Cal Smith: "So Long, Country Bumpkin"

Cal Smith, born Calvin Grant Shofner on April 7, 1932, died on October 10. He was best known for the 1974 hit, "Country Bumpkin." A tangible part of my childhood, the song still echoes in my head whenever pumpkins are displayed or the newest batch of Pumpkin ales hits the store shelves. 

Where I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, the old Blues Brothers adage rang true that there were two kinds of music, "country and western." My parents always listened to country music in our house (My mom preferred '90s country radio) and there was always a bunch of western in there as well.(Mostly from my dad). I remember hearing "Streets of Bakersfield" often drifting from car radios and home stereos. I developed an early attraction to some of these songs, even though years later I would hide it behind a sheen of four chords and punk rock. A secret shadow self of country knowledge and Western Swing bravado remained, only unsheathed for music trivia and in the dark recesses of my bedroom. The aforementioned "Streets of Bakersfield," the Buck Owens original and the Dwight Yoakam remake intermingle through rare thought patterns concerning those years. Something about the melody and story-telling never left me.

Cal Smith's "Country Bumpkin" was one of these songs. Although not as catchy as "Streets," there is something attractive about its simplicity. An old-school classic country story song with the feel of a joke you hear at the bar, Smith supposedly wrote it after being told by a publishing industry type that he was too country. According to Peter Cooper, he was told, "Nobody wants to hear about that frost on the pumpkin." Perhaps this seemingly apocryphal conversation did happen; it definitely shied away from the shaggy dog anecdote it could have been when he turned it into a hit song. For the time, it must have seemed a perfect novelty. As country music was moving further into the mainstream before it ultimately took it over in the 1990s, "Country Bumpkin" readily portrayed the culture clash of the city and the country, the upwardly mobile and poor white trash, or even the friction between Nashville insiders and struggling songwriters. 

Its lyrics are amusing, yet very literate. Smith sings in the chorus, 

"She said "Hello, country bumpkin
How's the frost out on the pumpkin?
I've seen some sights but, man, you're somethin'
Where'd ya come from, country bumpkin?"

These are the types of lines that attracted me as a kid. I felt like the outsider even though I was far from a country bumpkin. Like other jokey country songs that peppered my formative years, (George Jones' "White Lightnin'," Hank Thompson's "Squaws Along the Yukon," and others from the old country radio and Time Life cds that my dad had) I developed a penchant for appreciating good lyrics and classic country melodies. For years I shuffled this under the deck never listening to country, except when it popped up on Wilco or Uncle Tupelo records or snuck into Dylan from the old-timey collection of Harry Smith, wandering through the years via transistor and tube. 

Many of us can thank song writers like Cal Smith for this sort of songwriting magic; it turns up in songs across the popular music spectrum, sneaking in when one least suspects. Perhaps, it is fitting that Cal Smith, after years of writing songs faded from the scene without losing his songwriting power -- his last charting song was "King Lear" in 1986. He was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003. 

Smith's song fittingly travels through the life cycle of a country bumpkin. He meets a woman in the bar, they have a son, then she dies, like the certain cycle of life. Smith will be missed, but he left at the time of year when his legacy shines the brightest. Cow country stations across America are playing his song as a fitting tribute to the man and the season. The frost is starting to glaze pumpkins across the land. The scarecrows are ominously glancing beneath a low hanging sun. Country folks and city slickers are doing an eternal dance.


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