March 29, 2011

Nashville: capturing a year in the life of a city

Behind the Book by
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Nashville has been known beyond its borders for a number of things down through the generations. In the last two decades of the 18th century, it was a rising frontier outpost on the way to the West. It rode on Andrew Jackson's coattails when that redoubtable hometown boy was the nation's top war hero and twice its president in the first half of the 19th century. A major battle of the Civil War was fought in the city, and after Tennessee and the other Southern states lost their war of rebellion against the Union, Nashville was an Upper South capital city that bounced back fast. By the 1890s, it was one of the leading urban areas in the region, thriving on a New South philosophy of commercial boosterism closely linked to Northern industry and capital.

In the 20th century, the capital city of Tennessee was known in various quarters and at various times as the Athens of the South (for its early striving to achieve a cultural transplant in the American wilderness), the Wall Street of the South (for its own developed capital resources), the Protestant Vatican (for its many churches and denominational headquarters) and of course Music City U.S.A. (for its eminence in country and other forms of popular music).

Twenty-two years ago, when the city celebrated its bicentennial, a team of local researchers, writers, editors, photographers, artists and designers was commissioned to put together a big coffee-table book of illustrations and narrative history to mark the occasion. Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries was published in time for the 200th birthday party in 1979. Its total printing of approximately 12,000 copies sold out in a little over a year, and the book was not reissued.

Now comes a companion volume, similar in size and appearance, to pick up the story of this middle America city with a higher profile than its modest size (a half-million plus) would suggest. Nashville: An American Self-Portrait is not so much history as current events, with the specific focus being notable events and personalities of the year 2000.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and disarmingly simple: set up a framework of 12 chapters, roughly corresponding to the months of the year, and ask an equal number of experienced journalists to write topical essays for each month. As it turned out, that was only the beginning. Luckily, the year was filled with momentous events in the life of the city and the nation. But beyond that, the editors picked up 22 sidebar writers, more than two dozen photographers who collectively produced the book's 300-plus pictures, three local artists who contributed original works and a breaking news ribbon of trenchant stories from each day of the year.

Altogether, they add up to a large format, 384-page book full of four-color art and a cacophony of voices an engaging and provocative full-dress review of modern Nashville at the turn of the new century.

Playing to the strength of the city's reputation in the trade as a good book town, the editors went for an all-Nashville cast of writers, editors, artists, photographers, designers, production specialists, marketers and distributors. Even the name writers such as David Halberstam and Roy Blount Jr. lived in the city previously, as students or as young reporters. And Hal Crowther, a New Yorker transplanted to North Carolina, qualifies by virtue of his marriage to novelist Lee Smith, who taught school in Nashville in the 1960s. Crowther's sidebar describing Smith's luncheon meeting with Dolly Parton, another one-time Nashvillian gone big-time, at a local plantation restaurant is worth the price of the book all by itself [see excerpt].

So are two chapters on politics: Capitol Offenses, a telling comparison of state and local governments by Larry Daughtrey, veteran political writer for The Tennessean, Nashville's daily paper; and Favorite Sons, a candid assessment of Vice President (and former Tennessean reporter) Al Gore's failed quest for the White House. Daughtrey chronicles the state General Assembly's painful inability to come to grips with tax reform and the local government's recovery from a philandering mayor's public embarrassment.

Local political writer Philip Ashford tracks the Gore fiasco from the Democrat's national headquarters in Nashville, where overconfidence led to the loss of Tennessee and with it, the electoral college votes that would have assured victory.

Once before, in 1824, another Nashvillian Andrew Jackson won the national popular vote but lost when the counting moved to Washington. After history's lightning bolt struck again in the same place 176 years later, Nashville artist Nancy Blackwelder was inspired to paint her own version of a famous Jackson portrait, with Gore's face replacing Jackson's.

Like the city itself, Nashville: An American Self-Portrait is full of such surprises.

John Egerton's previous books include Southern Food and Speak Now Against the Day.


Excerpt: Lee and Dolly do Belle Meade

In Nashville: An American Self-Portrait, essayist Hal Crowther describes what happens when his wife, the writer Lee Smith, meets Dolly Parton for lunch at an antebellum plantation in an upscale Nashville neighborhood.

When you say that my wife [Lee Smith] is a novelist and a professor of English, you haven't begun to paint her portrait. When you say that Dolly Parton is a legendary country singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, and Hollywood actress, you've only scratched the surface of the smartest woman who ever grew up in Sevier County, Tennessee.

What's relevant is that they're both shrewd mountain girls with old-fashioned manners, and watching them recognize each other was a privilege I'll remember. I know one well, the other just slightly and recently. But my take on this pair of sisters is that if Dolly Parton had also been sent to Hollins College, they'd be virtually the same person. It's not surprising that each claims to have been the other's fan forever.

"I've got a confession—I tried to dress down a little today because you're a famous writer and I didn't want to look too cheap," says Dolly, who's wearing a black skirt slit almost to the thigh, and a purple sequined body sweater you could substitute for your Christmas tree.

"I've got a confession, too," says Lee. "I put on a little extra makeup to meet you, so you wouldn't think I was mousy."

By the time we reach the restaurant at Belle Meade Mansion, they're talking about their daddies. When we walk in, Dolly draws a round of applause from the lunch crowd. . . . Two hard-breathing autograph vultures hit her before she gets to her table, and Dolly treats them like kin, like royalty. The waitress requests a laying-on of hands, and Dolly indulges her, too.

"They love for me to touch them," she says, without condescension, and we contemplate the demands of serious A-list celebrity. At 54, this is a woman who seems to love her work, her fans, and the considerable responsibility of being Dolly Parton. Her fans are polite but hungry to make a connection, any connection, and the lady isn't stingy with herself. She doesn't know it, but there isn't one famous writer in the world who gets spontaneous ovations at lunch.

—Hal Crowther


Nashville: An American Self-Portrait
By John Egerton
Beaten Biscuit Press

ISBN 9780970670212

E. Thomas Wood

Get the Book

Nashville: An American Self-Portrait

Nashville: An American Self-Portrait

By John Egerton
Beaten Biscuit Press
ISBN 9780970670212

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