Tailgate by The River: How Kenny Chesney and Eric Church Perfectly Portray Small-Town Nostalgia

by Marty Smith
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I chase nostalgia, sweet snippets of yesteryear like smells or sounds that provide time portals to less chaotic calendar pages, with more innocent perspective and heightened senses. Like Eric Church sings about in Springsteen and Talladega

It was the summer before the real world started…

That may be the most perfect, most nostalgic line ever written.

For me, it can be something as simple as campfire smoke. The way it embeds in your clothes and your hair and takes you back to the cornfield bonfire, out by the island in the river you swore your parents couldn’t possibly know about but did. Where you and the boys sat around on muddy tailgates, talking girls and guns and ballgames, shooting arrows at hay bales with a compound bow in the moonlight, while detailing a distinct fear of rejection should you summon the bravery to ask for her number, while simultaneously considering the unsuppressed euphoria you’d experience should she actually take a writing utensil and form those numbers for you on notebook paper. 

And, on top of that, my Lord, the sheer terror of her daddy answering the phone if you actually did dial those numbers she so elegantly scribbled. Somebody mentions the mounting pressure of winning on Friday night. 

You confess that somehow those wins seem to mean more to your daddy than they do to you. Heads nod. Nobody in the group would ever dare admit it, but you all know that if your dads knew you felt that way, it would crush them. You pass around a can of Skoal. And you all know that if your moms knew you were dipping that mess, it would crush them. Hell, y’all don’t even like Skoal. But you’re together. And you’re 17. So, what the hell, right?

Or what about the way the first few bars of Chattahoochee instantly transport you back three decades? One minute you’re idling in suburban car seat carpool line agony, but the next, you’re in a Nowhere, Virginia IGA parking lot, adjacent to the Pizza Hut, listening to Alan holler “Ahhhh-ha!” And it’s three hours to kickoff. 

We laid rubber on the Georgia asphalt…
We got a little crazy, but we never got caught…

Alan’s singing, and in your mind, you’ve traded your current-day RAM or Range Rover, with its limitless NASA-like amenities, for the ’85 Chevy S10 Blazer Outdoorsman you drove in high school, the one that (no-lie) came equipped with a custom Winchester 30-30 rifle and a pair of racks to hang it in the window. She was a two-door, four on the floor diarrhea-gold monsterpiece with an analog Sanyo aftermarket tape deck that constantly drained the battery but never failed you when That Summer or It Sure Is Monday came on WPSK 107.3 FM. 

As you leave carpool, that’s your headspace. And let me tell you, in this crazy 2020, that’s a hell of a sweet place to be on a Friday at 3 p.m. You pull onto the interstate nestled deep within the tranquil confines of that RAM or that Rover, looking in the rearview past three decades of wrinkles on your own face, directly into the twinkle of that sweet little grin on hers. 

You see yourself in those eyes. 

And you think what a long road it’s been to get here from the windows-down hillbilly symphony that was the way-too-damn-expensive-but-man-I-can’t-live-without-‘em BF Goodrich T/As humming on the blacktop like a swarm of cicadas in July.

A gallon of gas back then cost you 89 whole cents at the Super Val-U over in Newport – and if you didn’t have the change just then, Mr. Hudson trusted you to bring it by later. And if you didn’t bring it by later, he knew your old man would swing by soon enough for a pack of Marlboro Lights, an Oatmeal Crème Pie, and a carton of chocolate milk. 

Mr. Hudson kept score. He’d get his money one way or another. And if daddy found out Mr. Hudson was one-up due to your laziness? Son, that was a bad day for you. 

Down by the river on a Friday night…
A pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight…

In most cases, you don’t even know you’re living those moments while you’re in them. It’s nearly impossible to know until years later when it unexpectedly jumps up and bites you. You’re easing down a backroad with the windows down and the kids in the back, now, engulfed in the crisp autumn air, and the scent of an active chimney nearby fills the cab; that distinct smell mixed with chilly air that signals seasonal change. 

The forest bursts in vivid oranges and maroons and golds. The kids say the smoke stinks. You just smile. 

You smile because that smell and that scene place you back on that dirt patch practice field deep within those mountains at dusk, dirty fingernails and a runny nose and a stretched-out sweatshirt that smells like month-old sweat, preparing for the state playoffs, thinking about how you’re going to call that girl. 

