Most of my musical memories involve time spent in the car–turning up the volume on a new CD as I gun my engine on a deserted highway, intoning Garth Brooks lyrics while inching home through a blizzard, shouting Blink 182 into the wind on a summer night, crying to the short-lived college station as I sit and wait for my engine to warm. But the musical moment that most spoke to me as a North Dakotan was standing in a bar in Madison the year after I moved to Chicago, listening to a band from Toronto play songs about Alberta.
The Rural Alberta Advantage’s 2008 debut album Hometowns (re-released in 2009 on Saddle Creek) starts with the line “we unbearably left the prairies in my heart,” speaking right to my bewildered homesickness of 2009, and the persistent longing I felt for people and places I always expected to hate forever (“The Ballad of the RAA”). They gave a name to subdivisions and trailer parks left empty and undeveloped after the sudden end of an oil boom (“The Deadroads”), and they perfectly articulate the youthful experience of entertaining wild thoughts of escape (“Edmonton’s just a 4 night bike ride out of town,” from “Four Night Rider”). They draw an invisible line between the interior west and the Great Lakes, and explore the feelings of being torn between the two and finding family in both (“Edmonton,” “The Ballad of the RAA”). I’ve never been to Alberta, but I recognized it immediately.
Coming from a place known mainly for being where Mount Rushmore isn’t, North Dakotans can have a middle child’s craving for attention. Street fests still play Neal McCoy’s mediocre country hit “The Shake” for its shoutout to our state capitol amidst a litany of cities. Strains of Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” echo down high school hallways, Future Farmers of America vocally affirming the desirability of their lifestyle. Songs by actual North Dakotans often feel like state propaganda–like it had never occurred to them to ever contemplate whether they would like to stay or go. It was an incredible moment of catharsis to hear a band honestly wrestle with what it meant to be from a place like this.
More than that, they situated an album about this incredibly specific experience–coming from a rural area in the grips of an oil bust–as a relatable, even universal, experience. Rockslides sat comfortably next to breakups in the emotional vocabulary of “Hometowns.” Even the title speaks to a universal concept: you grow up and experience love and heartbreak, you leave home and are surprised to find you miss it, and maybe you also fixate on long-ago disasters (“Frank, AB”), and eventually bury your last tie to a remote western place (“The Dethbridge in Lethbridge.”)
I came out of their 45-minute set feeling more solid and rooted, like I might make sense as a person, both past and present. I can’t remember another time I was able to so easily hold onto both the place I came from and the place I chose to be. It seemed not only possible but probable to see the shores of both Lake Michigan and the Missouri River as home.
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.