pretty cheap
Get off the bus on the border of town
Head in from the East
Walk into a bar, take a seat in the corner
Be a man of mystery.
So far, so good. It seems possible. You want it to happen for this guy, you believe that it can and that it will, even if it hasn’t really happened the way everyone expected it to for your friends, or for your family, or for you. But this guy, this guy sounds like he’s got a chance. And then, of course, comes the catch. Because there’s always a catch and it’s always the same one. The place this guy plans to move to isn’t just a different place; it’s a whole different world:
Folks don’t treat you mean in Lebanon, Tennessee
But like a human being, they’ll take you in off the street
They’ll bring you in their home down there
And give you something to eat
I’m going down to Lebanon, Tennessee.
And now you know why this guy sounds so sad. He’s going, though. He’s really going. And you want him to. And if you were from where I’m from, and if he were sitting across the kitchen table talking to you about this place with that look on his face — a look like a familiar song — you’d reach out and put your hands over his folded ones, like the two of you were keeping something safe inside there. And you’d smile and you’d nod and you’d tell him that it sure sounds good.