Monday, June 29, 2009


A week’s hiatus in blogging seems like a month to me. I’ve been traveling apace around TN, showing my daughter Stephanie and her husband Brad the sights and sounds of my second home state. As a kick-off and with the heat index over 100 degrees, we engaged in a hot time in Bell Buckle, TN, the day following their annual RC-Moon Pie Festival. Twenty thousand people formed a big crowd on the Main Street of Bell Buckle businesses – the only strip of businesses in this small TN town. At this event, the largest moon pie in the world was cut, and we were sorry we hadn’t gone on the actual day of the slicing, but we were happy we hadn’t been part of 20,000 people milling around the antique shops and trying to get a bite to eat at the one restaurant in town, The Bell Buckle CafĂ©. The festival featured a king and queen enthroned on the back of an open convertible, similar to those in a Mardi Gras parade in Louisiana. This royalty threw moon pies to the crowd rather than beads. It was a momentous beginning for the vacation before we departed for Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry the following day.

I’ve been resident in TN for three years, and last week I enjoyed my first introduction to the Music Capital of TN. We stayed at the Gaylord Grand Ole Opry Hotel with its 40 acres of indoor gardens, waterfalls, a river that features a Delta flatboat, and a 27,000 sq. ft. fitness center. We had two rooms in the 2881-room hotel and enjoyed shuttle service to downtown Nashville and to the Grand Ole Opry. Several times we lunched at an Irish pub and at a Jack Daniels saloon in the complex but avoided the Godiva chocolatier, as well as the clothing and gift shops scattered throughout the complex.

I’ve never been a big fan of country music and have memories of being a bored teenager spending Sunday afternoons with the boyfriend of the moment listening to Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and lifting my “above it all” nose, denouncing the music as “hillbilly wailing.” At 74, I admit that I became deeply interested in this American phenomenon called country music and was fascinated with lyrics that recall old English ballads. I was surprised to learn that teenage Elvis Presley made his first and only performance at the Grand Ole Opry and was told by one of the managers that he should go home and continue his truck driving career. Presley swore never to return to the Opry and didn’t.

The Tuesday night performance I saw featured two musicians who were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry onstage that night, The Montgomery/Gentry duet, one of whom had emerged from a severely dysfunctional family and struggled ten years to reach the pinnacle of his career. Little Jimmy Dickens, who became popular in 1948, also appeared in his famous rhinestone-studded outfit to share his country humor. Dickens, a country music legend began his career crowing like a rooster on an old W.VA radio show and is famous for his unusual ballads (how about “Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed?”).

The magic for Grand Ole Opry performers is the six foot circle of dark oak wood on the Opry stage that is cut from the old Ryman Auditorium stage, former home of the Opry. New members stand on the spot where performers like Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline once stood. A radio show since 1925, then sponsored by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, the Opry was held in a number of homes before it settled in 1943 at the Ryman Auditorium. Ironically, The Ryman was built by a fast-living riverboat captain, Thomas Ryman, who got religion and constructed a huge building to house religious meetings and visiting evangelists! The Opry moved to a multi-million dollar complex in 1974 where we attended a two-hour performance and were enveloped by the sounds of music broadcast on a radio program that is the oldest continuous radio program in the U.S.

The present-day success of star music performers at the Opry reminds me of the success of popular American writers sponsored by media conglomerates and MBA’s who now control the publishing industry. In a book entitled WRITING IN AN AGE OF SILENCE, Sara Paretsky writes: “A star is basically a brand. A brand is… a content provider, whose name on the package guarantees a sale…”However, I have to admit that as I sat in the Opry auditorium, I felt the touch of ghosts of some mighty legends who helped create this phenomenon called “country music,” musicians who were blissfully unaware of marketing that concentrated on “brand,” “package” or “content providers” --with guitar and fiddle, sans electronic equipment, they performed music that expressed quality and individuality – otherwise known as Art.
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