Nashville: The Finale

When we travel somewhere interesting, we take as many photos as our Wal-mart camera can hold, with the hopes that a handful of the pics will turn out and be usable in one of our moronic postings. We're really happy when we get enough material for two postings, and when we spit out three, we're downright proud of our ability to make chicken salad from chicken shit!

So, join us on the Ultimate Party Bus for a final ride through Nashville. We'll enjoy some week-old leftovers, cold and stale until warmed in the microwave and spiced up with a dash of tabasco sauce from the RR kitchen.

Unfortunately, one meal we can't enjoy a week later is oysters. But dang, they sure taste good when fresh out of the steamer. We can get oysters in Michigan, but they cost a buck fifty a piece and come brown and moldy. In the south, you can get 'em for a quarter and knowing they came off the refrig truck last night. Deeelicious. The only downside is the next morning, when your bottom reminds you of the oysters from the night before. It's a most unholy hangover- in your lower intestinal tract.

Over at the Country Music Hall of Fame, fat Garth talks up his place in the history of country music on a wall-screen TV. This guy had the C&W world in the palm of his hand until the day he announced he was no longer Garth Brooks, and wanted everyone to call him Chris Gaines. He recorded a pop-music album that no one bought. His lame attempt at establishing an alter-ego while atop one music genre hierarchy stands as one of the biggest career mis-judgements in the history of pop culture. But when the royalty checks come every month for his songs that still get heavy rotation on country music stations, we doubt he cares very much.

One guy who never made it to the high pinnacle of country music fame was crooner Lefty Frizzel. With a name like that, it's no surprise. You could be the best singer/geetar-picker in the land, but your name has crippled your walk to fame from the onset. Everyone thinks you are a one-handed drip. For those of you hoping to live the honky tonk dream, RR will tell you the secret to having a a big-time country music career: combine the name of your favorite pet and the street you grew up on. For us, that would be Levi Kent.

If any of y'all move to Nashville and assume the name Levi Kent and make it big, we want our cut.


Museum of Country

Nashville, Tennessee. Home of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ten years ago, we would have lumped a visit to this place atop our list of Stoopid American Tourist Traps to Avoid (known as the SATTA list, it includes the following monuments to all things banal: South of the Border, the world's largest twine ball, Sea Shell City, and the nearby Mr. Chicken, the plastic-legged rooster). Now that we've been to the Country Music Hall of Fame, we can attest with full conviction how utterly wrong our cynical and baseless pre-concieved notion was. (The previously-named locations will forever remain on the SATTA list, along with the shoe trees which are popping up like a bad fungus).

If pressed, we'd have to admit we know alot about old-school country music, and not by choice. For several years, we lived in the desert west, where the radio dial landed on one of two stations: National Public Radio, and a lone AM country station with the on-air moniker, "KZZR- The Voice of No Choice." A constant diet of NPR got old real fast. Every news story had to inject some victimization theme into the reporting. They went something like, "In ten days, the sun will supernova and the earth will heat to 10,000 degrees kelvin. The homeless drug addicts in Sao Paulo and the indigenous Togoese tribe in Ghana will be among the most impacted." Listen to All Things Considered and you will notice a similiar slant in nearly every story.

So we started listening to the scratchy AM country station, and before we could stop it, we were humming Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe songs. We started wearing Justin boots and Roper shirts. We chewed Copenhagen and drove a truck. Like those missionaries in Borneo found wearing grass skirts and eating fire-roasted monkey brain on a stick, it was a textbook example of "going native" to meld with the dominant cultural expectations.

We left our dusty cowboy boots in the desert awhile back and returned to the midwest. We rarely listen to country these days and at best, know the new artists only by name. But after spending a few hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame, we offer the place up as a must-see for anyone who appreciates vintage Americana in its purest form. The museum is new and clean, and contains countless items from American icons who impacted popular culture in more ways than we realize. Johnny Cash's favorite guitar. The mixing board used by Patsy Cline to record "Crazy." A leather saddle Roy Rogers had made for Trigger. Ray Charles' sunglasses. The collection was comprehensive and complete.

But what really entertained us was the mixture of the absurd and sublime. Around the corner from Porter Wagoner's first opry costume was Dolly Parton on the cover of Playboy magazine, circa 1978. The caption reads O-O-O-E-E-E! (Wow. You don't hear that expression much anymore). We doubt anyone was hooting O-O-O-E-E-E! after they bought the issue, went home and closed the drapes, only to discover the only "revealing" she did was in an interview.

This coat was worn by one of the Flying Burrito Brothers, an early country-rock band with a name more typical for a Tejano salsa band. The jacket seemed a little out of place, perched next to a bathrobe worn by Barbara Mandrell and a wig Reba McEntire once owned. But it had an interesting "Liberace meets Cheech and Chong" flair; sequins and nekkid women, large vibrant roses, a pickle on the sleeve, and poison ivy growing up the front. Or maybe that's cilantro. For the burritos, no doubt.

