In my sleeplessness I can hear the traffic picking up on Vanderbilt Beach Road here in North Naples, Florida, where we are staying with my wife’s parents. The sound is not dissimilar to that of waves lapping against a beach or gentle undulations of wind through a forest canopy, though it’s reminding me now of all the early mornings in Chicago years ago when I would lay in bed in our condo, which sat at the corner of two busy streets, Grand and Western, that would express a swelling morning urgency in that short predawn dark in which, in more religious places, prayers might instead be heard. It’s the sound of activity, commercium, plans, of rush hour, and these past days in blissed-out Florida it has mixed with recurring dreams of work, of trying to return to work, or apply for work, dreams in which I would find myself among former colleagues populating made-up places, the twenty-somethings of long-ago jobs now middle-aged and focused, directing me through the interiors of elaborately vertical high-rise buildings with complicated elevators or labyrinths of interconnected campus buildings (in my dream last night I was at the University of Chicago, where I used to work, though it was, of course, not actually like U of C, but instead some newly built educational park, its buildings characterized by cantilevered joists and massive angles of glass, polished concrete, sporadic seating, and even temperatures as you move from room to room). In all of these dreams trying to reenter work is not going well―I can’t login to the computers, I don’t get the inside jokes, I don’t know the keycodes, the directories, or the abbreviations ; I try to fake it but fool no one; I’m gently mocked; I’m a source of some annoyance, even to those who know me, who vouched for me, who I remember liking me before. As I cycle from these dream scenarios to actual consciousness, lying in bed listening to the road, I can feel, or mentally visualize, the sunrise, the gorgeous pink dawns of Florida slowly articulating the palm trees and bougainvillea, making the glassy surface of the subdivision’s pool and that of its manicured pond glow in slowly changing colors of pink and blue and purple, until the day is established and the waters assume their hard reflection of the uniform, blue sky and whatever geometries of buildings and landscaping interrupt it. I feel already kind of stoned and incapable, the day not even begun. Then I slowly think of the few things I need to do. Then I remember we are about to impeach the president.
I am ashamed to admit that I’ve been a little nervous to drive through the south, afraid of my interactions with people as someone with a northern accent, afraid of antagonism, contempt, or even just my own anxieties increasing as I see more and more signs of our difference. I’ve been especially anxious to enter “Trump Country.” But I’ve been surprised to see (see) hardly any signs of Trump support at all, and these have been days on highways and two-lane country roads (most of our drive through southern Alabama and Georgia was a string of two-lane roads), the very days leading up to his impeachment. No rallies over road -spanning bridges, very few lawn signs or flags, at most half a dozen bumper stickers,. I’ve been joking that we’ve seen more confederate flags than MAGA hats, though even the flags have been just a few (of note, one particularly massive one on a property next to I-75 in central Florida).
But the view from the road is extraordinarily shallow, and in any case it’s a completely naive and imperial attitude to assume you can understand the totality of a place, or even define a place such as “the South.” Instead we’ve been trying to approach something more like a “heartland” or “spirit-land” of America, through the specific tourist enjoyment of music, especially country (especially bluegrass) and soul. We will be going to New Orleans in February, and no doubt this little project will continue there, but for this section we were anchored by two places/experiences: seeing the Grand Ole Opry in the Ryman auditorium in Nashville and visiting the site of STAX Records in Memphis, which has been rebuilt into an excellent museum of American soul music.
We got to Nashville after a great visit with some family in Louisville, and we stayed in a cozy loft above an alleyway garage. Nashville as a whole is booming, that’s the general consensus from locals. There’s been an explosion of new restaurants and bars, a spike in real estate, and an overwhelming aggravation of traffic over the past five years or so (this is a very similar attitude we encountered in Seattle, also famously exploding). It’s been marketing itself as a bachelorette party capital, and whether you are wandering the Gulch on a glitzy afternoon of brand-name shopping (though, why would you do that?) or drinking tall-boys with hipsters in East Nashville, the same sense of change is apparent―Nashville has become a destination for young people. I have felt a slight sense of carpetbaggery to this boom, but it also seems to fit perfectly within Nashville’s historic commercial motivations, shaping and packaging southern culture for national audiences, especially via country music.
