Column: Sarah Cassidy gives “Small Town” a place in People’s Park Thursday concert series

Sarah Cassidy and her band—Sam Allspaw (bass), Mason Bose (lead guitar), and Brandon Walker (drums). People’s Park, Bloomington, Indiana (June, 24, 2021).

Last Thursday at Kirkwood Avenue and Dunn Street, a driver, who had paused at the four-way stop, yelled out his open car window: “Party on, Wayne!”

The greeting was directed towards Sarah Cassidy, who was between songs with her band. She was performing at People’s Park as part of the city of Bloomington’s summer concert series.

Cassidy did not know the driver. She paused a full beat before shooting back: “Party on, Garth!”

When Cassidy completed the verbal high-five from Wayne’s World, the motorist’s day appeared to have been made. He exclaimed “That’s it!” before continuing on his way through the intersection.

That’s life in a small town like Bloomington, Indiana.

Or depending on your outlook, that’s just life in Bloomington—which is a town that’s plenty big.

Cassidy’s opening set was a mix of covers, like Jewel’s “Who Will Save your Soul?” and her own songs. She was backed by her band—Sam Allspaw (bass), Mason Bose (lead guitar), and Brandon Walker (drums).

Among Thursday’s early group of songs was the first one the 19-year-old Cassidy ever wrote: “Small Town.”

Listening to the words sung live, from across People’s Park, “Small Town” did not sound like a celebration of life in a small town.

Reading the lyrics tends to confirm that first impression. A prominent theme seems to be escape: “Oh, small town, you’re bringing her down / Please just let her go / To where the lights glow.”

It’s a sharp contrast to the kind of place described in John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” which the southern Indiana songwriter released in 1985. Mellencamp’s small town is a place to be remembered, because he “cannot forget the people who love me.”

In Cassidy’s song, a small town sounds like a place you have to leave, if you want to be loved: “Oh, small town, someday she will leave you / And she will be free to / Go where she is loved.”

Over the weekend, Cassidy spoke with The B Square about “Small Town.”

She described it in the context of other songs about small towns, like Mellencamp’s: “A lot of small town songs, country songs, speak fondly of it. But there’s also that other sort of hometown, hive-mind sort of insecurity-fostering vibe, that you get when you grow up in a more rural area, that I think people should talk about.”

The small town where Cassidy grew up is Ellettsville, up the road from Bloomington.

She told The B Square the first time she performed “Small Town” was at Edgewood High School, as a freshman, for the show choir’s spring concert: “Just me and my guitar.”

Cassidy wondered what the reaction might be: “I was thinking while I was up there, ‘Are people gonna be mad at me? Is this too negative?’”

People weren’t mad.

Cassidy described the reaction like this: “After I performed it, the love I got just from my friends, and even from teachers at the school, the principal. Everybody was so encouraging.”

So the line in her song about going “where she is loved” doesn’t have to mean somewhere else besides the small town: “That specific line… I was trying to make it seem, at least in my head, like ‘go where I am loved’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a totally other physical location.”

Cassidy’s take on her own lyrics is that going where you are loved can also mean “just finding, even in your small town where you are, those groups of people, those places where you can go, and people you can be around to make you feel loved.”

At least for the next while, Bloomington is not a place Cassidy is trying to escape.

She’s got two more years of school at Indiana University, where she’s majoring in vocal performance at Jacobs School of Music. This summer she’s working at Airtime Studios, a recording studio north of Bloomington.

Airtime is the place where she recorded “Small Town” for wider distribution, on platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud.

If you want to hear Cassidy sing live, those gigs will appear on the soon-to-be-updated “upcoming shows” section on her website.

The People’s Park summer concert series, every Thursday from 4:30 p.m to 6 p.m., continues through early September.

Government meeting nerds who follow every twist and turn of Bloomington’s board of public works got an early heads-up, in mid-March, about the concert series. That’s when the noise permits to cover all the park concert and movie activity for the summer were requested by the parks department.

Based on transactions recorded in the city’s online financial system, artists performing in the summer concert series receive  $125 in compensation.