Our favorite was one of Elvis' limos. With gold-plated door handles and a mini-bar, this car was the 1974 prototype for the modern-day pimp my ride trend: a nine-inch black and white TV white and a car phone from the era when only people like Elvis could afford a car phone. The stains on the velour-covered seats were like coyote tracks in the dirt; he could have been there yesterday, sweating away after a karate workout or Vegas concert and on his way back to Graceland.


As Wild as the Devil

If you were to ask any of the five million souls living in the dank shadows of factory smokestacks and freeway overpasses of metro Detroit where to find the nearest wilderness area, the most common response would be a quizical look with a "dunno" or "couldn't tell you." Only a handful of people would mention Pigeon River Country, located four hours north of Detroit near the hamlet of Gaylord, Michigan.

Before we go any further, we need to define our idea of wilderness, since the concept is fluid and subjective. Compared to Alaska, is this wilderness? No. Compared to Idaho, is this wilderness? No. Compared to anywhere within a 300 mile radius around Detroit, is this wilderness? When we filter that question through the broad mix of paradigms and perceptions and ideals (real and imagined) necessary to formulate such an answer, the conclusion is absolutely. Or so we used to think.

Pigeon River Country is a mix of state and privately owned lands totalling over 100,000 acres. By western standards, where the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho is 2.3 million acres and the Yukon Delta Wilderness in Alaska is over 14 million acres, Pigeon River Country is a pimple on the nipple of Mother Nature. That said, Pigeon River has unique features of its own: High ridges encircle deep and forboding cedar bogs. The birch and spruce trees of northern latitudes mix amiably with southern gents like pin oaks and red maples and shade rivers known for blue ribbon brown and brook trout fishing. Thick woodlands provide habitat for a resident herd of over one thousand elk, the largest west of the Rocky Mountains. And perhaps best of all, not a single "Jellystone Park" or "Dollywood" or comparable schmaltzy tourist trap which sit at the front gates of Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains. In Pigeon River Country, the narrow dirt roads keep the motorhomes away, and the "unimproved" campgrounds (where the pit toilets smell bad and flies buzz your backside as you sit there), keep out all but the most dedicated of visitors.

Two sister rivers, the Pigeon and the Black, share simple spring-fed origins before flowing north, nimble and pure. Beaver dams, log jams, and a shallow river bottom keep the canoe liveries and the noisy beer-guzzling frat boys from defiling their virginal spirits. Aside from a handful of hikers and hard-core fly fishermen, few people venture into Pigeon River Country. One of the most noted was a young Ernest Hemingway, who would sneak away from his parents' summer cottage on nearby Walloon Lake to go fishing on the Black River (pictured here). He later wrote of these trips in his Nick Adams short stories, and his literary description of the area was "as wild as the devil." (Hence the title of this post. Ernest would be most proud). Another famous visitor a few years back was consumate fly-fisherman and former president Jimmy Carter (back to Hemingway: years ago, we asked an old timer at the gas station in Seney, Michigan if he remembered Hemingway fishing the nearby Fox River. The old codger snickered and said EH got red-eye drunk, slept under the railroad bridge, and never wet a fishing line. So much for literary purity. He was still a hell of a writer so we'll cease further comment for a moment).

If you run out of batteries or firewood while visiting Pigeon River, one mercantile you can go to for supplies and groceries is the Sparr Mall. We have to admit: we sometimes find ourselves yearning for the simply life where you live on the fringes of civilization. Where you buy milk at the same place you get chainsaw oil. Where the only radio station that comes in clear is country/western. But then we look back upon the ten years we spent living this way, and how the realities of isolation ultimately shattered the illusion that living apart from society would somehow enlighten us.

We've had a similiar awakening about our idealistic notions of the integrity of literature and the sanctity of wilderness as well. Hemingway, for all his literary skill, was in many ways a fraud to himself and the people closest to him. This bald eagle, our rugged symbol of American resilence and strength, sits perched above a powerline that would kill him in a nanosecond if he were to land on a transformer. Hemingway and the bald eagle once shared the same iconic status in our misguided belief that universal absolutes existed in the books we read and the places we hiked.

Just a wing-stroke down the road, the powerline ends at one of the 15,000 oil wells that tap into the Antrim Band, the large undergound vein of oil and natural gas spanning between Petoskey and Alpena. Several hundred wells pump away inside the boundaries of Pigeon River Country. Watching bull elk gather around the clanking machines to lick the ground, made salty from the briny water sucked up from a mile below, we re-examine our paradigms about places once believed to be pristine and wild. Our definition of wilderness, just like our definition of literary purity, is a subjective concept indeed.

View My Profile