It’s an age-old trope: high school kids who can’t wait to leave their sleepy town for the big city. But as rural America keeps shrinking and urban areas keep growing, the made-for-the-movies scene feels more real than ever. But moving isn’t just about what you discover; it’s also about what you leave behind. And some people can’t move away without being called back home.
I chatted with Whitney Merritt and Josh Casper—two people who left their small southern towns behind, only to end up right back where they feel like they belong.
Where are you from?
Whitney Merritt: I’m from a town in Western Kentucky right off the Ohio River called Owensboro.
Josh Casper: I was actually raised in a small town in south Mississippi called Picayune, but these days I claim Hattiesburg, Mississippi my home town. (Which is about an hour northeast of Picayune, and where I went to college.)
What was it like growing up there? What did you do for fun?
WM: We had the usual bowling alleys and skating rinks. As a teenager I realized our town didn't have much to offer at the time—other than partying, going to Walmart, sitting on a train track trying to lure ghosts, cruising around town, and going to high school football and basketball games.
JC: Like most smaller towns, you learn to make your own fun. We grew up near the Louisiana/Mississippi state line, so cultures kind of blur from time to time. Crawfish in the spring. Swimming in my aunt’s pool in the summer, hiding from horse flies. Fall was spent raking up piles of pine needles and sticking cicada shells on our shirts that we picked off the trees. Winter always meant my birthday and Christmas, so I always looked forward to it. I was also essentially raised in a Southern Baptist church. My parents were always really involved, so it was all I really knew. Most of my friends that I kept throughout high school I met through church and pretty much spent all of our time hanging at each other's houses playing Halo or music. I was really lucky to have a core group of friends that made life really fun.
What was your mindset toward your town? When you talked about living there with your friends, what kind of things did you say about it?
WM: Many people considered it boring, to be honest. We would often drive 45 minutes north to Evansville, Indiana to shop and go eat at new places that town had to offer.
JC: I was ready for something bigger, maybe more challenging. There's something that small Mississippi cities can't give you. They don't attract the bigger things like bands or cool stores—or people for that matter. Most of us were ready to be further away from our parents because at that age, you're ready to get away from all of that control and learn about the bigger world, even if it's a slightly bigger Mississippi town.
When did you move away, where did you go, and why?
WM: I moved away to Nashville in January of 2015. Since I was a little girl, I dreamed of one day chasing my country music dream in Nashville. I ended up working hard, and I applied to Belmont University.
JC: I moved away from Hattiesburg after I finished college in 2008. I moved to Portland, Oregon to get married to a girl who I had met and worked with in India in 2007. We were engaged in 2008 and decided that Portland was a better fit for the both of us and where we were in life.
How long did you live elsewhere? What was it like? How often did you visit home?
WM: I lived in Nashville for four going on five years. At first, it was everything I could ask for, but the fast-paced, "hammer on a wheel" lifestyle caught up with me and my health. Nashville as a tourist and Nashville as a resident are completely different. I lived in Nashville during the boom of it becoming what some people called "the L.A. of the South." The TV show "Nashville" really introduced more and more folks to this great city. That's the thing about it—once you visit the city you don't want to leave. I remember getting out of work or classes and then being stuck in traffic forever. That's what made it feel like I was a hamster on a wheel at times—you were either working or you were stuck in traffic. I felt like I didn't get to enjoy the touristy, fun things to do anymore because I was trying to keep my head above the water.
JC: I lived in Oregon for about five years. It was incredible. I'd never lived in a place with a huge mountain in the distance. I just thought it was the coolest place. There were great places to travel to from Portland. The coast. Mt. Hood. Wine country. You could even get up to Seattle for the day and come back home. The West Coast was just a different kind of cool. I loved how dark and cold it would get. The rain didn't bother me all that much, but it was a great and formative time in my life.
When did you decide to return to your hometown? What caused that decision?
