Into The South, Part I

I landed Saturday, and spent a few nights wandering the empty, sun-bleached alleys of Nashville’s booming south side — behind the Country Music Hall of Hall of Fame, Music City Center, The Johnny Cash Museum and all the rest of Broadway.

I am seeing America for the first time in a long time. So much Bud Light. So many electric scooters. Such big vape clouds.

We look happy to be outside (and no, pretty much no one’s wearing a mask), but we don’t look well. We’re pale. We haven’t shaved. We’re heavier than we used to be. We look lost, staring blindly into our phones and tugging on a Starbucks.

Still, Nashville feels like a city on the brink; its town elders have seen the climate maps, and like their odds better than Baltimore’s.

It reminds me of Jakarta or Kuala Lampur: glittering, neon-wrapped glass condos towering over crumbling concrete buildings, vast, gray parking lots, bales of rebar and dumpsters larger than a bus.

Hope is not lost, though. There is always music. And there are still a courageous few who defy the odds, and persist.

Like Tiffany from Tyler, Texas.

My friend, former MTV News writer, Annie Reuter, and I, made plans to see Squeeze at The Ryman. The auditorium, built by riverboard scion and civic leader, Thomas Ryman in 1892, was the longtime home of The Grand Ole Opry. Nashville grew up around it. It’s Must See.

Barely two notes into the band’s set, though, I knew I couldn’t stay; the place was lousy with unmasked, dim-eyed, wide-smiling Gen Xers.

And so, just a few seconds before cuing Annie for our exit, I closed my eyes to try to really feel The Ryman. As I ran my fingers over the grain, knots, and bumps of the pew in front of me, I understood.

Music is church.

It is loss, pain, sin, sadness, revelation, and salvation.

It is faith in the invisible.

A few blocks later, Annie and I sat down for an outdoor cocktail, and got talking with our young waitress, Tiffany.

“And where do you hail from, Tiffany?” I asked.

“Tyler, Texas.”

“Tiffany from Tyler, Texas!” I exclaimed. “C’mon! Too good!?! And what made you leave Tyler, Texas, Tiffany?”

She put down her clipboard and said, “Well, to be honest, I’m gay. And my parents couldn’t accept that. So I left.”

In the middle of a pandemic. At 22-years-old. With a thousand dollars in the bank, and no job.

Faith in the invisible.

Like Tiffany, everyone I’ve spent time with this week is struggling, trying to reconcile their work and their life, their American Dream and Delta Variant Reality, the crumbling concrete with the high-gloss skyline.

So for reasons I can’t quite explain some part of me wants to see Graceland: To stare into The Kings’ three television sets, count his 150 gold records, admire his fleet of cars, and then stand quietly in the Meditation Garden with Elvis, his stillborn twin brother, Jessie, mother and father on their 14 acre estate next to a Bob’s Big Boy, Dollar General, and Rent-A-Center.

Poor boys and pilgrims and families, we’re all going to Graceland.

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