Updated: Apr 1, 2020
The song "Levelland" (1995) was written and recorded by James McMurtry (1962). It has been famously covered by Robert Earl Keen among others. Levelland Texas is my home town so I have always reacted personally to the song. The town sits on the southern Texas high plains about 30 miles west of Lubbock Texas and about 40 miles east of the New Mexico state border. It is in the middle of the Llano Estacado table land or staked plains sitting higher elevation than the rolling plains below with elevations between from 3000 to 5000 feet. The Llano Estacado is believed by scientists to have risen around 70 million years ago as run off from the uplift of the Rockey mountains collected. Levelland and the entire Llano Estacado is wealthy is cotton crops watered mainly from the underground Ogallala Aquifer (which is slowly depleting over time as McMurtry alludes to). Cattle and and other livestock are plentiful as well and oil and gas fields that dot the region. Otherwise I think the greatest wealth of the area is in its unobstructed sunrises, sunsets, blue skies and starry nights.
Levelland and the Lanno Estacado region was home to the Clovis people who lived here around 13,000 years ago and their ancient home and hunting sites have been found, studied and preserved in several places near Clovis, NM and Lubbock Tx. The Comanches were the major residents of the Llano Estacado from around 1500 until permanent European settlement in the late 1800's as the Buffalo were slaughtered by white hunters and large cattle ranches were developed. There were several places near where I lived with many arrow heads and pot shards verifying Comanche camp sites. One of my childhood treasures was a red flint-rock arrowhead that I found near our farm. I appreciate this history and the spirits of this history have always haunted me in a good way as I imagined life for the Clovis and the the Comanche peoples while I walked our farms and recognized that land is passed on from people to people and time to time and is transformed by geology so nothing is really just as we see it at any one time. Earthly permanence is simply the limitations of our human perception, empathy and imagination. McMurtry also alludes to this in the song where he speaks of one day it all blowing away. Of course hopefully not in foreseeable lifetimes, but one day, and McMurtry simply feels the need for change on his own time.
McMurtry grew up mostly in Virginia but his father and grandparents grew up around Archer City, Texas, not too far from Levelland in Texas miles! James is the son of the famous author Larry McMurtry who I have also reviewed in other posts on this blog. James McMurtry has written that this song was actually about a friends life in the town of Floydada Texas. I've spent a lot of time in Floydada and had relatives there. There is not much difference between the two towns and apparently Levelland fit the sound of the song better, so it won out!
One can see this song in various ways; as a negative depiction of a small town relatively isolated place in the world or as a realistic appreciation of the power and remarkableness of the place. I think both views are real, both are known and felt by folks. I guess I feel both ways too, but lean strongly for the latter positive view. I lived in Levelland from birth in 1957 until I left for San Marcos Texas my junior year of college in 1978. I cried on and off all the way from the plains to the hill country! Levelland is my home. My family is there or from there. My earliest friendships were there and many friends till live there. Most firsts in my life that matter were all there, in that small south plains Texas town and in Hockley County.
So McMurtry says "flatter than a table top." That is almost true, certainly to the common eye, there is "nothing as far as you can point your hand, except Levelland.". The high flat plains just go on and on under the bluest skies. As a kid, my dad's old WWII army buddy from Ohio came to visit us, bringing his two boys along. They were honestly scared to be outside in such exposed openness, not even a tree for protection, from the all seeing sky (Or God?)! Ohio may be prairie farm country, yet it's well settled, heavily treed, with lots of flowing rivers and has rolling hills many places, and these folks lived in one of the cities, yet even in the small towns Ohio was like civilization compared to Levelland. A former minister mentor used to tell about when he was assigned to ministry at South Plains College in Levelland that when he and his wife crossed the little grade over the railroad track and turned south down the main street into town, the thought occurred to him that he had literally been sent to the end of the earth to preach the gospel. That is often how Levelland hits many newcomers (beyond here lay monsters!). I think there is some of this sentiment in this song such as "coast to coasters, watch em go, not much here they want to see."
The evocation of a small town, local high school life and marching bands, the starry skies at night, the rolling sprinklers and fields of cotton or wheat, and the idea of the necessity of setting down roots is realistic in this song. And settling down deep roots is relevant if one wants to fit in to Levelland where roots, loyalty and tradition are among the highest values. Also without roots, the wind and sand do blow and will blow you away literally or mentally if you don't prepare and adjust. You learn to tie things down in Levelland or you don;t last long. For me Levelland was all about roots, with my family moving there in late 1924 (Levelland was founded in 1921) and some of us have been there since. It is also about the farmland my father knew when it was still virgin prairie and later became our family home for over 50 years. Indeed, the starry skies and the closeness of the small town, the locals schools, teams, businesses and churches are also happy memories for me.
I will always feel these qualities as positives of Levelland. Yet, I get it, without a connection, most folks from just about anywhere else may not see what I see in Levelland. This could reflect the closed nature of small towns where different can mean strange, can mean odd, can mean to be avoided. On a less intense level, non-flatlanders, often think the flat open plains are ugly and uninviting. To me, the 360 degree openness of the horizon in all directions and the sky that simply surrounds everything, are the most beautiful visions I have ever known. But I can see how this was a developmental vision for me and could not be the same for everyone.
I would possibly still live in Levelland if life circumstances were different. I have been gone for 41 years and think of it every day. I want my ashes scattered on our family farm outside of Levelland (to maybe I'll be blown all over the county and down every street in town!). So why did I leave? A full essay is needed here at least, but Ill just say that the opportunities to learn and then practice the profession of psychology were very limited in Levelland, so its maybe as simple as that; I felt a call to go away to study and work and so here I am. But I love song, it brings a little of my hometown to me when I listen to it. I also highly recommend all of James McMurtry's other writing and singing.