As I drive from your pearly gates
I realize that I just can't stay
All those mountains, they kept you locked inside
And hid the truth from my slighted eyes…
I fell on my knees to kiss your land
But you are so far down
And I can't even see to stand
You forgot the human race
You see with half a mind
What colors hide the face
I'd like to know your fate
I'd like to stay a while
But I've seen your lowered state…
Tennessee, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided into three parts.
East Tennessee is Appalachia; it has two real cities, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Chattanooga has a north Georgia feel to it, while Knoxville was historically the home to the Tennessee Republicans, who ran the state in the Reconstruction years, to be beaten back once the Southern Democrats wrested control of the region from the Damn Yankees, and their fellow travelers, carpetbaggers, in the jargon of resentment. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville is a major presence in the city; some sections are a bit like a southern University Town, perceived by the outlying region as horribly liberal, but really staid and conservative, just with different things to conserve.
West Tennessee is Mississippi River land, and the magnet city for West Tennessee is Memphis, which also serves as the cultural capitol of Mississippi. Cross the Tennessee river heading west towards Memphis and you have entered the Deep South, but I have little experience with the Tennessee version. I've spent far more time in south Georgia than I have in West Tennessee, and that's another kind of Deep South entirely.
There was a time, when I was still strongly connected to the lands of my youth, when I could place a Southerner within about 200 miles of their home by their accent, a South Carolina accent being so different from a North Alabama accent as to be apparent within a sentence or two. It's been a long time and I'm no longer calibrated for playing 'enry 'iggins, and besides, there has been so much southern migration that I doubt the old standards apply.
The third part of Tennessee is Middle Tennessee, and its capitol is also the state capitol, Nashville.
I was born and raised in Middle Tennessee, in Davidson County, and the county government merged with the Nashville city government when I was in high school. We lived primarily in Donelson, a suburb of Nashville, and did not leave until I was 18, with two minor exceptions. Our family lived for about a year in, and near, Greensboro, North Carolina. I started school in a small town outside of Greensboro named Summerfield. We moved back to Nashville two months after I started school, so I was the "new kid" in school in a town that I'd lived in for years.
The last time I was back in Nashville, we discovered that Donelson Elementary School, where I'd spent the first and second grade, had been turned into a nursing home. I briefly flashed on the idea of some fellow who'd attended Donelson Elementary now in that home, and how he might wake up at night terrified that there was going to be a test the next day, and he hadn't studied. Would it come as a relief to discover that he was merely old?
A new elementary school greeted us for the third grade; this was during the feverish construction during the Baby Boom, after all. So I attended Hickman elementary until about six weeks into the sixth grade, when the family moved to Russellville, Kentucky, where we stayed a little less than a year, because the bowling alley that my Dad had been hired to manage, failed. Still, the experience gave him something to put on his resume, so he wound up getting another job as an assistant manager at an alley in Donelson, then got a better job at Pla-Mor Lanes, near a 100 Oaks Shopping Mall off I-65, pretty much in Nashville proper, but not downtown (note the shopping mall). That job lasted until after I'd graduated high school. The family moved to Illinois while I was in college, because my grandmother got sick and (for good reason) Dad did not trust the few remaining relatives to take care of her.
So all of this is basic suburban white boy growing up, southern edition. Except for the wanderlust, if that's what it can be called.
I explored practically every neighborhood in Donelson, on foot, before I was 14. Sometimes I had the excuse of selling candy and cookies, to pay for going to YMCA camp. Sometimes it was to visit friends. But mostly it was just exploring the world. I walked from one end of Donelson to another, a fetch of about 2 miles, maybe 4 or 5 square miles worth of territory to memorize.
When I was eight, my parents gave me the choice of continuing with the Boy Scouts in Donelson, or going to the downtown Nashville YMCA three times a week. It was no contest, really. The Y had a pool, a gym, and it was downtown.
There were probably some rules about where I was allowed to go downtown. Right. That worked. The only thing that really limited my wanderings was the time limits; I did have to catch the bus to get back to Donelson at a reasonable hour. Once I extended the time limit, calling my folks to get permission to go to a movie. I forgot to mention that it was a double feature. By the time I got home my mother was literally worried sick, nearly to the throwing up and needing sedatives to unclench her stomach part. I was careful not to worry her like that again, but it was many years before I realized the sheer courage it took, on an ongoing basis, for her to let me make those trips downtown, at such a young age.
In high school, as a member of the Donelson High Forensics Club (more nerd points for me), I went on numerous trips to other schools, public speaking venues, etc. By then I had a driver's license, and I tended to date girls from other high schools, often from other forensics clubs, because they were smart, verbal, and not from my high school. Oftentimes they were considerably more upscale than I was, so I saw how the other 5% lived pretty often. On the flip side, at the YMCA, then later when I was doing day labor the summer after my freshman year in college, I saw the bottom 5% pretty frequently, too.
The major industries of Nashville are banking and insurance, religious publishing (that Bible in your hotel room had a good chance of being printed in Nashville), and country music/show business, in that order, with the music biz being a distant third. But it gets all the publicity, of course, partly because it runs in part on publicity. Then there's the glamour bit.
There was recently a short-lived "reality show" called "Nashville." I tried watching it once, then fell back and tried to sample it by putting it on a channel surfing rotation. Even that was unbearable. Okay, it's not fair to call it out; one major type of reality show is about putting hot twenty-somethings in some sort of group arrangement and generating whatever salacious interest can be generated. In "Nashville," the group arrangement came from the bunch trying to "make it in the music business," so it was trying to cross pollinate from the other sort of reality show, Ted Mack's…American Idol. The talent part of it was a dismal failure as well.
Robert Altman's "Nashville" suffered from a related definitional problem, though Altman, being a semi-genius, managed to make a decent movie. It had almost nothing to do with Nashville, of course, and everything to do with Los Angeles. Show biz people think that all show biz is like it is in Los Angeles. Maybe it is, but that isn't what Nashville is about.
Nashville, the reality show never got anywhere near to Nashville the city. Altman's Nashville managed one actual touch that rang true: practically every character in the film was in church on Sunday morning. Only the real outsiders were somewhere else.
I stopped going to church when I was 14, after "membership training" in the Methodist Church, and the whole process that was supposed to make me a member for life. Bless my folks for understanding that after all that, it's okay to say, "no more."
I haven't lived in Nashville for years. Maybe the place I knew is gone, but every time I've been back it looks like it's still there. I wonder if anyone sees it but me?
Now I'm leaving - I've got all these debts to pay
You know we all have our dues - I'll pay 'em some other place
I'd never ask that you pay me back
We all arrive with more - I left with less than I had
Your town is made for people passing through
A last chance for a cause I thought I knew
But, Nashville, you tell me what you're gonna do
With all your Southern style - it'll never pull you through
Nashville, I can't place no blame
But if you forget my face I'll never call your name again
(No, never again, never again)
--"Nashville," Amy Ray, The Indigo Girls