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View from the USA: Tennessee country music

Look beyond the rhinestones and the saccharine lyrics and you’ll realise country music is the authentic voice of America’s rural working class

View from the USA: Tennessee country music
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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I fell in love in a barn in Tennessee.

It was an hour east of Nashville, in a tiny town called Granville, on the banks of the Cumberland River: a place of white-washed, storybook houses and American flags in every yard. I’d come because I’d heard about The Sutton Ole Time Music Hour: a bluegrass jam held in the town’s general store, broadcast live on the radio every Saturday night. But I wasn’t hopeful. Country music, to me, meant guns, bad lyrics and pick-up trucks — the soundtrack of a world alien to my urbanite lifestyle.

Stepping inside the 1880s-built T.B. Sutton General Store is like stepping inside a time machine. There are vintage signs, soda pops and patchwork quilts on the walls, the smell of sweets and old wood; everything creaking and leaning, as if it might topple at any second. If John Wayne were to walk in dressed in full cowboy gear, no one would’ve batted an eyelid. And, as the only Brit in the room, I was swarmed — being British in Granville is, perhaps, the closest I’ll ever come to genuine celebrity.

A few-dozen fold-up chairs are laid out in front of a tiny corner stage. We’re in for a treat: the legendary Mike Compton, the 60-something former protégé of the Father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe, is in town: ready to play smoking-fast mandolin, accompanied by upright bass, fiddle and banjo. The instant the band strikes up I realise this isn’t broken-hearts-and-horses-style country; nor is it your Shania Twain-esque electrified pop. This is five old boys standing around one mic, swapping solos, stomping their feet, hollering and laughing; and it’s infectious.

The show has its funny parts; although this is live radio, it still feels like it’s being broadcast from a bygone era: adverts for farm equipment and propane are read out in between songs; the compere holds up ‘clap’ signs when we’re supposed to cheer, and the band are dressed in denim dungarees, for goodness’ sake. And near the end of the show, when Compton gets the whole room singing along to an old John Hartford classic, Bring Your Clothes Back Home, it dawns on me that these are America’s songs. Before hip hop and rock, before jazz and blues and putting your hands up for Detroit, people sat around on porches and store fronts, and played old time music like this, singing about life on the edge of this wild, great country.

But that’s just what I heard with my ears; what really struck me were the people themselves. Before the show, we sat down in the old feed barn next
door for a communal meal: big bowls of fried chicken, mashed potato and green beans smothered in butter, passed round, family style. We bowed our heads and said grace, the whole room giving thanks for the food, the music, even their strange visitor from across the pond.

There was a kindness and humility about the whole thing, something rarely seen in our pumped-up city lives. I was right: this was another world, but a world on my doorstep that I’d had my eyes closed to for too long. But rural towns like Granville are slowly fading away. Scattered like wind-blown seeds across the heartland of America, they echo an older, simpler time: a shrinking world — being gobbled up by cities and technology — that’s routinely castigated as clichéd by lefties like me. If their world feels alien to us, ours must feel like an invasion to them.

Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t fallen in love with every kind of country music. In Nashville, I saw a man in a pink rhinestone suit singing about meeting Jesus in a bar, and another get a standing ovation for endorsing the right to bear arms.

But that’s their world, not mine. Because, if you look beyond all the cornball lyrics and saccharine sentiment, there are moments of genuine grace in country music too. If you’re in any doubt, just file into the jam-packed general store in Granville and you’ll hear it for yourself.

granvilletn.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)