If asked where the cultural capitals of the United States are, most folks would say New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami, Washington D.C., Houston, Seattle, or some other major metropolitan area adjacent to a significant body of water.
I would add three more places to that list: St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia—cities near the shores of one of the most significant bodies of water in the western hemisphere, the Missouri River.
The Missouri communities dotting the banks of the Big Muddy (and the Mighty Mississippi) offer a cultural experience that rivals any region’s in the country. Take mid-Missouri’s Cooper’s Landing for example. I would wager that there is no place in New York City where one can ride a bicycle along an abandoned rail line/state park to a live music venue featuring 100% original music, a campground, authentic Thai cuisine served out of a trailer, and breathtaking, sunset views of the fourth-longest river in the world.
Missouri is a midwestern musical mecca. In my lifetime, I’ve had the good fortune of attending hundreds of live performances by artists such as Aerosmith, Guns ’n’ Roses, Metallica, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakum, The Avett Brothers, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Wilco, Blackberry Smoke, Brandi Carlile, Lake Street Dive, John Mayer, Trombone Shorty, Taj Mahal, and many, many more—all within a few miles of the Missouri River.
In addition to a rich, musical tradition including home-grown talent such as Sheryl Crow, The Bottle Rockets, and Nathaniel Rateliff, Missouri culture includes gifted writers such as Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Melissa Scholes Young. Artists George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Hart Benton, and Walt Disney and poets Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and T.S. Eliot prove that great art and artists are not the exclusive domain of seaside cities.
Despite our indisputable cultural significance, Missourians sometimes suffer from an inferiority complex. We often fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to coastal cultural centers, and even to our fellow flyover states. Iowa is famous for being a wholesome place to raise a family—and corn. Arkansas has the rugged beauty of the Ozarks. Illinois has Chicago. Nebraska has a world-famous zoo and the Little League World Series. Kansas—well, at least we’re not Kansas.
I was at a concert recently, at Columbia’s Rose Music Hall, when I felt, for one of the first times in my adult life, real pride in being a Missourian. The band performing that night was the Kay Brothers, based right here in mid-Mo. Brothers Pat and Bryan Kay, along with band members Molly Healy, Roger Netherton, Lauren Douglas, and Shakin’ Jake Allen, (an indefatigable blur of a mountain man mixed with an equal measure of cuddly teddy bear,) are a self-described “stompgrass” ensemble featuring upright bass, banjo, fiddles, cello, harmonica, guitar, congas, shakers, kick-bass drum, and washboard. Their unique blend of bluegrass, country, and blues music produces a sound that can only be described as “pure Missouri.”
It’s not uncommon to see large flags such as the Stars and Stripes, the stars and bars, and various state flags used as stage backdrops at concerts. But prior to the Kay Brothers’ concert, I don’t recall ever seeing the Missouri state flag prominently displayed during a performance. The band claims that theirs is the largest Missouri state flag in the world. Why did they feel the need to procure such a huge banner? Missouri pride.
Ever since the Civil War, Missouri has been the most politically divided state in the union. Nevertheless, we Missourians embrace our diversity, our culture, and our Missouriness. Everything about that evening at Rose Park was pure Missouri. A delightful July evening. Great, Ozark-inspired music. Delicious Mexican food. Hippies, rednecks, black folks, white folks, men with rainbow-colored beards, women with homemade dresses—all gathered together to dance and sing and celebrate being alive in Missouri.
For those three hours during the show, no one cared about who you voted for in 2016. No one cared about your tattoos. No one cared about whether or not you shaved your legs or face. No one cared about anything except having a good time with good friends and good music. For those three hours, we were all proudly and unapologetically Missourian.
And that’s how I intend to live the rest of my days.