Hometowns are a frequent recurring theme in country music, sometimes acting as a comforting, familiar presence or shelter from more worldly sources of anxiety. The topic gets most interesting when artists strain against those borders, whether due to painful memories (Sam Hunt’s “Break Up in a Small Town”) or the fear of succumbing to inertia (Kacey Musgraves’ biting “Merry Go Round”).
Drag superstar Trixie Mattel takes a similar tack on her new song “This Town,” released last week as the latest single from the upcoming Blonde and Pink Albums and featuring Shakey Graves. With its fingerstyle guitar parts recalling Musgraves’ breakout song as well as John Prine’s work, the vibe here is purely bittersweet. Mattel, who isn’t a flashy vocalist but has a nice warm timbre, initially looks fondly back on how she “used to drive about 70 late at night” and the police wouldn’t bother to stop her.
There’s also a dark side to this idyllic setting, where abuse is happening as a matter of routine and most people aren’t afforded the choice of leaving. “You either work the land or the fiberglass plant in town/You maybe got out or you never did settle down,” Mattel sings. Sometimes for queer kids, though, getting out of that environment is a matter of life or death.
Mattel was one who did get out, obviously, and “This Town” feels a little like that strange sensation of returning to one’s hometown after years of being away. The memories are harder to bring into focus, and one’s old self may look like a complete stranger. Texas singer-songwriter Graves alludes to this in the third and final verse. “You changed your name and you can’t go home/Never been so close so far away,” he sings. “It feels like/Ooo,” the two harmonize in the chorus, as if trying to articulate a thought that’s just out of reach. Fittingly, the video features old footage of young, pre-fame Mattel (then known only as Brian Firkus) playing guitar along with landscape shots of her Wausaukee, Wisconsin, hometown.
In the last decade and change, the idea of hometown has often been co-opted for nostalgic purposes by bland white mainstream country dudes who haven’t bothered to fully investigate any of their subject’s complexity. Not so for Mattel’s latest, which is as searing and unsentimental an account as you’re likely to find.
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