A Christ-Haunted, High-and-Lonesome 'Idol'

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Apr 19, 2006 3:46 PM

As you drive into Rockingham from the North, the North Carolina Speedway looms in front of you. It's the biggest, um, anything for miles. In fact it's about the only anything for miles--a concrete footprint so big it gives the illusion of blotting out the horizon with Goody's Headache Powder and KFC billboards and stories upon stories of steel seating.

US 1 seems to run straight into it. The first time I drove into town, I thought to myself, had the DOT chosen to take US 1 straight into the raceway tunnel, looped it once around the 1-mile oval, and then sent it along its merry way south, it would have been a fitting welcome to Rockingham.

As it is, the DOT seems to have installed a sort of vehicular welcoming committee, which consists of a couple late-70s era automobiles stationed conveniently at the county line, just where the highway goes from passable 4-lane to impossible 2-lane. These welcomers spy someone flying into town at speeds worthy of the Rock and pull out in front of him at roughly 35-40 mph, reminding the newcomer that Rockingham isn't just about racin'.

It's "Small Town Charm in the Fast Lane," as advertised by a faded billboard depicting a quaint neighborhood and a blazing stock car, side by side. The slow-moving bumper of the car in front of you seems to scold, "and don't you forget about the small town part."

Just as US 1 meets the raceway, it swings to the right around the outside of Turn 4 while Hwy. 177 branches to the left around Turn 3, catching the racetrack in a sort of county-wide embrace. The embrace was not tight enough.

The racetrack has been quiet for more than two years now. In 2004, NASCAR moved both of Rockingham's race dates to more lucrative venues in less-saturated markets, like Kansas and California-- long tracks where NASCAR could seat 100,000 and folks could pay to fill the seats. With the races went a large part of the county's economy, a symbol of pride, and an icon.

A quiet racetrack is an eerie thing. The sounds of raceday are so loud, they can make your eyeballs shake in your head. In their absence, your brain fills in the incongruous silence with the ghostly reverb of races past. On the east and west sides of the track, the grainy soil of the Sandhills blows freely while arrow-straight Loblolly pines strain to hold it down without the assistance of 1,000 airbrushed RVs and pig-cookers.

Rockingham was sad about losing the races, but not surprised.

Bucky Covington's father delivered the standard line on "American Idol," saying with a resigned half-shrug "well, they got to go where the money is and we understand that."

The money is not in Rockingham, and losing the race hurt, just as losing the textile mills hurt, and losing in the high-school football quarter-finals hurt.

But the people of Rockingham, like any other small, proud American town, suffered the loss of jobs and started businesses. They suffered the loss of a football championship and started talking about "next year, boys." They suffered the loss of a race and found a native son to make them proud.

Now, when you drive into the county, just past the racetrack, there's a homemade banner hung on a horse fence that reads, "Welcome to Richmond County. Home of Bucky Covington."

Bucky Covington was eliminated from "American Idol" last week. He's on the "Idol" tour this summer and is planning to go to Nashville in the fall to pursue his career. Yesterday and today, he made the morning talk show rounds, and to use a fitting phrase-- bless his little heart, he is precious! A couple of choice quotes from his post-elimination press:

On an appearance on Fox's "Dayside," on which all the Miss America contestants also appeared, he was asked about his wife:

"She's my little Miss America."

On "Fox & Friends," when asked about being a nice guy in the cutthroat world of reality TV:

"Well, it's a lot different from what I'm used to, back home in the body shop. There, if I wanted to paint a car, I just painted the car."

On his fans and critics:

“It’s amazing how some people can love you so much, but somebody else can just hate your guts. Thank God people are different. But if we were all the same, we’d all live in Rockingham and love country music. But that would be too crowded for me.”

You can see some of his appearances on YouTube, during which he sings an arrangement of "Superstition." He seems more at ease now that he's not competing.

I don't tell y'all all this to bore you with more Bucky blogging. I know he's not everyone's thing, nor is "American Idol," for that matter.

But I read this Washington Post article on the overwhelming Y'all Factor of "American Idol," and it got me thinking. I had noticed it before this year, and was always proud.

For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated -- thoroughly, totally and completely -- by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA. Seven of the eight top-two finishers in the first four years were from states that once formed the Confederacy, and five of the seven remaining finalists this season are, too...

Home towns of winners and runners-up: Burleson, Tex. Columbus and Snellville, Ga. Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala. Chapel Hill and High Point, N.C. The lone outsider in the top tier, last year's winner, Carrie Underwood, only emphasizes the point -- she hails from Checotah, Okla. (pop. 3,400). This is Merle Haggard, "Okie From Muskogee" territory. We say that in the good sense...

To emphasize Southern Idol, consider: Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina have less than 10 percent of the national population but have produced 75 percent of the top pairs. This season, those states have four of the seven finalists.

So, why? The Post throws around a couple of ideas. Is it Southern culture?

"There's still an awful lot of old-school singers who got their starts in church, and many mainstream country musicians still do a gospel album," said John Reed Shelton, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and one of the region's most respected observers. "Everybody tends to go to church, and Southern evangelical Protestantism, both black and white, emphasizes and rewards musical performance."

Are Southerners stuffing the ballot box? Turns out, no:

Greensboro-High Point: 218,000 households. Birmingham: 234,000. Atlanta: 642,000.

By comparison, "Idol" scored higher in 40 other markets before New York shows up. It pulled a 24 percent share in Gotham. But that translates into 1.1 million households -- and potential voters. In Los Angeles, the show rated even lower, at 21 percent, but that still meant 773,000 households.

A music critic from Raleigh is quoted as saying "American Idol" is more about the drama than the music. It's true. "American Idol" contestants have to have a story to tell, sometimes a character to play, something that makes them more than singers.

That's why I told you that story about Rockingham and Bucky. The American public loves the underdog, one-shot-in-a-million guy. The smaller the hometown, the less likely the singer was ever going to be noticed without "American Idol." And that is, after all, the narrative of "American Idol"-- giving a shot at fame to regular Americans from Hicksville, as the Post puts it.

Could it be that a Southern accent carries with it the story of small-town-boy-makes-good in a way that other accents don't? If America likes the idea of taking folks from pickin' on the back porch to a record deal in Hollywood, could it be that a pair of boots speaks of that possibility? That a twang communicates all the Christ-haunting and race-scarring and the blues and the jazz and the high-and-lonesome of the South's sometimes sad history?

It always has for me, but it never occurred to me that other folks might get the same message.

The speedway has been quiet for more than two years now, but it doesn't always have to be. It makes a great concert venue. When I heard Bucky on "American Idol," I could hear way off in the distance, blowing in the stinging wind of the Carolina Sandhills, the possibility that the racetrack might sing again someday, and with it the little town that NASCAR left.

How can you not vote for a story like that?

Congrats and best of luck to Bucky and his family.

This will likely be the end of my "Idol" blogging, but check in with Ann Althouse and Sarah K for updates from now on.

And, yeah, I do get a little homesick sometimes. Why ever would you ask?