It is this sense of packaging that has been particularly interesting to me because, as with other forms of cultural export (Italian cooking, the French language), it relies on an expert knowledge of techniques and tropes, which are recombined over and over to make new things, things that are pleasing, impressive, and confidently indicate an original kind (i.e. things that are “authentic”). I was elated to see two great bluegrass shows, the Sunday night jam session at the Station Inn and then a Monday night show from East Nash Grass at Dee’s Lounge. The former was old-timers, so to speak, and the latter young players (they couldn’t have been older than 30), but in both cases the players’ kinesthetic knowledge of the progressions and scales and their casual but absolute command of the repertoire evinced an uneraseable familiarity, thousands upon thousands of hours of practice (both musically and socially, players jumping in and out, barely a head nod to the next soloist).
What I’m describing, I believe, is tradition. The Grand Ole Opry uses tradition to anchor its presentation of new artists, mixing bluegrass (often comedy-bluegrass) routines with various country standards (travel advice: if you want to see a real celebration of country standards, go to Robert’s Western World on Broadway, which we did numerous nights as our supposed-to-be-nightcap―hardest working country cover bands in America) to help shape the presentation of newer artists (for our show the newer artists were Mark Wills, Mitchell Tenpenny, and the band Seaforth; the headliner was modern country legend Vince Gill). The format of the Opry itself is traditional: an old-time radio revue, complete with an announcer (20-year veteran Eddie Stubbs) who read commercials over the setbreaks. The format, with no subterfuge whatsoever, is entertainment meant to sell: the products of the sponsors, the records of the artists, and the Opry itself.
Dolly Parton, in her interviews on the excellent podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” (which has been our “road-reading” on this segment of our trip; it’s from WNYC, hosted by Jad Abumrad and produced by Shima Oliaee) cites commercial demands often when talking about her songwriting. In listening to her interviews, you get more of that sense of tropes or packaging, writing “blue and lonesome” songs, or “stand by your man” songs, or, as meticulously discussed in one dedicated episode (guided expertly by historian Nadine Hubbs), the “don’t take my man” song. That episode focuses solely on Parton’s hit single “Jolene,” discussing the ways it flips the script on the “don’t take my man” trope. They contrast it to Loretta Lynn’s song “Fist City” (which, incidentally, is one of mine and my wife’s favorite country tunes), which is more in line with the trope―pretty much one woman telling another woman off in a dispute over a man. In “Jolene”, however, there isn’t so much antagonism but a “rhapsodic fixation” on her competitor. There is a wonderful discussion on the podcast of the pacing Dorian scale that Parton uses in the guitar lick, this ancient-feeling lyricism, sensuous descriptions of Jolene’s beauty, all of which leads them to ask whether the song might actually be homoerotic. It’s a great episode and I’d recommend it as a standalone, but the point I take here is that even in Parton’s subversion she’s still cleanly engaging the tropes, the various modes of tradition―it’s not radically new, per se, more upside down. Of course country music has evolved a lot over the decades, but I would still maintain that it’s been within these kinds of parameters, always paying some homage to the past that precedes it, asking the favor, as it were, of Nashville, a well-greased industry town that has worked a tried-and-true formula to slowly advance traditions for new audiences.
