The song is a memory of a childhood in the Midwest, a childhood (we’d say) in poverty, although the point of the song is to question that.
The first line establishes location. “We traveled Kansas and Missouri spreading the good news.” Who are they? A preacher’s family, wearing “pressed clothes and worn-out polished shoes.” Yes, they were poor (the shoes are worn out), yet they wore the dignity of having “pressed clothes.”
The adults are marked by the scarcity of money. It weighs on them, worries them; it shapes all their life. Here is a telling scene:
Dad and me would stop by the store when the day was done / Standin’ at the counter he said, “I forgot to get the peaches, son” / “What kind should I get?” I said to him there where he stood in line / And he answered just like I knew he would: “Go and get the cheapest kind.”
That was their life, that was how they got by: always getting the cheapest kind.
But the refrain swells high over all that:
But the love, the love, the love
It was not the cheapest kind.
It was rich as rich as rich as rich as rich as
Any you could ever find.
Part of the song’s power is that it never says “poor,” it never says “poverty.” There are images that convey vividly their life, their making-do with little, but it is only the hearer (only someone like you or me) who looks at them and sees poverty. By contrast, the song leans into the word “rich”—with that refrain line which slides over any commas—“rich as rich as rich as rich as rich as,” a line repeated (depending on the version you hear) at least four times. Score: Poor, zero; Rich, 20.
“Get the cheapest kind.” We know the impulse. Get the house brand. Look for the sales. It seems virtuous. I have been entertained (this is a true story) at a restaurant where the bill was heading north of a hundred bucks a person, and our host’s refrain throughout dinner was what a good deal we were getting. We know the impulse: but do we get the love?
The singer remembers his grandfather, “rocky as Ozark dirt,” “raisin’ seven children on a little farm in not the best of times. The few things that they got from the store was always just the cheapest kind.” But (here the chorus hits again) the love, the love, the love.
He’s not, I think, romanticizing, nor is he altogether approving. He looks at fancy houses and rich people and turns away, wanting to hold those old hands again, to see those old, deeply-lined faces. He has to cry and he has to laugh when he sees how those lines were carved into those faces from many years of making do with the cheapest kind. He both cries and laughs: crying, perhaps, that they had to have the cheapest kind, and yet laughing at the joy. The love: it was not the cheapest kind.
To love one another in hard times: it is not the cheapest kind.
On the web. “The Cheapest Kind” is a song by Greg Brown, which you can find on YouTube and other such sites. Brown was a frequent guest on the radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” where I first heard this song.