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Pennsylvania is hard to explain. A new song tries.

Plus, what your town Googled this year.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

December 15, 2023
Inside this edition: What your town Googled this year, toy testers, 'brutal' cheese, and a Pennsylvania musician you should know.
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A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The largest buffet in the U.S. is in Pennsylvania. True or false? 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» Google trends worth gauging: Curious to see what searches were popular in your area? Check out this cool feature from Google.

» Toys worth testing: PennLive (paywall) reports on a place where it feels like Christmas every day: Pennsylvania’s toy inspection office.

» One museum worth visiting: A Doylestown home once owned by theater icon Oscar Hammerstein is being turned into a museum

» One exhibit worth seeing: Step into the shoes of an RMS Titanic passenger at a new science center show in Pittsburgh

» One cheese worth trying: Preferred by cheesesteak aficionados, Cooper Sharp is "brutal" to work with but worth it, Inky (paywall) reports. 

🏆 PA POP QUIZ: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Shapiro’s 1st year, Capitol leaks, ‘zombie’ deer, and holiday gift returns.
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Shapiro burned, rebuilt bridges in 1st year as guv

» Pennsylvania's budget impasse is finally over

» Pa. budget provides cash boost for rural counties

» 100s stranded as demand swamps home repair program

» How Pa. is responding to 'zombie deer disease'

» New insights on Penn State’s inner workings
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An orange-tinted headshot of musician Brittany Ann Tranbaugh, who is looking at the camera with curly red hair and a brightly patterned button-up shirt.
Brittany Ann Tranbaugh. (Photo submitted)

Pennsylvania is complicated. It’s a land of contrasts, of multitudes, of idiosyncrasies.

I have said this before. I have heard this before. But few people have stated it as eloquently as John Lennon Award-winning singer-songwriter Brittany Ann Tranbaugh in her single “Pennsylvania.”  

The folk song is too nuanced to be an anthem. The word majesty appears nowhere in the lyrics.

It offers few comforting illusions about the state where Tranbaugh and some many of you reading this were raised. Instead, it’s about our complicated relationships with “home,” made more so by a pandemic, national politics, and often our own identities.

And it comes just as many of us get ready to head home to the towns and families that made us, where deep stores of memory, emotion, and connected fault lines remain. 

Tranbaugh — who was born in Erie and raised in Easton, and who now calls Philadelphia home — will be headed back to loved ones in the Lehigh Valley.

She spoke with PA Local by phone this week about the song, her very busy year, her holiday playlist for pessimists, her lovely cover of Jackson Emmer and Clint Alphin's "Put A Bow On It (Holidays Are Hard)", queer country labels, and more. 

The conversation has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.

PA Local: I’m something of a Pennsylvania boomeranger and I viscerally heard myself in the lyrics to “Pennsylvania” when you sing, “Go back home and make it better/Your folks are getting older/You feel the pulling of the tether/Rent a row home, grow a garden/Get the old band back together.” Then you describe something that I have not felt as a straight, white male: “At a truck stop out by Ligonier/You said I don't feel so welcome here/Shouldn't we pretend that we're just friends?” How much of this is autobiographical? 

Tranbaugh: I would say this song is semi-autobiographical. My wife and I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, for two years, and the vignette about being at the truck stop out by Ligonier is 100% true. My wife was like, ‘I don't feel safe here. I think we should maybe hide our queerness.’ I started writing that song in 2015 when the presidential election was going on.

And I know a lot of friends who moved back to Pennsylvania during the pandemic, due to economic forces, so I started writing the song in 2015-2016 really thinking about that election and when I finished the song, it was 2022 and I had the pandemic in mind.

PA Local: So it took five or six years to finish? 

Tranbaugh: Yeah, it was just kind of on the backburner. I had it in the Notes app on my phone and I would just sort of like open it up every few months and look at it and chip away at it.

A lot of my songs are like that. They start out as a little seed and hang out for a few years until I know what I really want to say.

PA Local: You're playing a lot of shows — one every few days or so. Is that taxing and what's it like to be, pardon the phrase, an up-and-coming musician here?

Tranbaugh: It's been a big adjustment. I've been playing music professionally since I was a teenager. But it's really, up until this year, been part-time for me. I took a big hiatus from music for a few years and came back to it in 2021. 

It's a tough industry. I'm my own booking agent. I'm my own manager. So, the reason you see so many shows is because that's, you know, that's how I make my money. 

PA Local: Why the break?

Tranbaugh: I was having trouble writing songs. I was feeling a little creatively stifled, and that just kind of brought up a whole identity crisis because I was always the kid who was a singer, you know. That was always my thing. 

I felt if I'm not writing songs and playing shows, who am I? What skills do I have? It got to a point where the few shows that I was playing, I would have panic attacks before them, and I was just like, you know, I need to just step away for a while and try to hone other skills. 

In my 20s I worked a bunch of nonprofit jobs. I became a paralegal and I feel it was really good for me to just be, like, ‘Oh, I'm good at other things.’ And it just helped me come back to music in a more gentle and less precious way. And just as a more balanced person. I also worked on my mental health a lot, which was key, yeah. 

PA Local: Then what happened? 

Tranbaugh: Then I found collaborators who renewed my love for music, and I won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, which was really life-changing. 

I won money for that, and I used that money to record the EP that “Pennsylvania” is on and flew my band out to LA, which was super exciting. And then I got asked to go on some tours and I quit my job as a paralegal in February.

Read the full Q&A here.

Colin Deppen, newsletter editor

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Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

“[Working on this project] is an honor because it's my city and as an artisan it's always good to see your designs come to fruition, actually see it beyond your mind's eye."

Mama Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza of the Kwanzaa Cooperative, on the 9-foot kinara displayed in Philadelphia City Hall for the first time this year

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Ruins along the Elders Run Trail at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, via Pat S. Have a photo you want to share with the whole state? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
Ruins of a stone structure with fallen leaves strewn about.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

It's true. It may be hard to believe, but the biggest buffet in America isn't in Texas or Las Vegas; it's at Shady Maple Smorgasbord in Lancaster County.

Food & Wine said as much in a 2022 piece about the eatery's 200-foot buffet — capable of feeding up to 7,000 people daily, TikTokers included.

Spotlight PA Newsletter Editor Colin Deppen also knows it well and is the proud owner of this cherished souvenir T-shirt

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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