Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Never Never Land

Day 10 and 11: Nashville

"You're not from Nashville!?" the woman excitedly shrieked. She and her coworker looked at each other as if they had just discovered a new plaything. "You have to take a free sample! These are the best!"

She shoved a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts into my open palms. She was right, they were very tasty. I think the secret, in all seriousness, was that they added a dose of salt to the peanuts.

"Make sure to come see us again!" the excited woman said, "We're open until 5 today!". She smiled so intensely that I was worried, just for a moment, that she was going to pull a jaw muscle. I thanked them both and -quickly- went on my way.

Call me cynical, but this is exactly the kind of over-the-top friendliness that strikes me as potentially disingenuous. I suppose that the people of Nashville are, really, truly, this outgoing and friendly, but something about the demeanor of the city left me feeling like I was in (take your pick) Pleasantville/Spectre/Stepford (as in, "Wives"). The part of me that yearns to be a grizzled writer of investigative travelogues secretly wished that I would find some long-hidden, terrible secret to this city. If there is one, I don't think I found it. Now, I don't know why I was expecting some kind of hurt in this city. Maybe it was because I had just seen, firsthand, the history of pain in Memphis that left me expecting to see the same in Nashville. What I found instead was the complete opposite. Rather, Nashville comes off as a city of joy. To be frank, I have my theories about the true nature of Nashville, but until recently I wasn't sure of what to think.


I've been approaching every city I've visited with an open ear to hear the specific, individualized story that that city wants to tell me. Even cities that I've been to before, I'm entering with a clean slate, trying to hear the overtures that set each city apart from every other American metropolis. What I found in the capital of Tennessee was that the story of Nashville is inextricably linked to the rise of country music in the United States. Admittedly, this was to my chagrin, as I am not now, nor have I ever been particularly fond of the genre. Still, I owed it to Nashville to find out why exactly this place identified so closely with this piece of American culture.

First, some context: The roots of country music were born from the folk songs of the British Isles. Immigrants came to the United States trained in a variety of folk songs and acoustic instruments, more so for recreation than for any other reason. Now, this may come as a surprise, but I suppose if we can get from Bill Haley and the Comets to the Talking Heads in, what, 25, 30 years, then it is entirely possible for "Danny Boy" to slowly transmute into "Oh, Susannah" in just as short of a time. The settlers of the western American frontier brought these songs with them and ingrained them into their culture as the lands expanded towards the Pacific.

Now, here's where things get interesting. We had a pretty rough go of it in the early 20th century. World War I ravaged an entire generation. The Great Depression hit us a scant decade or so later. Of course, there are some that would say prohibition is just as bad as those other events, but that's not for me to say. In any case, times were awful, and our ancestors desperately needed a distraction.

For whatever reason, be it James Fenimore Cooper's "nobel savage" or the advent of "The Lone Ranger" on film or whatever, America fell in love with the romantic notion of the western frontiersman, the settler from years ago who didn't have to deal with fighting the Kaiser or worrying about the economics of New York City. In short: America fell in love with cowboys.

Country music exploded. Radio programs, featuring "opries" started to show up on radio broadcasts everywhere. In the local cinemas, westerns started becoming best sellers. Cowboy culture was a hit. The reason: It was a distraction.

This is understandable. When times are tough, even today, we resort to recreation to take our minds off of wars or economies or whatever is the ill of the hour. What makes the country movement fascinating is that, even years later, the fascination never stopped. America fell in love with The Cowboy and, 70 years later, it is still considered perfectly acceptable in some communities to walk into a business meeting with boots, a belt buckle, and a hat.

(This still strikes me as a completely wild notion. What if, by happenstance, America fell in love with, say, pirate culture in the 1920'a and 30's? Would we have a Shanty Hall of Fame? Would we have songs proclaiming "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Buccaneers"? Would we have PMT- Pirate Music Television? This is all rhetorical, of course. Still, I'm awestruck that we fell in love with a schema and it became perfectly normal for grown men and women to play make-believe).

So, to summarize: America was distraught over various world events, and turned to cowboy culture for relief in the form of escapism. So how does Nashville become the capital of Country culture?

Ever heard of the "Grand Ole Opry"?


In the 1920's, it was not unusual for radio stations to broadcast programs that revolved around country music. One such broadcast, started in 1925 on WSM 650 in Nashville, Tennessee was the "WSM Barn Dance" (later the "Grand Ole Opry"). Now, this wasn't the only country program in the United States. But it was the one that had the most powerful radio tower. With 50,000 watts of broadcast power, the Grand Ole Opry could literally be heard from coast to coast.

From here, Nashville became the capital of country music essentially through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Say you grew up in Reno, Nevada in the 1940's. Whenever you listened to your favorite country program, you heard it was coming directly from Nashville, Tennessee. So, when you decided to try your hand at becoming a country artist, naturally, you went to Nashville. Country musicians came to Nashville because of the country musicians in Nashville. Put another way, Hollywood isn't the only place in the world where they make movies. But if you are a budding actor or actress, where would you go to start your career? With that logic, aspiring country stars have been flocking to Nashville for the better part of a century.


At first, this idea struck me as intensely uncomfortable, which explained my reaction to the friendly women I encountered at the candy store. Think about it: country music rose to popularity as form of escapism. And Nashville was the headquarters of said escapism- country music. So, by that logic, it felt like the entire city was, for lack of a better term, sweeping all of their problems under the rug. Maybe I found my dire secret after all.

But it was then that I realized that Nashville is the perfect and completely necessary counterweight to Memphis. In essence, both cities dealt with a central theme -pain- but reacted in two different ways. The blues and soul of Memphis confronted pain directly, singing about it, coping with it, and fighting against it as best they could. The country music of Nashville encountered similar pains and, instead of fighting it, literally played through it. Where Memphis chose sadness, Nashville chose joy (relax, Johnny Cash fans- there are always exceptions). These two cities are a proverbial yin-yang. They need each other's ideologies, I think, to be themselves.

Whether or not I favor one philosophy over the other is immaterial. What matters is understanding that the cultures borne of these two cities, in my mind, were basically very different responses to the same central stimuli. There is no right or wrong in this equation, only 'different'. Each city plays it's own part in creating the full tapestry of what exactly Tennessee is. And what Tennessee is is this: a state that, in the past 70 years, has been hugely responsible for a huge piece of our musical, and therefore societal, culture.

Knoxville? Mufreesboro? I believe it's your move.

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