Bluegrasp

clawhammer
Charleston, West Virginia might be the best example of what Mr. Potter was aiming to do in It’s A Wonderful Life. It seems at least one George Bailey short of a wonderful place. The Muse said it looks like an Orc village, and seemed particularly terrifying after our quick zoot down through spring snow-covered mountains. We’d abandoned our earlier notion of wending through the lower intestinal tract of Appalachian coal country in favor of better traveled roads once we’d surveyed the depth of the slush remaining after winter’s overnight surprise revisit.

Our first rule of roading insists that no earlier idea ever metastasize into an obligatory plan. We shift as the spirit or the Gods move us to shift, and these shifts happen without remorse or regret. We live only in the moment, more or less. We retain some vague memory of where we intend to end up without shackling ourselves to any particular means.

We high-tailed our threatened vestigial tails out of that sour Charleston valley before the air bourne chemicals could get us too much, heading for Kentucky’s bluegrass country. Kentucky seems civilized compared to West Virginia; perhaps gentrified. The grass is disappointingly not even the faintest hint of blue, but brown nearer the eastern border this time of year and increasingly green in the ever lowering elevations as we cruise west. Gilded horse farms dominate, each surrounded by what seems like miles of white rail fences in perfect condition. Manor houses by the score.

The horse business seems alive, well, and damned lucrative. Each town features two sides of a bisecting railroad track. On one side, the most remarkably sanguine prosperity, and the other, where people of color predominate, threadbare. This gradient isn’t noticeable from the freeway, but glaring when ever zooting through even the smallest towns. I reflect that only the gradient seems steeper here, the differences between the rich and poor have become more obvious everywhere.

We try to talk ourselves out of ending the day’s excursion in Nashville, but the road gods out vote us. We wend our way down into that tight little river valley as the sun turns bilious and slips away. The Muse and her smart phone snag a room that will feed her frequent snoozer program and successfully navigate us to the door on the first try, almost effortlessly, more like snagging supper from the freezer than foraging for sustenance.

There was a time when entering an unfamiliar town at sunset would spark a small survival crisis, requiring some instinct to kick in, and I have that instinct in abundance. I can smell a decent hotel and turn an unknown corner to find myself in front of it. Same thing with restaurants, but smart phones blunt the need for such gifts. If the crowd can source most anything, where do individual gifts end up?

We change our shirts and head out for some feet on the street time, finding Printer’s Alley at the end of the block. A narrow brick affair indistinguishable from similar side streets in Brussels, Prague, Denver, Portland; anywhere. Famous for some unknown reason, it attracts tourists, and I notice myself transforming into a rube as I dodge stinky puddles and sleazy front door pitchmen. From inside I hear the cacophony common to bars everywhere, amplifiers turned up louder than the crowd, musicians in uneasy combat with themselves. We find a british-themed pub and a surprisingly decent supper that insists that the foodie movement thrives here.

We’d poisoned ourselves on breakfast, stopping at a place famous for their biscuits. I’ve never understood the purpose of the biscuit, other than as a means to transfer shortening past an unsuspecting palate. Nobody’s supposed to eat shortening—it’s poisonous—so I guess swathing it in soft flour might make some sense if your butt’s threatening to fall off from hunger. Nobody’s butt was threatening to fall off from hunger in this place, though some might have been capable of uncoupling to live independently from their mother organism. Biscuits are butt builders, not food, and that breakfast, where the sausage seemed about 90% sawdust and even the eggs came ruined, encouraged every negative stereotype ever held about Southern cooking.

Beware of anyplace proclaiming itself famous for anything. Nashville, or what locals have come to refer to as NashVegas, claims fame for music, but walk the streets past the shoulder to shoulder clubs adjacent to the Ryman Auditorium, and you’d swear it should be more famous for nostalgia. Fame will do this to ya, to anyone. In each club, ernest, sweating musicians assailed the room with someone else’s greatest hits, insisting that Alabama is still one sweet home or that Hank Williams Jr was once a star worthy of covering. And the crowds seem convinced, though lubrication seems required. Lubrication and an equal or greater measure of aching yearn to be a part of the fame this city proclaims. It’s a conspiracy, unequal parts piracy and heresy, as original as sin.

I’d asked our waiter at supper where we might find some place hosting acoustic sets and he frowned unencouragingly. “Not too many doing that anymore,” he mourned, “Damnit. They’re all amplified now, like that place across the street.” He mentioned one place, though, a mile hike away, where we might have some luck. We hiked, finding sound best listened to outside the club when we got there. A friend suggested (via smarty phone) another venue and we hopped a cab there. They had acoustic music but the audience, or, more properly, crowd, seemed amplified. Not even the musicians, and there were several really terrific players among them, could hear what they were producing.

So much of our culture seems in pursuit of the past, often a past that never really existed. Old timey bluegrass music as a popular medium stretches all the way back to only the late forties, introduced then as a centuries-old tradition. But the later mass market varieties existed only in small rooms and halls before modern media started shoving it out to the masses, utterly transforming both the music and the audience, turning them both into nostalgia whores.

The old Confederacy was never an Old Kentucky Home holding cooling mint julips and gentile conversation, but a shockingly brutal experiment in crony capitalism, the detritus of which still thrives on both sides of the remaining railroad tracks. Most were dirt poor and many were broken by it, but defiant; a defiance still resonating in the music favored here. The tunes remembered and the ones still nostalgically performed seem to each be telling the same story, a mantra in 4/4 time, embellished with smarty-assed grace notes. Tell the man what he can do with his julep, I’ll hush up my mug if you’ll fill up my jug with that good old mountain dew.

Even those who stayed seemed to find a way to escape the oppression. Those who visit engage in the resonant rage vicariously, fueling an entire industry this place now claimes to be famous for. I reflected as we returned to our hotel just how fortunate I’d been to escape from the music industry before it killed me. I could have been famous, and that, most certainly, would have been the end of everything but the dedicated nostalgia of whomever I used to be. There is no more powerful present than an eternally unrecoverable past.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved












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