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"Sweet Home Alabama": Southern Culture and the American Search for Community Paul Harvey People magazine, that indispensable source for vital information on Americana, has once again sniffed out the Zeitgeist. In a recent page about celebrity doings, the magazine sums up much about where American culture is heading: Donna Summer, the '70s disco diva who recently signed a long-term contract with Mercury Records, is selling her L.A. ranch and looking for a farm in Nashville. "A lot of people I know are relocating to Nashville—Music Row is one street where there's a real sense of community in the business, not a vicious competition. . . . "I'm not just jumping on the country bandwagon," she says. "I'm getting older now, and I want to be heard, not just danced to."1 The line "I want to be heard, not just danced to" takes on a special significance for those familiar with Summer's musical history. After appearing on the "Midnight Special" television show in the early 1970s and writhing in what were (reputedly) multiple orgasms to her hit song "Love to Love You Baby," she put out a string of disco hits and then faded into obscurity. In an attempt to resurrect her career, she is now gravitating toward the new center of musical power in the nation, Nashville, Tennessee. The Zeitgeist, spotted in San Francisco in 1967, in New York during the yuppie 1980s, and most recently in Seattle, has now moved to the South. It might be said that it has taken up double residence in Nashville and in Atlanta, with summer homes in Charlotte, Miami, and the Mississippi Delta. What explains the surge of national interest, most especially in the literature and popular culture of the South? There are some obvious social and economic reasons for this. The Sun Belt phenomenon has been with us for more than two decades now. The South, as nearly everyone knows, is growing rapidly (at least some parts of the South are) and pulling people, money, and interest its way. In America the Zeitgeist follows money. Sun Belt Community, Family, and Roots The South's central place in American popular culture, however, cannot be reduced to sunbelt boosterism. After the Reagan laissez-faire 1980s, Americans 322Southern Cultures (especially the dominant market group of Americans, those ages thirty-five to fifty-five) are now responding again to the language of community. The baby boomers are having children (creating the so-called "baby boomlet"), returning to church in great numbers, and (not coincidentally) finding in country music (especially "suburban country") a musical expression of their increasingly conservative tastes. One woman who works in the booming country music industry put it this way: "You hear a lot about people going back to churches. People are having kids. Country music reflects their life. As a society people are grasping for something that's safer because everything else is so nuts."2 The American quest for "community ," an ideal around since the Puritans, has currently fixated on the South for reasons having to do with an image of the region conjured up from music, folklore , and movies. The current American obsession with Dixie comes from envisioning the region as one that values community, family, and roots. This image meets the needs of those seeking communal values and traditions wherever they can find them, even if they have to imagine them in the same places where, just a generation ago, white gunmen shot down civil rights protestors on lonely highways and police dogs menaced black children. Southerners themselves, especially in booming urban areas such as Nashville and Atlanta, have wholeheartedly embraced the ethic of American boosterism. Southern politicians and regional promoters in recent years have boasted of the region's entrance into the "American mainstream" even as Americans have "discovered " in the South an exotic alternative to mainstream modern life. As Americans strive to be "southerners," regional boosters would be content to continue dancing to the American illusion of never-ending progress and growth. Politics, Sports, and Music Recently the New York Times Atlanta, Georgia, 1995. Reprinted with the permission of devoted a full-page Spread On DixiePix.Nashville. The city is booming, Harvey...


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