All things considered, I’d say I’m not that well-traveled within the continental U.S. and have never been to Alaska. Unlike Johnny Cash, I ain’t been everywhere, man. In fact, there’s much of South Carolina I haven’t seen.
Never been to Cash’s home state of Arkansas. All my Gilbreth ancestors are from Maine and I’ve never set foot there. Never been to Texas, the upper Midwest (except Chicago), much of California, Oregon, Vermont, yada yada. I do know the I-95 corridor from Miami to approximately Boston but little off its beaten path. I know western North Carolina and have been to Raleigh/Durham once and Cape Hatteras once.
Never been to upstate New York, the Florida Panhandle, the Ozarks, Yosemite, Dakota or the Great Lakes (except the portion of Lake Michigan bordering Chicago.) My father was a University of Michigan graduate, class of 1934 — never been there, nor Minnesota or Wisconsin. Never seen the Virginia Tidewater, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Mississippi Delta and, with the exception of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, no other national parks in that state or in the states of Utah and New Mexico.
So there’s a lot left for me to see right here in continental U.S. Accordingly — and just because there’s a direct Southwest flight — we took a weekend trip to Nashville, Tenn., a couple of weeks ago, literally a 48-hour jaunt that started Friday evening and concluded two days later. My previous experience with Tennessee is as follows: Trudging the Appalachian Trail straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border between Newfound Gap and Fontana Dam during the summers of 1967 and 1968 while a camper at Camp Flintlock; driving through the state January 1976 for an off-campus college project; and taking my son to the University of the South at Sewanee for an interview in the fall of 2015 — and that’s it.
Even though Minnie Pearl wasn’t able to greet us personally with her trademark “Howdeeee!” at the Nashville International Airport, we felt nonetheless welcome if not a bit out of place — speaking for myself, that is. I was still wearing a necktie and had put on a blazer following the better part of a day at the doctor’s office and had the startling realization that, dude, you’re the only person in a city of 1.8 million people wearing a jacket and tie on a Friday evening when everybody else is wearing blue jeans and boots.
Nashville folks are polite and well-mannered. Of course, as is the case with Charleston, most of them are “from off” yet have nonetheless been able to settle into sort of a laid back and comfortable vibe.
We complain about growing pains here in Charleston. What we have is nothing compared to what’s happening in Nashville, a city that received 35,000 new inhabitants last year alone, averaging out to nearly 100 every single day. Skyscrapers pierce the downtown horizon and cranes are everywhere trying to catch up with housing and infrastructure demands. I don’t believe we spoke with one true local, a subset of individuals referred to by a young lady serving us dinner at Etch Restaurant as “unicorns,” signifying their mythical and fantastic stature in a sea of newcomers.
None of that mattered to us so much as tapping (no pun intended) into the Nashville’s legendary music and honkytonk scene along historic “Broadway,” the South’s ultimate for nonstop entertainment, rivaled only by Bourbon Street in New Orleans (although I haven’t been to Memphis or Muscle Shoals). Honestly, people talk about “making it” in the Big Apple, or Hollywood, or wherever, but I can’t imagine the stress of trying to make it in Nashville, where everybody is a virtuoso instrumentalist, or vocalist, or both.
The term “honkytonk” used to connote seedy, rowdy, smoke-filled juke joints where a fisticuff was all part of a good night’s entertainment. Now it’s all about the highest standards of musical professionalism and Broadway is a whirling, kaleidoscopic maze of neon and music, one door after another.
It’s incredible, as is the nearby Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974 and still serving as its primary venue during off-season months. We were lucky to catch the second night of the off-season — no household names but most entertaining and performers such as John Conlee, Don Schlitz, The Swon Brothers, The Whites, and Jess McReynolds might ring a bell for some.
As was made abundantly clear in Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Country Music”, Nashville is a sophisticated place and reluctantly came to be identified with a brand of music that’s now its lifeblood. After all, there aren’t too many cites with full scale replicas of the Parthenon or universities on a level with that of Vanderbilt. I’m looking forward to going back — if I’m not too distracted by other locations that I haven’t visited yet.
Erratum: I made a big mistake in last week’s column crediting the wrong person who worked with Dr. Jack Simmons to get Act 388 passed. The correct individual was the late Emerson Read (not the late Marion Reid.)