Talkin’ ’bout cars and dreamin’ ’bout women…
We never had a plan, just livin’ for the minute…

There is no feeling like that feeling. Young love and the playoffs. 

For a moment your sleepy town is electric. And recalling it makes you feel alive. 

I recently discussed all of this during a speech about my first book, NEVER SETTLE: Sports, Family and the American Soul, with a quarterback club group in Birmingham, Alabama. During the chat, the impact of high school football teams on rural communities was broached. 

I could talk about that all day. Chapter 9 in NEVER SETTLE, entitled “Forever Friday,” centers on this topic. High school football in these communities is vital. It’s the marquee social event of the week. In many cases, it is an identity. It is a unifier. The sociopolitical lines that divide us in our daily walks are erased by the lines on the football field.

And above all, it’s pride. An overwhelming sense of belonging. The whole town pulling in the same direction for the same reasons. The pageantry of the banners and the bandanas and the band. And, of course, the lights. 

No description about the emotional connection between the game and the community compares to that which New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton delivers in the open to Kenny Chesney’s Boys of Fall video. Payton addresses the 2009 Napierville Central High School football team – the same program for which he played nearly three decades prior. The delivery of these words is spiritual.

The powerful speech goes as follows:

“Three claps if we’re ready tonight. *3 claps*

Twenty-seven years ago, I sat in this locker room, just like you guys: on a knee getting ready to play a game. I walk down the locker room; it still smells the same. It takes you back real quick. One of the things that caught me was how fast 27 years go by. 

There’s so many people that live vicariously through you. 

I would give anything, tonight, to jump in one of these uniforms with you guys. 

That feeling goes away. It goes away, and it doesn’t come every Friday night. It comes when you get married, it comes when your child is born. So you get it – but you just don’t get it every Friday night. You’re going to miss that more than anything in the world. That’s what I miss. 

So you seniors that are focused on college, you’re focused on your work after high school… What you’re going to do next… You’re focused on tomorrow, aren’t you?

You’ve got plenty of time for tomorrow. 

But these tonights? They’re going by fast. You focus on tonight. This is about you guys. This is about the guys in this room that care about each other, that know there’s only so many more of these nights left. It’s about you. They’re a faceless opponent. They just happened to draw the short straw tonight. Now, get your asses ready to play!

Win on three. One. Two Three. Win!

Chills, right?

That song was written by Casey Beathard and Dave Turnbull. I know Beathard pretty well, and he told me that song never should have worked commercially. Maybe it might work as ESPN bumper music. But country radio? Never. They said it was too niche and that it wouldn’t resonate with the female listener. Well, last I checked, there are moms, sisters, girlfriends, homecoming queens, and cheerleaders, all fully invested in Friday Nights.

Not surprisingly, Beathard told me the overwhelming correspondence he’s received regarding Boys of Fall, during the decade since its release, is from women moved by the song’s message.

Kenny Chesney has a gift for knowing songs, which is coupled with an equally unique talent to take personal passions and make them universally relatable. That’s a rare combination. And that’s exactly what he did with Boys of Fall. He took a song about the nuances of high school football and made it a life story. 

I don’t know Chesney. But I believe he lives the same emotion that weaves through this piece. The way he details memories suggests a self-awareness within those details. He knows the immense power of nostalgia. And based on some of my favorite Kenny Chesney cuts, I think, like me, he seeks it out…

“Back Where I Come From.” Nostalgic.
“Don’t Happen Twice.” Nostalgic. 
“There Goes My Life.” Nostalgic.
“Don’t Blink.” Nostalgic.
“I Go Back.” Nostalgic.
“I Remember.” Nostalgic.
“Live Those Songs.” Nostalgic.
“Anything But Mine.” Nostalgic. 

One reason I love country music so deeply is its penchant for deft storytelling about small-town sensibilities and the complexity in our simplicity. 

Just because something is simpler doesn’t mean it’s shallower. There’s a lot of pride in that. 

That’s why — even as a husband, father, and professional, who wouldn’t trade his life for anyone else’s — I’m still constantly searching for that tailgate by the river.

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