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Wortham, Texas

Dry County by Bon Jovi

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You can't help but prosper
Where the streets are paved with gold
They say the oil wells ran deeper here
than anybody's known Read full Lyrics
Welcome to Wortham
Economics is complicated. Rock music isn’t. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Rush or some other band composing pop tunes in 12/8 time signatures. Bon Jovi hit mainstream radio in the 1980s with simple yet powerful songs that appealed to the masses.

By now, almost 30 years later, every music fan has heard their music, even if they didn’t realize they were listening to it. With songs like "Livin’ on a Prayer," "Bed of Roses," and "Bad Medicine," the New Jersey band has made millions of dollars and sold millions of records. Their success hasn’t been short-lived by any stretch of the imagination, with 12 studio albums, 3 compilations, and 2 live albums. They’ve performed more than 2,700 concerts in over 50 countries.

With the 1992 release of Keep the Faith, the band tackled a few more socially serious issues. One of the tracks, "Dry County," chronicles a man’s journey to provide for his family in a community struggling to make ends meet when the oil derricks dry up. The narrator is from a failing boomtown and this song is his final plea to any deity who may be listening. He needs to save his family and his life. It’s been suggested by some fans that this song is allegorical and the true meaning is hidden in the subtext: suicide.

Personally, after having played this song dozens of times and reading the lyrics over and over, I find it hard to believe that lyrics so specifically related to a boomtown could mean anything more than that. This song isn’t about suicide; it should be taken at face value. As Bon Jovi toured the United States, there’s no doubt they played venues in the southwestern states. Perhaps on buses, they witnessed the aftermath of such horrible incidents. The agony and turmoil in his voice and words is evident enough.

A boomtown is a community that experiences sudden and rapid growth in both population and economics, typically due to the discovery of a precious resource like gold or oil. The first recorded boomtowns appeared in England, but during the 19th and 20th centuries, they sprang up in the United States, particularly in the southwestern states. California was hit hard following the gold rush while states such as Arizona, Nevada, and Texas were dealt hard blows after all the oil had been mined from beneath the surface.
Wortham, Texas road sign
One such tragedy occurred in Wortham, Texas. Formerly known as Tehuacana, Wortham was originally settled in 1871. During the 1880s, the Houston and Texas Central Railway was planned through the area and in the 1890s, the town boomed. By 1914, Wortham had a cotton-seed oil mill, three cotton gins, two banks, a weekly newspaper, and almost 1,000 residents. 10 years later, they discovered oil. Within three weeks of the first gusher, over 300 rigs were built in the fields surrounding the small town center. In one month, more than 3,500,000 barrels of oil were produced and the yearly total for 1925 was almost 17 million barrels. The population exploded to over 35,000 people.

During the 2010 census, the population of Wortham was 1,073 people. So what happened? How could a town the size of 35,000 dwindle so much in size in less than a century? The answer is a series of events that put Wortham on a downward spiral.

During the population boom, the town lacked adequate housing and facilities to keep up. Infrastructure couldn’t be completed fast enough and even law enforcement had trouble dealing with rowdy oil workers. Within a few years, the Great Depression hit. Cotton prices dropped and the oil fields began to dry out. The investors slowly pulled out of the area, heading for greener pastures, and in April 1932 an earthquake took down most of what remained of the small town.

The decline continued through the '30s and even into the 1980s, around the same time Bon Jovi was selling out stadiums and arenas. By 1986, the year Slippery When Wet was released, only 16 businesses remained in Wortham.

It’s a story all too common. The American boomtown. Get rich quick or die trying. Today Wortham, unfortunately, is almost dead. Bon Jovi, however, lives on.
~ Justin Novelli
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