NASHVILLE is in Tennessee and Tennessee is in the Old South, as well evidenced by all of that “Yes, sweetheart,” and “No, darling,” I heard over the phone as the hotel receptionist buttered me up.
For breakfast, pork sausage and eggs and hot biscuits with gravy, some smooth gray sauce with black flecks of pepper to make it look edible, and some sugary sweet juices to wash it down, or a hot coffee. For lunch and dinner, the men and women behind the counter had one question, “Beef brisket or pulled pork?”
One time I ordered the brisket just to have the barely-there bartender repeat back, “You wanted the pulled pork, right?” “No, I said I wanted the brisket.” He reached into one of the tins of steaming, dead slop. “You said you wanted the pulled pork, right?” “No, I said I wanted the brisket. See, this stuff right here.” I tapped at the glass and he winced as if embarrassed by his mistake and I felt like that terrible pushy Yankee that I am. Then the man looked up at me again through those glasses and squinted, “Excuse me, sir, but didn’t you say you wanted the pulled pork?” And I thought, “Is this Southerner slow or something?” But I would never ever say that. No, no, no. I just inquired again for the brisket, politely, gently, because being Down South means you’ve got to be genteel.
It’s a weird relationship we’ve got with those Southerners, my Virginian granny among them. Granny’s never lost the mild manners, the mild temperament, the mild avoidance of the letter ‘r.’ I used to look at the Elvis Presley Christmas Album in her house and wonder how somebody could listen to such a thing and take it seriously, to really dig the King singing “We Three Kings,” maybe even catch herself singing along. Southerners! I’ve heard tale that some of them are still trying to defend the CSA, as if I cared. I’m not going to split rails over your head with the bones of Abraham Lincoln, gentlemen, but let moribund cavalry horses lie. And where would be the US without Nashville anyway? Our most iconic postage-stamp-worthy musicians have all walked its streets, even an ominous-sounding one called “Demonbreun,” which the taxi driver pronounced as “de-mon-bre-un,” but I read as “demon-something-something,” as the car pulled up to the curb beside a big band blazing satanically away, saxphones and baritones and all. “Do they ever stop playing music in this city?” I asked the driver. “Not on your life,” he said.
The Man in Black himself Johnny Cash is an old saint of this music city. Across from its conference hall, called the Music City Center, you can stare at his custom cowboy boots and military-looking jacket behind protective glass. “Those personal effects. He wore them.” You slobber, you gaze in awe. The man who bagged June, who was very pretty, either as herself or as Reese Witherspoon. Yeah, you get a real sense for how dark and dashing he was, that Johnny Cash, so much so that you just want to say his name over and over again and cross yourself a few times too (“JC”) and admire in perpetuity those spare guitar lines and rockabilly rhythms.
They still pour out into the avenues of Nashville, every bar has bands playing. Here you still hear the rollin’ sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bootleg,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary.” The party people hang from the balconies above the neon lights with their beer and hats and revelries, those cat calls and whistles, and it reminds you of New Orleans, but with less poverty and hurricane madness and voodoo hoodoo. And if you are a Yankee you know you’ll never be one of them, not if you try. Because first you gotta change that last name to something that means something good — Swift, Cash, Snow, Earle, Haggard — and then set your voice up with some twang and practice saying “Y’all” in the mirror a few times before you head out among the honky tonk men and women in their swinging bluejeans. This is that real America, the one they talk about, the one with the pedal steel guitar licks and cowboy hats and pickle salads. Out on the coasts, in the factory mills of Massachusetts, that’s not the real America. That’s something else.
And here come the honky tonk girls! They all look like that honky tonk woman that Miranda Lambert is trying to look like, like a done-right Dolly Parton as seen through beer goggles, with the frosted hair, birdy features, the t-shirt revealing form, the lanky limbs and pleased-as-punch smile and manicured everything. They stand behind the counters with their pleasantly pasty forearms ready to tap some refreshing alcoholic beverage into that mug or query your choice of pulled this or that brisket, and, “Would you like barbecue slaw with that?” And, “Yes, I would.” And, “Here you go, darlin’.”
After a few days in Nashville, Tennessee, your insides are so sloppy with meat ribbons and hot sauces and grimy grits that you’d beg for a fire hose enema or maybe a tamer, Northeasty fruit cleanse. Anything to get the grease out. And so you say goodbye to those Nashville cats and bar hall “sweetheart-sugar-honey-pie-darling-baby” babes. It’s time to move on. Back up to Yankeedom. Back north.