Man I ain’t tryin’ to be nobody, just want a chance to be myself

Apologies to John Cougar Mellencamp, but this has always been the perfect small town song for me

Man I ain’t tryin to be nobody

I grew up in a town of around 5,000 people, in the poorest corner of the state.  Tryin’ to be nobody is the definition of ridiculous.  You are born the child of a rich farmer and you’re somebody.  Or you aren’t, and you’re not anybody.  And nothing you do will change that.

I’m not saying anyone is going to actively prevent you from “being nobody”- opportunities are just limited.

Reconciling my limited ambition with having possibilities open to me since I’ve moved to the city is something I’ve always struggled with.  When I arrived at college I met people from big cities- they had all kinds of ideas of things they might do.  Growing up everyone I knew was in farming or public service.  There was one dentist in my town, no doctors, no lawyers, no accountant’s office (though I did have a friend whose dad was an occasionally employed accountant), no insurance salespeople, none of the regular careers people from the city take for granted.   I mean, some of the people in the neighboring town must have done this things, but in my town, not that I knew of.

Going back to where I grew up recently, I met not one, but two dudes at the club who told me about how they really wanted to make a career in music.  They’re currently doing menial jobs, but they’re working on music in their spare time.  They’ve got dreams.

I didn’t want to poop on their dreams, and be like “give up now, it’s waaaay harder than you think,” because that’s just mean.  But this is the thing about growing up in a small town- any career outside of cop, teacher or tractor driver seems kind of outlandish, so you might as well aim high.

For me, I just didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I was too smart to be a tractor driver.  So I was lost.  I still kind of am.  I’ve never been driven to do anything like some of the people I know.  Maybe it would have been the same if I’d grown up in the city, maybe it wouldn’t.  Who knows.

just want a chance to be myself

I love Dwight’s version of this song.  It’s a pretty sweet mix of southern California culture.  Where I grew up the town was, at the time, pretty split down the middle of white and Mexican people.

I may have told this story before, so skip this paragraph if you’ve heard it, but there was a family in my town that would sometimes hold parties at their house.  They were, by our standards, poor but they had bought a house on some very marginal property along on of the handful of very un-scenic rivers that ran through the valley.  In the backyard they had salvaged some steel and concrete and built a large dancefloor, complete with stage and barbeque area.  They’d have local Mexican bands play music and party into the night.

This is the kind of thing you just can’t do in the city.  There’d be noise complaints, complaints about unpermitted building, complaints about their front yard, which they used as a parking lot.  Country life, in that regard, was pretty awesome.

I hear about rural life being “live and let live” and I suspect that’s true for lots of people, and it’s definitely true that there are no HOAs to make you miserable and when you’re on your own property you can get drunk and blast away with your shotgun just cause you feel like it.

But there’s also life in the fishbowl.  Everyone knows what you’re up to.  At the same time I was never really a part of life there.  My parents were both solidly middle-class workers in an area that had a very tiny middle class.  We had no roots there- having arrived when I was two years old from Orange County.  We didn’t own a farm, I never played football.  I was the oddball whose family lived in Europe for a year and who went off to private school for a couple years in high school.  I did have a chance to be myself there because no one had any expectations for my behavior.  If I’d been from a rich farm family, I don’t think that would have been true.

Who knows?  In the end, you can be yourself wherever you want to.  You just might end up lonely, depending on how “yourself” is.  So I’ve always taken the line

just want a chance to be myself

as a sort of resignation.  I don’t know anything about the songwriter, Mr Homer Joy, beyond what he tells us in the song.  What the song says to me isn’t that he’s an oddball looking for acceptance, but that he’s weary of the pressures of big city life, weary from “a thousand of miles of thumbing.”

I don’t miss my hometown.  My family moved out a long time ago and I’d never move back there.  I don’t even really think of it as my hometown anymore.  It was just somewhere I lived until I was 18.   But sometimes I’m weary from living in the city.  Sometimes I feel like I should have made something more of myself and that growing up in a small town held me back.   Most of the time I don’t want to be nobody.



  1. They just had a Bakersfield exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was cool to read about the music that came out of there.

    1. They definitely had a great mix of rock and roll and honky-tonk country coming out of there. I have a friend who grew up there and I finally got around to asking her about Buck Owens. She said “oh yeah, I saw him around town. I saw that other guy too… what was his name?”
      “Merle Haggard!?!”
      “Oh yeah him too”

  2. Growing up in New York, then moving through various suburban, urban, foreign and now rural environments, this post pushed a bunch of my buttons. Probably because though I was reasonably successful, it was in a profession that didn’t exist when i was growing up and which I would never have chosen.

    I could’ve been more successful, but I was unambitious. Garry was very driven and by all measures, did well. Lots of statuettes and plaques and stuff to commemorate his career,

    Yet here we are. Together, for good or ill. Ironic. We wound up together in the same place even though we took such different paths. Funny about that.

      1. Maybe. Probably. But some are. I know writers who are really aggressive about marketing. Musicians too. That’s how they claw their way to the top. But you, me and a lot of others … we just don’t want it enough to fight for it. We think our talent should be enough. Sadly, it never is.

      2. It really isn’t enough just to be good. It’s hard to hear people say “I’m better than all these people, how come it’s not me on the wall” or on the radio, or whatever. It’s like “I know, but that’s life. Life is not really fair.” I don’t know, I’ve never looked around and said “I’m the best, no one deserves it more than me”. Realistic or not, that’s got to be a big thing an aspiring genius needs.

      3. A lot of people ask me why I don’t write another book. I tell everyone — because it’s true — I don’t see any reason to write a book if I can’t sell it. And unless I’m willing to put in the work, I won’t sell it for sure — and even WITH the work, it would be no better than 50-50. So I blog. If I’m NOT going to make money on authoring, I can much more easily NOT make money blogging.

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