Nashville and Memphis

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.

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The original mixing board from STAX studios.

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.

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Even in a dive bar in East Nashville, the icons reign.

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.

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I stood here forever.

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

The start of our roadtrip

It’s January 11, 2020, and it’s been raining all morning here in East Nashville. Earlier, immense winds swept across the neighborhood, and from the window of our little apartment above an alley garage, I watched it mat and swirl this 15 foot stand of bamboo spraying up from the owner’s yard. The bamboo’s resistance gave the wind a three-dimensional feel, more of a solid chimerical entity than a broad force―more animal than weather. The thunder, too, has been 3-D, roiling in various distances on the full perimeter of our lofted space, making shapes or signs or signatures in my mind as I’ve lounged into the afternoon, staring out of the window and into the air that itself has the quality of mud, the bare winter hardwoods blurred scrawls ornamented here and there with the brilliant, rain-soaked, red-feathered cardinals that these past few days have been flitting at every periphery.

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With the sun at our backs in eastern Montana

This is the beginning of a year-long trip my wife and I are taking across America. Or anyway, it feels like the beginning, even though we’ve already been through ten states, driving from Seattle on I-90 across the Cascades, northern Rockies, and the high plateaus, plains, and rolling forests between the West Coast and Chicago, where we spent Christmas and New Year visiting friends and family. We’ve also stayed with folks in Minneapolis, Lafayette, Indiana, and Louisville, and have been in Nashville now for half a week or so. Last night we went to the Grand Ol’ Opry, which returns to its original home in the Ryman auditorium downtown every January and February. Being here in Nashville, it’s hard not to think a lot about country music, and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve connected with the full set of its tenets―its commercialism and professional pop ethos, its rootedness, its poetry, its simplicity, the melodramatic ballads and jumping honkytonks, the taste of cheap beer in the lights and electricity of a good times band. And especially, its nostalgia, which it has cultivated ever since its birth, this feeling that what you want is always just beneath your feet, if you could just figure out how to bend down and touch it.

I have to be as honest as I can: nostalgia has been a dangerous force in America; it’s been violent, racist, and xenophobic, and it has been strategically deployed to garner power for the powerful. I feel it is a major element of what strangles us now, in the form of nationalism, in the fear of others and of porous boundaries, in our inability to conceive of a harmoniously global community. It is a version of uncanny unease, the unheimlich, never totally feeling at-home, or feeling that home has been taken from you (or soon will be). It’s something, with this trip and with this writing (whatever shape it ends up taking), that I am trying to look directly into, for myself, as it might exist in myself, how it shapes my desires and imagination, my frustrations, my depression. Now I am in no way a conservative, and I do not dream of a bygone era in this country, so when I connect whatever nostalgia lurks in me with the nostalgia I associate with conservative America, I mean to do it as an exercise, the most earnest exercise I can employ, to root out my own concept of rootedness at the very time I’ve embraced full mobility, and of course, to try to understand the America I am setting out with my partner to see.

So maybe thinking about a song like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (at the Opry last night, they did the Carter/Cash version, making a bit of a comedy routine, stopping the song at “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor” to pit the registers against each other, to see who could go further into their respective range, who could go lower, or higher, each striving for an ever more distant octave) is a useful starting place to think about America now, and for us, our trip, and what we are seeking to understand. People have been asking us if we are looking for a new home, if we are trying to figure out where we want to land. In a way, we’ve wanted to say yes, but we’ve been hesitant to; it’s not that it’s the wrong question, per se, but more like it isn’t formulated correctly, like it’s in a language we don’t yet know how to speak. I’ve always had a slight cynicism about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is, of course, one of the most important songs in country music history (and a song I have, despite this cynicism, deeply loved). It’s always struck me as ambiguous, as a question, maybe even an interrogation. Is the circle a perimeter or a unity? Is it a form of protection, or one of connection? Is it the gated kingdom for the chosen, or the path by which we are all returned to each other? By and by, lord, by and by, we chorus―there’s a better home a waitin’. Is there?

~

Here is our plan so far. We are a week in Nashville and then a few days in Memphis. Then we go to visit with my wife’s parents in Naples, Florida, where we will also do a roughly five-day paddle of the Everglades. After Florida we will travel west to New Orleans, where will stay for all of February (that’s all of Carnival and Mardi Gras), enjoying visits from numerous groups of friends. In March, we head farther West, with vague plans to stay in Austin and Houston, firmer plans to backpack in Big Bend National Park, and definite plans (i.e. we already have permits) to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim. In April, we rest again, this time in Los Angeles, for another month. May first is our ten-year wedding anniversary, and we will spend it in Big Sur. Then north to the Bay Area to visit friends, then back south to Sequoia, than east across the crest and into the desert, Las Vegas, then hopefully picking up a friend to backpack Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, eventually making our way to Colorado by Memorial Day when we hope to see more friends and stay the early season in the mountains. We have tickets for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in mid-June and plan to do many hikes and backpacks as summer settles in, flying back to Louisville for a family reunion over the Fourth of July. Then back to the Rockies, where, if snowpack allows, we will do a late-July traverse of the Wind River High Route, before heading, likely, to Oregon to celebrate my wife’s fortieth birthday. Then, mid-August, we fly to Alaska, where I hope to complete a three-week trip hiking from Wonder Lake to the park entrance of Denali National Park, my wife and perhaps some friends joining me at various points (my wife will also explore other parts of Alaska). After that, things get especially vague, but our general hope is to make it to the East Coast for the fall, to visit with numerous people there.

