January 2, 2021
Pearl River In the before times, way back in 2019, I had a gig in Nashville talking organizing, hawking books, and the like. I hadn’t been there in a minute, and was impressed at how the city had grown. I had the same reaction visiting Charlotte around the same time. Both city populations are muscling past 700,000 people, leaving other cities in Tennessee or North Carolina in their rearview mirrors. Both even have NFL teams, although Charlotte also claims a fledgling basketball squad as well
I always thought of Memphis as the go-to city in Tennessee and Nashville as the state capitol with only country music to give it a heartbeat above boring. When I was there, I was surprised that so much seemed to be happening, and, now, suddenly, for reasons good and bad, Nashville seems in the news everywhere!
Tragically, a fellow blew himself to smithereens, shutting down AT&T switching services along with internet and cell service in different parts of three states, along with 911 in Nashville. The police seem to have heard from his ex-girlfriend a year or more before that he was building bombs, but couldn’t find enough to make the case. I don’t fault them, necessarily. Restraint in defending the rights of people is a good thing, even if, as the chief now claims to national headlines, that the critics have 20-20 hindsight. Not in the headlines or the stories are the obvious questions that if this had not been an older, white tech guy, how would the cops have handled a younger, nonwhite guy. His Nashville story: he had cancer, but he wanted to be remembered. Narcissism is not just national, but also Nashville.
On the other hand, someone who will be remembered is Dolly Parton. She’s bigger than country music and seems everywhere now even in what would seem the waning years of her headlining career. In the midst of the pandemic, darned if she didn’t give a million dollars to researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who were critical in coming up with the vaccine. A serialized podcast on Dolly was a huge hit, and full disclosure, I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s almost enough to make me ignore the fact that most modern pop country seems lost these days in pickup trucks, beer, daisy dukes, and misogyny, making me miss the days when my daughter was young, and we would listen to country on the way to her bus stop every day.
And, then there’s Ann Patchett. I’ve never read any of Patchett’s novels, but within the New York Times reading set that glances through the “Arts” section, she has become a frequent voice, largely for the importance of independent bookstores, based on her jointly owned store Parnassus in Nashville. I had tended to put her in a category of sort of who-cares-transplants to the south with the kind of upper-class suburban fan base that would not have interested me. I started to change my mind when I read a piece in The New Yorker about her three fathers, which was unique and engaging. She wasn’t just standard white bread. There was something sharper and more interesting about her story perhaps? That story made me willing to read a forever long lead piece in Harpers about a cancer ridden woman she and her doctor husband took into their home during the pandemic and got into a clinical trial at Vanderbilt. She definitely breathes some rarefied air that most of us can only imagine as she flies about, runs into Tom Hanks, and whatever, but there’s more to it than that. Making it all the way through the piece, it was impossible to miss the hook, that one wanted Sooki, the ostensible subject of the story to live, but it was equally impossible not to see the other subject of the story, like the father piece, as Patchett herself, a generous, good-hearted, symbol of the best of Nashville and the South, yoga mats, vegetarian meals, huge house and all. She kept denying it, but that conclusion was equally inescapable.
I was ok with that, and I bet Nashville is too. Patchett and Parton, the Titans and some of country music, make it easier to see a bomb downtown as something forgettable when thinking about Nashville in the news.