(Ben de la Cour’s new single “Company Town” takes on the dilemmas of small-town America. Get a first listen to the track with the link below. De la Cour’s new album – “The High Cost of Living Strange” – comes out April 6th 2018.)
Small-town America faces a slow suffocation. With an eye test or a fact check, you can see poverty and social dilemmas bearing down on rural America.
For facts, see that suicides in rural America have increased by 40 percent over the last 16 years and deaths by painkiller (opioid) overdose were 2.5 times higher in 2015 than in 1999. Opioids had a hand in 33,000 deaths in 2015, that’s nearly three times higher than the homicide rate for 2014 as reported by the FBI.
For the eye test, see Cairo, Illinois. In the 2001 novel “American Gods” Neil Gaiman gave the town a quiet but diminishing life. Current articles describe it as “abandoned” or “on life support” and highlight its dilapidated buildings.
For an ear check, listen to Ben de la Cour’s new song “Company Town.”
“Company Town” cuts to the core of a lot of the problems in small-town America in an artful way. De la Cour captures small-town strife using a fitting genre, old-style country akin to Steve Earle or Johnny Cash. This is a genre built to tell the melancholy tales and down-to-earth stories of small-town America. Sour strings, strong lead vocals, and steady rhythms make these kinds of songs a platform for stories and emotions.
De la Cour uses the platform pretty well, not trying to preach as much as trying to make one of America’s larger issues relatable. It’s not an easy issue to make relatable, either. Deep social and political problems have divided people and plenty people see small-town America as Trump’s America – – racist and not worth saving. Others see the old, undeniably racist, ’50’s veneer of small-town America as the principal thing to return to. There’s a lot caught up in small-town America.
De la Cour was very intentional about not getting caught up himself, not one to write political songs in the first place.
“I generally try and stay away from political songs. It doesn’t come naturally to me and I feel that when you try and write these big sweeping political wrecking balls, you just come across as an uninformed buffoon, preaching to the choir,” de la Cour writes.
Instead, de la Cour focuses on telling stories as a means to deliver a message. “I hoped that maybe by showing instead of telling I could avoid moralizing or pontificating and just try and do these stories some justice, for whatever it’s worth.”
It’s a stance I agree with and part of how acts like U.S. Girls integrate their message into the art. It makes for good political art.
“Company Town” tells the story of one small, Rust Belt company town that could stand in for thousands. Boiling it down to the message, it makes the point that companies have abandoned towns and totally forgotten about the people that made them. It covers suicide and a loss of identity and people to the point where it takes on an apocalyptic vibe.
“There’s a sinkhole past the cornfield that sucks the good ones in / Man I know it’s there cause when folks leave we never see ’em ’round here again.”
De la Cour is subtle in how he shows rural devastation with stories rather than talk, but the lyrics are still blunt. He drops lines about meth, suicide, and so many other disasters with quick force. It can be a bit upfront but it fits the genre. Subtlety isn’t a necessity in a genre where one of the best-known characters “shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die.”
The instrumentation is pretty simple and all about the strings but that also fits in the genre. The drums mostly keep the rhythm while the fiddle, the guitar, and the vocals shine. De la Cour particularly nails the emotive lines where he can snarl or shake the words. Becky Warren’s background vocals add a pinch of softness and another pinch of depth to the song, too.
The guitar has a pleasant country twang that feels a touch over-produced at spots but works well alongside an energetic fiddle performance. The fiddle subtly makes the song a lot more dynamic and interesting, spiking with the emotion in the vocals but also providing a fluctuating background rhythm that makes for a good contrast with the steady bass and drums.
“Company Town” feels solidly composed, knowing what points to emphasize and how to blend complex and simple parts. It’s folksy and engaging while also telling a pretty important story with more verve than ego. De la Cour set out to make a statement through storytelling and he nails it. “Company Town” makes the plight of small-town America resonate in a way that’s emotive and personal.