The trip from Memphis to Nashville, Tennessee, is an easy three hour or so drive along Interstate 40. Mostly forest and farmland line the highway. Cotton fields turn into cattle grazing on rolling hills and along the way you cross some lazy rivers where you can imagine a Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer casting a line. There are also many reminders of the antebellum south and the bloody role this landscape played during the Civil War.
When I stop at a roadside rest stop, there is an accompanying historical society information center inside, staffed with eager retiree docents. As a history buff, I am intrigued to learn where nearby battle fields are, but I as a progressive thinking American, I am also repulsed by the enthusiasm for history which can so easily turn into glorification of the past which easily turns into desire for past ways of thinking and overt racism.
I grew up in Dover, Delaware, a border state during the Civil War. I had a relative – an immigrant from Ireland – who, the story goes, joined the Confederate Army one day to get a free woolen uniform and a rifle, and then the following week deserted the Confederacy, walked a few miles north, and joined the Union Army for a second uniform and rifle. Thankfully, he remained in the Union Army and fought heroically for the country. Or so the story goes….
As a child, I remember learning about the Civil War and I distinctly recall my teacher emphasizing the “fact” that the war wasn’t fought over slavery, but over state’s rights. Hmm. Now, I realize of course, I was being fed a line that unfortunately, many white Southerners still adhere to as they try to clean up their brutally racist past and “white-wash” their image. Sorry. But this revisionist crap doesn’t fly and yet, here I stand at the Tennessee historical kiosk in the rest stop reading a similar line of bullshit. Clearly, we have a ways to go in the South, but more and more people are rising up and calling BS. Hell, even South Carolina took down the Confederate Flag from their state house. In 2015! But it’s something, I suppose.
Back on the road, the Interstate enters the suburban sprawl of Nashville, or Music City as it is known now. This city is booming. More people are moving here on a daily basis than practically any other US city. Approximately 100 people per day move to this metropolis with an estimated 1 million more to arrive before 2040. Because of this, construction is out of control. Skyscrapers (including one that looks like Bat Man and another that looks like a guitar lying on its side) already dominate the skyline and now, cranes are everywhere you look as new buildings go up. It is a city bursting at its seems.
And it is pricey! Many of the new arrivals works for the music or insurance industries, but also a large portion of these people are celebrities. Not only famous musicians live here, but movie stars like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. They move here for its homey southern charm, but also because of the strict anti-stalking laws that make it impossible for paparazzi to follow them into the Whole Foods. It is common, or so I am told by my Uber driver, to see the likes of Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift at the local cafe on a night out.
I want to test out that theory, so after checking into the most depressing and dark motel room in Nashville (the Motel 6 near the highway and Waffle House), call up an Uber to take me into town for a bite to eat. Having skipped lunch, I am starving by 4 PM, and conveniently, Nashville loves a happy hour bargain as much as I do, so I first drive my car over to the shopping mall where the Grand Ole Opry is now located, park, buy a ticket to the late show, and order up the Uber.
I have a full night planned: first over to Etch for dinner, then walk around the honky tonks on Broadway, and later Uber back to the Grand Ole Opry for the 9:30 show. My Uber driver is a both a DJ and record producer and now has to drive an Uber to make ends meet. He is about my age, so I wonder if he hasn’t been upstaged by a younger, more hungry generation now arriving in Music City.
We chat about the exploding growth of Nashville and the accompanying traffic issues as we pass by stadiums, concert halls and halls of fame. Downtown Nashville is hoping. There are multiple large concerts and sports events happening this night (Phish at the Amphitheater, Jason Isbell at the Ryman, and the Nashville Predators at the Arena) so the town is bustling with pre-show activities. Because of this, I am lucky to arrive at Etch early and score a sweet spot at the end of bar. From my perch, I have full view of the glitterati of Nashville as they arrive for dinner, and I also have a nice view of the TV where, after asking the bartender if he wouldn’t mind putting on the World Series, he replies with pride, “No problem. We love the Red Sox and Mookie Betts.” I then remember that Mookie is a Nashvillian and I instantly feel at home. Red Sox Nation is alive and well in Tennessee. Thank you, Mookie.
I order from the happy hour menu and am surprised by the amount of food I get for half the usual price. And it is so good! The roasted cauliflower and Octopus bruschette are delicious, and the smokey margarita perfect. I could grow to like this place!
More patrons bustle in and the bar fills up with a cheerful and talkative crowd. They are well-healed and many are waiting for reserved tables, but I’m happy at the bar, talking to the bartender and assorted others about the Red Sox and travel. By the time I finish my dinner, the place is packed and I’m ready to leave the bourgeoise for the hoi-polloi.
Back out on the city streets, I pass hockey fans in Predator jerseys on their way to the game, and tie-died fans of Phish heading in the opposite direction to their concert. It is a lively landscape that gets even livelier when I walk down to the famed Broadway, where numerous bars, or honky-tonks, open their windows and doors to let the live music floats out in order to coax the passerby to come inside.
