Brian Smith

Ah, the South. Just the thought of it wrassles up images of my boyhood in Cleveland, Mississippi. I can close my eyes and fondly recall days spent running around the groves of magnolia trees, barefooted and overalled; a straw hat on my head; a piece of hay in my mouth. We’d play carefree during the hot summer days — that is, when we weren’t tending the crops. And at night, we danced. Oh, dear Lord, how we danced! We’d have a hoedown so darn hoey that you could hear our boots a-stompin’ to those fine country-music fiddles and steel guitars from Natchez all the way to Tupelo! Yep. Mmhmm. You dang right.

Ah, well, that there was some good tall-tale tellin’. Not a single word the truth. I can’t recall having a single thought of the South, not when I was growing up, nor when I was wrestling for my high school team in Cleveland — Ohio, that is. Truth is, I never owned overalls; always had shoes on my feet; couldn’t pick out a magnolia tree from a Christmas tree; and the only time I had hay in my mouth is when Mike Mangino made me eat grass in sixth grade and a few pieces got stuck in my teeth and died. As for dancing, I could do a mean Humpty Dance, much more hip-hop than hoedown. Yep. Mmhmm.

It wasn’t until I left home for college in central Missouri that I was first introduced to what would become one of my favorite genres of music: country. I didn’t know a single person at Orange High School in Cleveland who listened to country, and my buddies and I weren’t exactly passing Conway Twitty cassettes around in Hebrew school.

But when I unpacked my bags in Columbia, Mo., and after my new college buddies brought me to Black and Gold, a hole-in-the-wall tavern that had only country music on the jukebox, I knew that I was a rural southern soul trapped in a northern suburban body.

For four years in the ’90s, many nights were spent at Black and Gold, and many quarters were spent in that jukebox. I became a country-music aficionado, just as comfortable talkin’ ’bout an old outlaw like Waylon Jennings as I was talkin’ ’bout an up-and-comer, like this new guy out of Louisiana named Tim McGraw. On nights when we weren’t listening to the jukebox at B&G, we were listening to live country music — and sometimes, two-stepping with the ladies — at the Silver Bullet bar.

After college, when I moved to New York City, I was worried that I’d revert back to being a country-music-less guy again. Now that I’d seen the light and heard the true-blue American sounds of fellas like Jerry Reed and Kenny Chesney, how could I ever go back to my musically ignorant ways?

Turns out, I didn’t have to. After extensive research on this new thingumajig called the Internet, I found Yogi’s, a real-life country bar on Broadway. It was every bit as Black and Gold as Black and Gold, right down to the bathrooms smelling like Mississippi outhouses. And the jukebox? Country. Every song. Of course, my Cleveland friends were quite off-put when they came to visit me in NYC and instead of goin’ clubbin’ in the East Village, I was taking them to a place that served Pabst in a can on the Upper West Side. I figured they’d never truly “get” country music until there was a song they could geographically relate to.

And then it happened. Sometime in 2005, Kenny Chesney’s single “Anything but Mine” was flying up the country chart. I was listening to a country station on this newish thing called Sirius Satellite Radio (because there wasn’t a single country-music station in New York City) when a lyric hit me. Like a firefly over Lake Texoma, I saw the light: “And in the morning I’m leaving, making my way back to Cleveland/So tonight I hope that I will do just fine/And I don’t see how you could ever be anything but mine.”

I got on the phone and called everyone I knew back home to let them know that we finally did it: Our city made it into a country song. And it worked. My friends told their friends, who told theirs, and before we knew it, country-music stations were popping up in Northeast Ohio. This isn’t a scientific statement, but I think it’s safe to say with 99 percent certainty that I’m single-handedly responsible for every single country-music fan in Cleveland, Ohio.

American Way is goin’ country this issue with megastar Tim McGraw. One of country’s best-selling stars, McGraw’s life is itself a country song, with ups and downs, tales of livin’ good and livin’ hard. And as the ladies will tell you, he ain’t too hard to look at neither. But that’s not all. We’re so country here at the American Way newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, that we’re going to show y’all just what all the fuss is about. Good ol’ American will fly one lucky reader and a guest to Norfolk, Va., where they’ll stay in a grand Hilton hotel and see McGraw live. However, just in case you don't win - and none but one of you will - you can tune to Channel 11 and listen to the best of McGraw, with 32 songs from the country superstar, including 23 No. 1 hits.

Ah, it’s felt so good over the years to know that thanks to one little ol’ line in a Kenny Chesney song, and thanks to my stick-to-itiveness in making sure my hometown finally heard what I’ve been hearin’ since 1995, Cleveland has country. So please do me a favor: Please don’t let the folks back home know that while I was researchin’ this here column, I learned that the Cleveland ­Kenny Chesney was singin’ about eight years ago ain’t Cleveland, Ohio. Turns out it’s Cleveland, Tennessee.

Oy.

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