To say that the music of Memphis is the opposite isn’t exactly right, but the motivations are palpably different. I read this David Cohn quote for the first time in a Memphis travel guide: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel,” and the opening exhibit in the STAX Museum of American Soul Music is the restored Hooper’s AME Episcopal Church originally built in Duncan, Mississippi in 1906 by sharecroppers, former slaves, and others who lived in that area. Being in Memphis I immediately felt that sense of spiritual surrounding, of the Delta following the Mississippi river up to and overflowing Memphis, which has, like Nashville, done it’s own work to mix and package this regional culture. But the orientation to that culture and the overall sentiment of the two cities is pretty different. On our last night in town, we saw a wonderful show at a small bar in Cooper-Young (where we stayed), a fantastic two-piece surf-rock band, The Turnstyles. At one point the drummer apologized for the next song, “Cashville”―“it’s a small knock, really,” he said, “it’s just, they have the money, we have the soul.”
Drive from Graceland to the STAX museum, and you’ll go through some somewhat impoverished parts of Memphis. Even immediately around Graceland the contrast is jarring: this opulent home of an American icon, one of the main tourist destinations of Memphis, surrounded by bedraggled strip malls lining a roughshod road. That’s route 51, “Elvis Presley Blvd,” and to get to STAX you just drive north, going through working-class communities with rundown retail districts and light industrial businesses, discount furniture, auto salvage lots, small churches, some mom-and-pop restaurants. No bachelorette brunches or craft breweries here, though STAX is the anchor of a few revitalization efforts aimed mostly at a youth, a new charter school and music academy that seem to be doing great things for the community.
My feeling, this day we drove from Graceland to STAX (and then on to Sun Records) was: “real people.” That’s kind of a bullshit term, but it’s the one that stuck in my head as we spent time in some of the main neighborhoods where some of soul music’s most iconic songs (and artists) originated. Like country music, soul uses a traditional repertoire of styles and techniques. But there’s something about its expression that has always, to me, felt uniquely direct (and, of course, very emotional)―living out these traditions without the same sense of needing to pay homage to them, to master them, prove one’s credibility by them. STAX reminded me so much of the small independent press I’ve been working for. It’s commercial motivations were more about survival, about making the best art it could and letting it live as widely as possible without compromising its values or betraying the people (the artists, producers, and family members) for whom it was everything. In comparison to the “shine” of Motown, STAX’s gritty soul feels more exploratory, what you might in a high-fallutin’ way call indexical: trying to trust and capture the human spirit as its overcome by the endeavor of its artistry, expressing the struggles and dreams of its people not through configurations of tropes but in moments of musical intensity that might give way onto some kind of truth, and this sense of wanting to be together during those moments. I felt the echoes of this all around Memphis, in the blues jam we went to at Lafayettes and The Turnstyles goofy and but loving show, where covers of both the Zombies’ “Tell Her No” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” hit me with equal warmth, this weirdly glad feeling to just be there at that moment with each other in all our individual ways.
Driving out of the Osceola National Forest about a week ago, Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” came on, randomly shuffled from the USB stick we keep in our car, and I cried uncontrollably. We had just been to STAX days before, and I watched the video at the Otis Redding exhibit twice. Otis Redding is probably mine and my wife’s top shared musical love. His story is heartwarming and tragic, and “These Arms of Mine,” was his first recording with STAX, done on a whim (much like Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama”) mostly meant to freshen up a stale session. It’s incredibly simple, unequivocal, and completely overwhelming: “ These arms of mine, they are burning, burning from wanting you. These arms of mine, they are wanting, wanting to hold you, and if you would let them hold you, oh how grateful I will be.” The sentiment is so pure, the longing, and in Redding’s voice, it is fragile and ever so desperate, sung in that slightly dragging rhythm that evinces this cautious but assured attempt at expression, a care, as though the vocalist is looking down at the words and watching each almost parentally as it exits them. The song transcends romantic love. Or rather, it is about romantic love as a form of salvation, though plainspoken, supplication in the simple statement “how grateful I would be.” As the tall, thin pines flickered past us in that narrow avenue we drove through the Florida forest, I was overtaken not by my own desires, per se, but an admiration for the fullness of the human experience this expression of desire proved. I wanted myself to be that full, and I was afraid that I was not.
―January 26, Naples, FL