“The parochialism of the ghettos of Gotham had not prepared her for the uniqueness of Your Working Boy. Myrna, you see, believed that all humans living south and west of the Hudson River were illiterate cowboys or – even worse – White Protestants, a class of humans who as a group specialized in ignorance, cruelty and torture.”
John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.
Well, I’m back. For my Southern trip I came prepared. I bought Jesus is My Friend t-shirt just in case, stocked up on maps to avoid wrong turns, brushed up on Southern history and was getting acquainted with A Confederacy of Dunces as I was heading to Nashville, my first stop.
I only had one afternoon to spend in town as I was leaving for Birmingham the next day. I thought that Country Music Hall of Fame was a nice way to start exploring the city. As I was making my way towards the museum I had to cross Broadway street with all of those live country music bars and decided to stop and check it out. I have to remind you that I picked the perfect time to go to the South – weather wise. The temperatures outside were never below 100 the whole time I was there, so stepping into a cool, almost empty bar with live music was impossible to resist. I thought, I’ll just have a quick beer and will continue with my business. Some country band was playing on a small stage near the entrance that you could also see through the window from the street. I walked in, listened to a band for a few minutes and proceeded to sit at the bar counter. The place was half-empty. What would you like, ma’am? – a bartender asked. I looked around, a quick thought raced through my mind that I’m not in Manhattan anymore and I can order something embarrassing completely guilt-free. Bud Light, I said. You know, to blend in with the crowd. The music wasn’t that bad either. I mean it was perfect for the setting. You want to listen to something like that in a western style bar in Nashville, it’s just part of the experience. So far so good, I thought. After a while the band took a break and I decided to check a city map to see where I’m going next. Would you like to taip us, ma’am? I heard a deep voice behind my back. I turned around and it was the singer with a jar in his hand. For a moment there I thought that I already taped their performance, but then I realized that he probably means whether I want to tip them. I did, while mentally patting myself on the back for deciphering the local accent.
I continued making my way to the museum when, while passing another bar, something drew my attention. It was another band, also playing in a window stage, but it was a slightly different type of country. Later, in the museum, I learned some things about history and kinds of country music, but as I was a country virgin at that moment I had to stop and listen. The guy at the edge of a tiny stage was playing an instrument I have never seen before, making a sound that I heard many times before, thinking that a guitar produces such a sound. It was a horizontal metal plate with strings on it and pedals underneath, you play it sitting on a chair, like a piano, picking strings with right hand and adjusting the tone with a little device attached to the strings with a left hand. After they stopped playing I asked a guy playing this instrument – What do you call this thing? A steel guitar, ma’am – he answered. Wow, I thought. You learn something new every day. A steel guitar makes this characteristic weeping sound present in many country songs and adapted by some rock bands (Dire Straits used it heavily, and I didn’t even know what it was!).
I almost didn’t make it to the Country Music Hall of Fame after the beer and the heat made me wanna just sit and listen to the music. But I had an agenda to adhere to. So I dragged my ass a few more blocks through the scorching heat to the museum and made it there just about 50 minutes before closing time. I wished I had more time – they had some pretty interesting exhibits there. Obviously, my interest was skewed towards origins and how it developed through the years, I figured I’m going to skip the modern part – have zero interest in Toby Keith and the like. Well, country is not as hillbilly as I thought, even though original bluegrass was. But then as it went through different transformations it turned into cowboy music, as many singers adapted that image as a cooler version to shake off the hillbilly associations. Thus many of them wore these costumes, western style jackets and boots, but elaborately decorated with shiny ornaments and prints. Elvis, actually a great example of it for he’s known for his over the top dressing style. Elvis, of course, was a big part of the exhibit, as his style of music, at least originally, rockabilly, has sprung from the country.
I had to wrap up my museum exploration rather quickly, unfortunately, as it was closing. The sun was setting down finally, so I could take a walk through the city without going in and out of bars. I stopped to grab a bite at some place, where I got my first “you don’t look like you’re from around here” from a waitress. Without even me saying much. Shit, I thought. My cover, if I ever had one, was blown. I’m still wondering what betrayed a stranger in me. When I asked her to elaborate she said you just look different. Perhaps it was a parachute dragging behind me and the AK-47 on the shoulder, a sickle in one hand and a hammer in another, but who knows. She, herself was from Chicago – big evaluating pause, gauging whether or not I might know where it is – Illinois. Not only I look different, I also must look pretty stupid, I thought. Good! They don’t like Yankee smart asses around here anyway.
I thought maybe it’s a good thing I wasn’t wearing that Jesus is My Friend t-shirt. In addition to looking different and stupid it would absolutely betray a pinko Commie trying too hard, thinking what a clever disguise it was! It would make me look as one of those people who wear I HEART NY t-shirts in NY. Usually when I see those in New York I think to myself – a tourist, or worse – a terrorist with a lack of imagination. In New York, however, I might wear it, with a nice jacket.
The impression that I got from Nashville is that even though it’s a Southern town it has a rather Western feel to it. Probably because of ever present country music and cowboy paraphernalia. I’ve seen plenty of this stuff in Arizona, and thus, although I enjoyed Nashville, I was looking forward to getting to a real Deep South. Birmingham is next.