I’ve Got 12 Honest Questions for You, Tennessee
1. Is the Civil War really that important to you?
First, you lose the Civil War. Next, you continue with the whole Sunday afternoon picnic/Civil War reenactment thing (pssst, spoiler alert — the South loses every time). And now, during the whole flag debacle, you decide to celebrate the birthday of Confederate army general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Bumper stickers shouting in all caps “HERITAGE NOT HATE”? Don’t you think it’s time to get with the times? Which brings me to my next question…
2. Did you forget that Jack Daniel’s is alcohol?
So I get that the Bible Belt can be pretty gut-cutting in certain Tennessee towns, but don’t you think having only 9 wet counties out of 95 is just a tad excessive? How else are we supposed to deal with country music and living with the highest sales tax in the country? Kidding. Sort of.
But where you really get me is with Moore County — a place that’s completely bone dry with the exception of the freakin’ Jack Daniel’s Distillery. C’mon. Your witty tour guides dripping in Southern banter are practically dangling a whiskey-soaked ribeye in front of a lion’s den of Jack lovers. Those tiny commemorative bottles just ain’t gonna cut it.
3. And furthermore, can you even make sense of your own alcohol laws?
Everyone and their pastor knows you’re the motherland of Jack Daniel’s. Most also recognize you as the home of George Dickel, too. In fact, Tennessee whiskey is one of the top ten exports of the state. By 1810, there were 14,191 registered distilleries producing 25.5 million gallons of whiskey. But by 1838, Tennessee totally changed the game, passing the nation’s first prohibition law because why the hell not? Today, not only is the county throne of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery completely dry, there’s only a total of 9 wet counties out of 95 – meaning, gas money isn’t a factor when buying booze there.
Confused? Bear with me. On Sundays, beer can be bought after 12 pm, but those wanting wine or liquor are shit out of luck. Alcohol on any other day that isn’t the Lord’s day is free game. That is, as long as it’s purchased before 11 pm. This can be avoided by living in a county with bars that close earlier than 3 am, which means the alcohol sales stop when the bars shut down for the night.
Still confused? Don’t worry — we all are.
4. Why do you strive to be the land that time forgot?
The vortex of Old South nostalgia seems to have everyone sucked into the land of five-cent bottled Cokes and firefly filled mason jars. But as Tennessee rocks beneath a tin roof surrounded by ‘SEE ROCK CITY’ painted barns, dirt roads, and diphthongs, everyone seems content being stuck in the past. Or rather, they want and need to be stuck. From Kenny Chesney songs about the good ol’ days to mining for made-in-China fool’s gold in Gatlinburg, it’s like perpetual role playing except with more moonshine and MoonPies.
5. Do you have all these churches solely for church lady food?
Oh, Tennessee — you snug buckle of the Bible Belt leading the nation for the most megachurches per capita. Surely even you find this a tad excessive? But coming from a place of bold lettered Baptist signs reading something like “IF GOD HAD A REFRIGERATOR, YOUR PICTURE WOULD BE ON IT” definitely has its perks. And by perks, I mean goddamn church lady food.
These goddesses of fried chicken sorcery have the ability to transform a bare table into a smorgasbord of fried green tomatoes, fried okra, collard greens, pimento cheese, mac ‘n cheese, biscuits and gravy, pecan pie, and jugs of sweet iced tea in one smack of a ladle. Anyone ever question my hungover church endeavors? They’ve obviously never tried church lady food.
6. Do you ever feel like red just isn’t your color?
You may be a state of conservative think tanks, dry counties, and billboards plastered with pro-gun text, but you’re not fooling anyone — we all know you used to swing both ways. It really wasn’t until 2000 when Tennessee finally decided to start rocking the red vibe. The speculation is that it had something to do with the previous year’s debate on whether or not to legalize roadkill cuisine, but who’s to say? Sure, there’s the blue tinge of Memphis or a stray coffee shop here and there with keyboards clacking about life as a liberal in Tennessee, but with more and more Confederate flags flapping behind dusty Chevy trucks, the state blushes a deeper shade of red. But never fear, left-winged Tennesseans — while the vote may have been no on Amendment 1, we can soon buy wine at grocery stores. Progress, right?
7. And while we’re at it, any chance we can just get past the whole Country music, redneck thing?
Everyone tends to think “studded belt buckles flashing off the neon glow of Honky Tonk Highway” but we’re really rich in Blues and early Rock N’ Roll, not to mention education. The first commercially successful Blues song? Written by W.C. Handy in a Beale Street bar. The first American university to offer a liberal arts education to anyone irrespective of race? Founded in 1866 at Fisk University in Nashville. Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino? There’s the hipsters of East Nashville, the rock climbers of North Shore in Chattanooga, and the music and dry rub enthusiasts of Memphis.
We just need to re-brand.
8. Is everyone here related?
This isn’t even a cliche incest joke. Seriously. It seems impossible to go anywhere without being introduced to Uncle Herschel’s sister-in-law’s cousin’s step niece who just happened to accidentally bump buggies with me at the grocery store. Two hours later, and I’m reconnecting with my third cousin twice removed who just served me cheese grits at Cracker Barrel. That woman in the pickup truck next to me at a redlight spouting off about how she’s distantly related to my dad? She may be right, but she’s also probably batshit crazy. Most likely both.
9. Who on earth painted all of those barns telling me to ‘See Rock City’?
And what’s with the constant highway propaganda coaxing me into a damp cavern of black light depictions of grisly fairytales? Those mountain gnomes are creepy, the deer pen always smells like shit, and the face of Peter Pumpkin Eater is the closest thing I’ve found to pure, unadulterated evil.
This story was produced through the travel journalism programs at MatadorU.
10. What’s your ulterior motive?
Tennesseans wave at total strangers in passing on the road, bless every heart of the ignorant, and invite someone they just met in the parking lot of a Walmart home for supper. Nashville was even once voted friendliest city. Are you trying to suck us into the past? Or make us like Kenny Chesney? Are you going to convince us to go to church? Will there be church lady food?
C’mon. No one can be that nice.
11. Does this shirt with barbecue sauce stains and fried fish grease make me look fat?
Memphis holds the Guinness World Records for hosting the largest pork barbecue contest in the world; Paris is home to the World’s Biggest Fish Fry; and every Tennessean mother is gifted with the magical ability of whipping up a feast of fried chicken, fried okra, collard greens, fried green tomatoes, pecan pie, and syrupy sweet tea out of thin air. Not to mention you can get Memphis barbecue shipped overnight to anywhere in the country though FedEx’s Memphis Superhub. Seriously? Is your goal to make me fat? Because you’re totally succeeding.
12. Is there nothing you can’t fry and put on a stick?
No? Didn’t think so. God bless you, Tennessee.