In a handful of subtleties, Nashville reminds me of other American cities. With my window open in the evening, I’m serenaded by the chit-chat of crickets and clicking night beetles; at daybreak, the weeping cacaphony of birds, like in Austin, Texas. The lolling whoop of one species pauses for the rhythmic chirp of another, telling mates to bring home extra bugs for dinner and warding off predators from the nest.
During the day, 80 degrees is sultry. The threat of summer swelter rests underneath the mild spring humidity. Sitting outside on a breezy porch for lunch, listening to outdated 90s rock, I recalled the press of New Orleans in the dead of August when a few steps outside of my hotel had me feeling faint—even after 20 years and 122 degrees in Arizona.
Exhausted from walking around downtown Nashville, my crashing bloodsugar insisted that I rest for a moment in the shade of my room, nature’s radio playing outside my window. I had done the same in Civita during the relentless summer heat, despite my normal inability to nap.
It wasn’t very cool, but cool enough—and warm enough—in my rented room: the right balance that enticed my eyelids to roll down like velvet curtains thudding on the stage of my face. Behind the darkness, I willed myself to get up in five minutes.
Like me, the house was silent. We were all asleep, as was much of Nashville after the Rock and Roll Marathon. Even the birds and bees were quiet.
Music City had become Nap City, and I dreamt of the hours before.
That morning, a red-and-cream calico had sauntered over inside Hatch Show Print on Broadway, so I petted him briefly before rifling through the colorful letterpress posters. His playfully vicious paws clawed the leg of my jeans, saying that I hadn’t properly greeted him. I stopped to kneel down, running my hands over his coat as he writhed on the floor—the second cat I had been wrangled into massaging that day. Sweet little Maude with her white rabbit-soft fur had encouraged me much more gently.
A lean 40-something woman in a faded T-shirt and blue jeans leaned over the counter in the languid way that sinewy girls do. “Woooow… Huey really likes you.”
We chatted for a moment and she invited me to walk around the store. I photographed the girl making a fresh poster amidst cans of open ink, spilling blue and red glops onto the papered table. I envied her.
In another life—where I simplify my career by taking a service-oriented job that admittedly could never satisfy me—I imagine myself working in a print shop. Every day, I would make cool posters and converse authoritatively about new local bands or my recent travels backpacking through South America. I could finally get my nose pierced. It was a nice three minutes.
On my way to a rib joint for lunch, I skirted the crowd gathered in front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge photographing a large freestanding guitar. I wondered if I was in Nashville, New Orleans or Las Vegas. Noting the inverse number of open liquor containers for every church, I knew I was still in the Bible Belt—that, and the live country songs rather than jazz or twangy stripper music that blared from the red brick buildings.
Good country music is well-channeled angst, neither over-wrought nor falsely suffered. At the Country Music Hall of Fame I saw a quote carved into stone: “Country music isn’t a guitar, it isn’t a banjo, it isn’t a melody, it isn’t a lyric. It’s a feeling.” Inside, I began to understand how much country music is also about family—which contributes to the complex warmth of Nashville itself.
Over two hundred years, Nashville has formed a palpabale legacy centered around family. Traditions are passed down between generations, who celebrate heartache alongside joy as equal birthrights. Like all well-established Southerners, they also know how to take care of strangers.
Later, when I asked to close my tab at The Hermitage Hotel, the bartender smiled and said, “Don’t worry, darlin’, it’s on me. Come see us again sometime.”
Admittedly, it was just a glass of sweet tea, but at that hotel, it would have been five bucks, plus tax and tip—the damned thing came with its own personal carafe of simple syrup. In Starbucks, they charge you eighty cents for an extra dollop of cream cheese.
As I sat in the cool oak-paneled bar of the Hermitage, I overheard two well-muscled young men practicing a speech for their brother’s wedding as they shotgunned beers.
“Jim, you’ve blazed a trail for this family; the two of us have always looked up to you. You’ve taught us that communication is the most important thing. We admire you and Christine for the strength of your faith and for the importance you’ve placed on family, love and commitment, even through a long distance relationship, which was hard on both of you.”
I smiled and imbibed a mouthful of tea so sweet that my teeth ached. They continued for a few more lines until one brother reminded the other that barrage wasn’t said like marriage.
“Hm. That’s kind of a hard word. Maybe I should change it,” he said, crossing it out. “What’s another word for barrage?”
“I dunno, just keep going.”
“Right. Anyway. Hey, how is this sounding so far?” the younger brother asked the bartender. She nodded.
“Okay. Jim, there have also been times where we haven’t followed your example: the frosted tips you sported in high school, your love of Snoop Dogg and your affinity for complex carbohydrates, for instance.”
The bartender and I stifled snickers; I watched the NFL draft out of the corner of my eye.
“But, like Christine, we’ve come to love all of you. Jim, we couldn’t be more proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. Now, we are happy to welcome Christine into our family as the sister we’ve always wanted. We’ll pray that the two of you live a long and happy life together in the good times and the bad. Congratulations—we love you.”
They hooted and high-fived each other, polishing off their tallboys as they ordered another round. “I can’t wait to see Aunt Lacey and Uncle John,” they declared, discussing all of the cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and friends who were flying to Nashville for the wedding. Their parents had reserved one of the nearby Baptist churches for the ceremony. The boys proudly discussed their tuxedoes and new dress shoes, looking forward to dancing with pretty girls all evening.
The ceremonies for both my marriage and its dissolution were intensely intimate. I couldn’t fathom performing a personal rite in front of a church full of hundreds of people… then again, I hadn’t grown up in a large family.
As they slapped each other on the back, practicing their speech about Jim and Christine again, I wondered what it would be like to be part of their close-knit Southern clan—the kind who gossiped and bickered about each other, who held reunions and barbecues as often as baptisms and communion ceremonies, whose brothers would say in all earnestness that they’d be praying for you—not because they were religious freaks, but because it was a loving gesture.
As the only child of a quiet Midwestern family, large Southern families have always fascinated and frightened me. The way that they barge into each other’s personal lives feels big and intrusive. Loud. Bossy. Boisterous. Overwhelming. Loving.
I folded a couple bills to tip the bartender, counting the members of my own family who were already dead, some much earlier than expected. As I stepped back into the muggy sunshine, I thought that a life—and a family—like Jim and Christine had in Nashville might not be so bad after all.
[Inspired by a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee, this essay is an excerpt from my work in progress, “Hidden City Diaries.”]