In my hometown, Johnny Cash welcomes you—right after you pass by the people drinking a morning beer at the airport version of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and the bluegrass musicians playing in the arrivals hallway.
Or sometimes, you are welcomed by a naked guy strolling through the airport. Here he is, in photos taken by a man who was on my flight last week from California. I didn’t notice him, perhaps because I am a native. Per the photographer, “I was pretty impressed with Nashville. Aside from a few people whose jaws were dropped, everyone else was doing their thing, going on business as usual. It was a great start to Nashville; it’s a great city.”
Doesn’t surprise me. Nashville is more than a little weird. The “buckle of the Bible belt,” with a strong religious tradition, but also the highly educated “Athens of the South,” with several major colleges and universities. Country’s “Music City” with a parallel (often crossover) blues and gospel tradition.
Politically, Nashville is a blue island in a red sea. A Southern city that is becoming bigger and more cosmopolitan every time I come home to visit. But which is still one of the friendliest places on earth. (I’ve seen quite a bit of the earth so I know what I’m talking about!) Eccentric people, often failed musicians and others with colorful stories to tell, are tolerated—even celebrated—as part of the landscape.
Here are some more things I love about my hometown. On my mind today: there is real sunshine in late February, and front yards have always featured furniture. Lawn ornaments are also a must-have.
Concrete animals are kind of a regional thing. I bought mine (currently in storage) from a lady in a trailer by the interstate. This little squirrel lives in my mom’s garden.
You also need a swing (or at least a sofa) and a ceiling fan on your porch. A rope swing if in the front yard if you have a good tree for it. A glider will do if you don’t.
In my hometown, a champagne bucket makes a good flower pot for the mailbox.
Trees sometimes wear jewelry.
People give away books when they are finished reading them.
In my hometown, just a few miles from the Kentucky border and on the front lines during the Civil War, nearly every neighborhood has a military history of some kind. I grew up on this battlefield and sometimes played in an abandoned Union fort. I remember a neighbor finding minie balls in his gravel driveway. There’s a reason Southerners remember the Civil War. It’s kind of hard to forget when it’s right underfoot!
Some people in my hometown fly the Confederate battle flag. But most fly this one.
In my hometown, gentrification is running amok. There are yoga studios and smoothie shops where liquor stores once stood. The Bojangles fried chicken restaurant I worked at in high school is now a Panera. The little store with the metal cage around the cashier where I bought Now Laters and candy cigarettes as a kid is now a fancy boutique, located in a now-trendy neighborhood that has acquired a name, “12 South,” along with many new people who carry large cups of coffee around with them all day.
An old warehouse-filled holler between downtown and the housing projects is now called “The Gulch” and looks just like Clarendon. Nearby, brand new high-rise apartment buildings are going up next to the old brick projects. What next?
In my old neighborhood, someone just knocked down a nice little old place and built this thing. It could eat three of my parents’ house, with over three times the square footage. What do people do with all these rooms? Don’t they miss having a yard? Also, where is the porch? All that money and you didn’t build a porch? I don’t get it.
The pictured manse, priced at well over a million dollars, overlooks my dad’s barn and compost pile, and the neighbors’ chickens. It’s like a huge alien spaceship dropped out of the sky and landed across the street to observe the poultry!
But I digress. Back to things I love. In my hometown, I always stop at Goodwill to pick up some girl clothes. Flowered shirts, pretty skirts, and jeans with sparkly stuff on the pockets (for special occasions).
The store, like the rest of the Nashville I know, has white, black, and latino customers. 60s soul is always playing on the radio. The merchandise stockers sing along. A young white woman with a nose ring and cowboy boots shops with her baby in a stroller. Two Mexican teenagers chatter in Spanglish while they shop. An older black lady shops for baby clothes for her grandchildren.
Someone always asks me, a middle-aged woman in jeans, for an opinion on an outfit. Every single time. Not because I am a fashion plate, and not just at Goodwill. Just because I’m there and they are there, so why not? And we both speak more or less the same language. And we both understand how this works. Until you have been an expat, bobbing along on the surface of a society in a soundproof language bubble, you can’t fully appreciate these little, everyday, interactions that make life just a little more pleasant. But they matter, they really do.
In my hometown, people still say hey. They say how are you today? They say have a good day. And they mean it. Because, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. And there’s no call to be ugly, after all.
Though it’s getting bigger and hipper all the time, Nashville has always had an oddball redneck-slash-hipster vibe. It just flew under the radar for a long time before the rest of the world discovered it and the money started flowing in. I am not one to be nostalgic for the “old South” but I sure hope that Nashville doesn’t become just another generic American metropolis. I need it to come home to, once in a while.
Stay weird, y’all.