WM: I am stubborn when it comes to my dreams. I didn’t want to give up living in my favorite city over stressful factors such as traffic and cost of living, so I stuck it out for a good while. However, I ended up being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Even that wasn't going to stop me in the beginning. I pushed my body way too hard working at Chick-fil-A in the morning and then heading to work at the Grand Ole Opry. I was bound and determined to not give up. My body had other plans though. There were days I literally couldn't lift my body out of bed. Before this time in my life, I would rarely if ever call off work. It was such a hit on my pride to tell my employers I physically couldn't come to work. Eventually, those call-ins affected my paycheck.I consulted with my parents, and they said I should move home to Kentucky. I wasn't happy with that decision. I fought tooth and nail trying to figure out a way to stay, but there wasn't. I remember sitting in the pews of the Grand Ole Opry on my last day of work—they would have overhead music playing for when tour groups came through. I was sitting there when the song "Happy Trails" by Roy Rogers came on. "Happy trails to you, until we meet again." I took that as a sign. I believe God knew that I was stubborn and that I needed a break from the hustle. I was sad as all get out, but that little song gave me hope that I could still accomplish my dreams—maybe just not in the way I originally planned. Moving home wasn't the end of me.
JC: I decided to come home in 2014. I was at the tail end of a divorce and felt the call to come back home to be a little closer to family and to get my legs back under me. I really just needed some rest and a space to gather myself, and moving home was just that. I didn't have work for a couple of months, but it was really the only thing I could handle after all that change so fast.
How long have you been back in your hometown? What was it like moving back?
WM: I've been home for about three years. My move back was actually amazing and one of the best things to happen to me. I knew I was stressed, but the amount of weight off my shoulders when I came home was incredible. I was still trying to navigate my health issues, but it helped so much to have people to help me out. I got to spend more time with my niece, Journey. I got to rediscover my hometown and see how it wasn't as bad as people made it out to be when I was in my teens.
JC: I've been back in Hattiesburg for about eight years. Some tiny part of me felt like it was a failure to move back into a place I'd left. I was really lucky to have people here that were so happy to have me back in town. At the time, I had been a cook in Portland and really hoped to find a good place to fit in in Hattiesburg. Once I became employed in a new kitchen, I really began to love being back home. I had a place I could dig in and try to make better with my experience in Portland.
How does it feel different living in your hometown as an adult than as a kid? What do you like about it, and what don't you like?
WM: As an adult you see things for how things really are. As a child and teenager, you think that the grass is always greener on the other side. I love my town, and if I ever get bored I can always travel to find what I need. I don't feel as stuck as I did. Maybe that's the main factor that changes—the ability to come and go as you please. I love the familiarity of my town. I feel comfortable here. I don't think I'll ever venture away from Owensboro again, but you never know what life will bring.
JC: It's nice to do the "adult" things and have all your own things in a place that used to look so different. Sometimes I'd wish it would have more things for me personally, but I like that I am able to help change the culture here through what I do at our restaurant.
What has changed about your hometown?
WM: Owensboro has completely transformed since I moved away. I wasn't gone too long, but in that time the town had a major facelift. I feel the city is really trying to provide events for the community now.
JC: Most things are nicer. There are new things that have added a lot to this town, and I hope that keeps more younger people here after they graduate. There are a lot of people here that want to see things be so much better, and I'm happy to be a part of that.
How do you feel about your decision to move back?
WM: I'm so happy I moved home. It was an extremely difficult decision to make, but I now consider it one of the best decisions I've made. I would like to tell people that moving home isn't the end of the world. I can now dedicate more time to my music career here than I could living in Music City itself. What we think is the obvious path is not always the best one.
JC: I never intended to move back. But sometimes life starts to unravel and having a familiar and comfortable place to always come back to gives you a peace that elsewhere can't compare. with. I feel strong about where I am now. It's been a lot of fun (and a lot of work) to bring this city delicious and interesting things, but I feel like it's the most meaningful work I've ever done.