The honky-tonks of Nashville are famous for being incubators of future pop and country stars. Here, young musicians clamor to perform for tips in the hopes that a record producer will come in and discover them. And it happens all the time. Just a few years ago, the likes of Carrie Underwood and Sturgill Simpson might be found strumming at one of these bars. Tonight, I wander in and out of bars where every musician or band is playing at a professional level with crowds of people tapping their feet and encouraging them with cheers and tips in the ubiquitous tips jars.
Also, along this crowded strip near the Cumberland River, there are shops selling western wear, cowboy boots, and records. One of the more famous is the Ernest Tubbs Record Store, where Mr. Tubbs held sway at his midnight jamborees with performers like Loretta Lynne. In the back of the store, there is a small stage with Loretta’s famous blue dress. Magical.
I check my phone and realize I have to high-tail it back to the Opry for my show. I order up another Uber and within minutes, I am on my way. This time, my driver is a young father and a immigrant from Nigeria. I ask him if he will vote in the upcoming election. While he can, he says that he won’t and when I press him why, his answer astonishes and disturbs me. He says that he believes that the devil is in charge and we have no power to change this. His logic is impossible to follow, but I realize quickly that he has fallen under the power of some evangelical group and has given up his agency to this false prophet. I try my best to convince him that even if he does believe this, he should still vote, if not for his rights as a citizen, but for his daughters, who will need to grow up in a country that either values its people or takes advantage of them. I might have gotten through a bit, but the ride is short and religion powerful. I sigh as I leave his car and head to the line forming outside the Opry.
In line, I stand next to two young men in their early 20’s. I start a conversation with them by asking if I am in the correct line. We chat for a bit about the performers we will see later – I am excited to see Del McCoury and they are eager for Tracy Lawrence – and then I bring up the upcoming midterm elections. Then, things get awkward.
Of the two, one is chatty and opinionated, the other cautious and quiet. Toady, tells me that he voted for someone “I may not like”. He never names Trump, but it is clear who he is referring to. I find it interesting that he doesn’t say his name. Why? Out of respect for my obvious liberal leanings, or out of embarrassment? Of is it fear, like you never say the name of Voldemort out loud? What ever the reason, it is an awkward conversation. Especially when I start to push him to explain his support. He is clearly not a very articulate or educated young man, so when I ask him if he finds the fact that Trump avoided paying taxes, Toady just sputters, “I don’t care!” or when I ask him if he likes having healthcare, he stumbles again. But as I back him into a corner logically, he becomes agitated and so does his friend. “Toady, we’re not supposed to talk about politics!” he admonishes. Now, I am starting to feel uncomfortable. I have to remind myself that I am in their home, and that my persistent questioning might be threatening, so I back off. Luckily, the line is moving now, so I shake their hands and thank them for the conversation. I also ask them a favor: to please keep and open mind in the future when considering future presidents. They say they will. I hope that is true.
I now enter the hallowed halls of the Opry and find my way to my seat at the end of a row. The seats here are hard wood and modeled to appear like a church pew. It is evident to me that I am both in a revered and sacred place, and that the south is deeply Christian. This part of the southern culture is repeated in songs that the artists perform and praises to god as their inspiration between songs. Another distinct part of their culture is also mentioned in the songs: love of guns. One young woman sang a song about her daddy and how he taught here to shoot a gun as a girl. While I want to believe we have more in common than not, sometimes I have wonder how we will ever bridge some of the divides such as gun rights and abortion.
The show is entertaining and like stepping back in time to the 1950’s. The show is still broadcast live on the radio and the MC is another Mr. Tubbs. All the performers have three songs to win over the audience and in between each act, Mr. Tubbs hawks the products of their sponsors, like soap and restaurants. It has a charm not unlike the Prairie Home Companion had back in the day. The performers include the Del McCoury band, Tracy Lawrence, Rita Wilson (film producer, actress and wife of Tom Hanks), old-timers and up-and-comers.
Once the show is over (and always on time) we file out and head to our parked cars. On my way to my car, I turn and look over my shoulder. This is the first time I have done so on my trip, and I do it because there was something menacing about the two young men I had met earlier. For the first time in two months, I felt vulnerable and slightly unwelcome. As a woman traveling alone, I thought I would have felt this more often, but no, this is the first time.
Thankfully, I make it to my car without harassment, and in the morning, I wake up in my motel room and turn on the TV. CNN comes up and as I am watching the morning show, suddenly, the newscasters receive a message in their earpiece and the mood on their faces changes. There is now mild panic in the newsroom as the newswoman announces that they have to leave the building. There is the threat of a mail bomb. But not just at CNN, but at the offices of Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi. It is not hard to make the connections and my skin starts to crawl as I think back on my encounter the night before. This is the fear. The underlying, rarely discussed fear that one group of like-minded thinkers could inflict harm on another group. Red vs. Blue. Christian vs. Jew. White vs. Black. Men vs. Women.
So much misunderstanding. So much fear. So much hatred that is inflamed and now encouraged by a president who openly calls himself a Nationalist. I pack my things up a bit faster that morning and am more determined than ever to get out of the south and back to my liberal bubble in Boston. So sad it has to be that way. But I know we can change it. We just have to have the will to do so.