Rodney Heats Up the Country Charts

...And headliner Rodney Atkins, whose chart-toppers include "These Are My People," in which the singer from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., flies the flag for the rural South, declaring: "These are my people/This is where I come from."

"The essence of the song is that we're in this together," Atkins says in an interview. "That's what country music is; it's about giving folks something they can relate to, and it's about that sense of community. But it really doesn't matter where you're from."

No? So somebody who was born and raised in a big Northern city or suburb -- like, say, Rockville, where country station WMZQ-FM is based -- can relate?
"Without a doubt," says Atkins, who argues that "These Are My People" includes some universally applicable lyrics and, therefore, is for everybody. (At least everybody who grew up down by the railroad tracks, shooting BBs at old beer cans, playing church-league softball and singing "loud and proud" to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Southern rock anthems.)

"The funny thing about it is that Rivers Rutherford was one of the songwriters on that, and he grew up in Memphis, which is a big city. He wrote it with a guy named Dave Berg, who grew up in Portland, Oregon. But they came up with a song that I could really relate to, and I grew up in a town of 1,500 people in East Tennessee."

Says Meg Stevens, the WMZQ program director: "It's a global theme: Wherever you're from, that's your place. You see what's happening with the economy and what's going on in the world, and people are getting in closer to their roots and their community, whether you're from rural Virginia or downtown D.C."

But the Atkins song and others of its ilk -- from Jason Aldean's "Hicktown" and Miranda Lambert's "Famous in a Small Town" to Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried" and Josh Turner's "Way Down South" -- are narrowcasting to a specific community: the core country audience, whose roots aren't exactly in America's urban centers.

The symbolism and prideful sentiments of the songs are intended to create a sense of belonging among people with similar backgrounds and lifestyles, or at least people who romanticize life in the rural South. (It's not a place; it's a state of mind.) To some listeners, though, it might sound as if the artists are closing ranks.

"Some of these songs seem to fall into the 'we're from Real America, and you're not' camp," says Peter Cooper, who covers country music for Nashville's daily newspaper, the Tennessean. "Seems like being divisive while the industry around you crumbles is a poor decision."

Atkins's latest chart-topper, "It's America," is actually a more generalized celebration of nationalism via a checklist of all things Americana: a high school prom, a Springsteen song, a man on the moon, fireflies in June. But more typical of his fare is "About the South," which is exactly that, and "In the Middle," in which he sings of "a way of life worth fighting for."...