There’s a long list of famous Montanans extending from David Lynch to daredevil Evel Knievel to Pixar’s Brad Bird, artist Andrea Fraser, L.A. Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson, and actress Myrna Loy. It’s a surprisingly large number considering the state’s relatively small population. There’s just something about a Montana childhood that inspires people to either flee to the nearest big city to escape the claustrophobia of a small town.
Or, to put it more romantically, perhaps staring up at all those Big Sky stars put stars in their eyes permanently. Some dreams extend beyond waiting for the snow to melt and the rivers to rise to float down the Flathead River; sometimes you don’t want to bump into your scuttled prom date every time you step outside in your two coffeeshop town; some lives can’t be lived in the booths at the one gay bar in Butte.
Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that a lot of people leave Montana, trading the sky-scraping Bridger mountains for actual skyscrapers be they in Seattle, New York, or downtown Chicago. But as much as young people tend to flee Kalispell or Billings or White Fish for bigger cities, there’s an equal pull to return. When you grow up under a Montana sky, it’s hard to breathe free anywhere else. Whatever wanton wanderlust drew you to a big city most likely won’t be satisfied until you’re back inhaling the crisp air of the Glaciers or watching the Blackfoot or Yellowstone or Kootenai river roll on by.
When that mood hits–be it in a muggy D.C. metro or a Los Angeles traffic jam–there’s only one song to turn on: Merle Haggard’s 1981 “Big City”. While Merle wasn’t from Montana he somehow managed to find the words to express the demi-urge of fed-up men-and-women everywhere who just want to say goodbye to all that. The song works so well, that you don’t even need to be from Montana for it to work its charms on you.
“Big City” is the song to turn on when you need a soundtrack to drive off into the sunset, when a cheating man or trouble woman gets you down or you want to take this job and shove it and drive through the night until you cross the border into Big Sky country and find some peace under what no less a scribe than John Denver called the “Wild Montana Skies.” It’s the perfect song to crank up on the stereo when you’re driving from Butte to Bozeman with the windows down and the speed limit merely a suggestion.
Thanks to Merle Haggard, now when that big city turns you loose and sets you free, you know where to go–Montana.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.