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Aswirl in the honkytonk

We think it’s a good itinerary, more shored up, naturally, in its earlier parts, with various nodes cast out into the calendar to help anchor our plans and give us a general sense of direction. We’ve been telling people we are hiking and dancing all year, and I’ve enjoyed the celebratory nature of that description. It is a big celebration, but I hope it will also be disciplining, that it will show us better what we need and don’t, how to be with people and alone, how to listen, talk, move, solve problems, and leave no trace. We are doing it all in our car―not a camper or van―and I’ve been joking that we are going ultralight, and that is indeed an earnest set of values I want to cultivate on the trip. We have it all meticulously budgeted. We will try to cook the best food we can for ourselves, eat only in restaurants we really want to eat in, be outside as much as possible, interact with as many people as are willing, exercise, read, take photos, notes, make lists, play games, and constantly check in with each other. Or anyway that’s the idea.

It’s a strange and challenging time for a lot of people. I hear it in their voices, and of course I see it prominently in every form of media, from raging social media posts to the endless furies of cable news to the weird social fantasies of popular shows, the post-apocalypses and other visions of different societies. This year is going to be hard for America, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we are trying to escape it a little bit. But I also hope we will get beneath it. One of the words that constantly comes up in my mind is “estrangement,” and I think that’s what we are trying to overcome, to connect with real people and real land, and to foster the good.

Right now, my wife is sweeping the floor of our loft while talking to her sister on the phone; a dal is simmering on the stove (our plan is to dehydrate it for the Everglades), and the smell is starting to fill the room. Outside, the rain has stopped and the air is glowing more warmly in the emerging light. The mud seems to have flattened, lying low now in the yards and alleyway, glistening slightly. This is as good a threshold as any; will the circle be unbroken.

―January 11, Nashville, TN

2020 Year-long Trip across America

I will have much more to say here very soon, but for 2020 I am traveling full-time across America. I’ve been describing the trip to friends as a giant pretzel. My hope is to record my experiences in the cities and wildernesses of this big, diverse country through routine posts (weekly? biweekly?), with a lot of photographs and hopefully some poems. It may very well become a kind of photographic haibun. My wife and I have  been lovingly calling this trip our sabbat, but you’ll probably find it under the tag #2020. 

More T/K.

On “Fludde,” by Peter Mishler

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It’s difficult not to grin, smirk, purse your lips, or generally screw up your face when reading Peter Mishler’s poems in his debut book, Fludde. It isn’t just the peculiarity of these pieces but the command with which Mishler executes it, taking readers in something like a swift punt along strange but otherwise unassuming canals. Dean Young chose the book for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize from Sarabande, and the choice from this judge makes sense: these are, like so many of Young’s poems, lucidly surreal, achieved through sharp sentence-making, precise vocabulary, and the acute, almost blown-up detail such techniques afford. . .

Read the review at The Kenyon Review.

 

A poem and discussion on the Poetry Foundation’s “PoetryNow” podcast

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ryo-yamaguchi

I was privileged to talk with Katie Klocksin and Michael Slosek about my poem “The Present.” We had an hour-long conversation that Klocksin expertly edited down to four minutes, making a nice package of the poem and a few of my thoughts about its origin and the ways we think about time and history. Check it out here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/147422/the-present

An Act of Love from the Dream to Hamilton: Diana Hamilton’s “The Awful Truth”

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I have dreams, and when I do, I don’t really recognize myself in them. Or rather, I don’t recognize selfness. The self, I think, is abstracted in dream. The dream is the self exercised simply as a kind of form, a kind of play. I want to pose this to you directly. I’ll tell you that I am trapped in a building and the only way out is composition, my composing the world until it matches a verisimilitude, the sorts of things we remember reading and watching and walking around in. Familiarity is a kind of mastery, and it is at this point we must raise the question of being free.

Freedom is a small point distant but otherwise distinctly in sight in Diana Hamilton’s The Awful Truth, an odd, if you will, text by an exacting poet and writer and published in a handsome, unassuming volume from Golias Books. In it the beginning of freedom is dream. The very, very beginning. . . .

Read the review at Michigan Quarterly Review