We spend too much time worrying about jobs that come and go when the real wealth of a community can be found in the things that last.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in rural Ashe County, North Carolina, listening to three young people keeping the bluegrass tradition alive. The audience consisted equally of John Deere cap wearing natives and interlopers dancing half naked in sarongs. (Please note these were people that decidedly did not need to be half naked, much less wearing sarongs).
A trio singing a typical mountain tune about murdering a spurned lover is enough to make anyone reflective, and the vigor in which the Surefire Bluegrass Band played gave me hope that the creative economy that I see as a development strategy for rural regions is alive and prospering. So when I got back to Chapel Hill, home to a vibrant music scene itself, I found myself looking to music for inspiration.
I just didn’t know that search would take to me to towns a four-night bike ride from Edmonton, Alberta.
OK, so I didn’t actually hop the next Air Canada flight to the Great White North. My journey, like most trips I take these days, occurred strictly through cyberspace. Occasionally — well, maybe often — I visit music blogs and I’m often attracted to intriguing band names. When I saw a band called the “The Rural Alberta Advantage,” I figured it was a sign that I should listen.
I’ll get to the music later, but first about the name—a name that warms the heart of anyone who works in economic development. A few years ago, the Premier of Alberta decided that what was needed to spur growth was not necessarily investment in infrastructure, schools, or entrepreneurship but a good slogan. (The Canadians may have better health care than us but it is nice to know that their politicians still view economic development in the same insubstantial way as we do in the good ole USA).
He decided to promote the “Alberta Advantage”— come to the Canadian prairie to enjoy the advantage of low taxes, a business friendly environment and, of course, the place where black gold flows. But for Nils Edenloff, the lead singer/lyricist for “The Rural Alberta Advantage,” the strength of Alberta lay in the small towns and farms that make up the heart of the province.
From what I know about Alberta, it may be the most similar to the U.S. of all the Canadian provinces. It is consistently the most conservative, which of course, means that it only would be cyan colored rather than the rich dark blue that Ontario or British Columbia would be if they were painted with the American political palette. Sure they love hockey, but Alberta is also home to the Calgary Stampede, where rodeo riders from North America travel to rope calves and ride bulls and broncs. Life in rural Alberta seems to be much like life in much of the rural U.S.
And that gets us back to the songs on the Rural Alberta Advantage’s album.
Let’s focus on the name of the album, “Hometowns.” The hometowns Nils Edenloff sings about are filled with the beauty, isolation and familiarity that are endemic to rural communities. Songs like “The Deadroads” speak to chasing lost love among the backstreets of farm towns while the “The Ballad of the RAA” longs for the “prairie of the heart.” And of course, like all great rural music, the Rural Alberta Advantage recounts the hard times of life in small town North America.
The song “Frank, AB” chronicles an epic mining disaster that leveled a rural community in 1903, leaving a geographic ruin, now a haunting tourist attraction. The characters in “Hometowns” dream of city life, in this case the metropolis of Edmonton, which in “Four Night Rider,” a short four-night bike ride away on his trusty Schwinn.
The instrumentation itself evokes traditional music albeit performed in a style more akin to modern rock than bluegrass. (I didn’t hear a lot of glockenspiel at the festival in Ashe County.) Hannah Levine in L Magazine said the band’s sound “is the happy, heartbreaking kind of sad that will either leave you in tears or drunk-dialing ex-girlfriends.” Hey, many a rural bluesmen made it big with music that made you long for lost love.
The Rural Alberta Advantage is not the first band to tackle the images of rural life. And given that two-thirds of the band actually grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, couldn’t their bonafides be called into question? Why then did their music speak so much to me and make me think of the work I do and why I find such reward in helping rural communities plot their economic future? Certainly, the words make me understand the continued allure of rural life.
And all these things will pass
It’s the good ones that will last
And right here what we’ve had
Is a good thing, and it will last
“The Ballad of the RAA” is about life on the prairie if you are from Alberta or Nebraska. It’s also about the mountains if you are from the Rockies or Appalachia and the river if you are from Mississippi. While cities are home to constant and new struggles, rural life, although certainly not always idyllic, remains often the last best good thing that we can hold on to.
Indeed, holding on to the things that “will last” is at the core of economic development. So many towns chase after factory jobs. But while branch plants come and go, the things that will last are the things that are created in the community. This “creative economy” is often a community’s most important asset — the minds and imaginations of their citizens. We encourage people to buy new designs, new art, and yes, new music that reflects the community in which it was created, partly because that’s development that will be around after the latest factory shutdown.
I don’t want to oversell this band that most of you have never heard of — I don’t think a Rolling Stone cover is in their immediate future or even the cover of Economic Development Quarterly. For many of you, your epiphany about rural life may come in listening to Robert Johnson at the Crossroads or maybe reading Annie Proulx on the mountains of Wyoming. But whatever your choice of media, art, both traditional and new, can speak to the rural condition and help us move forward. Even if we stop to check our favorite music blogs every once in a while.