Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Flashback 2007: Delightful and unexpected; Family vacation to Tennessee -- yes, Tennessee

     I was puzzling over what to write in the paper Wednesday and, through some random brain circuitry quirk, got to wondering what Eddie Montgomery is up to.
       Montgomery is the surviving half the Montgomery Gentry country music duo—his partner Troy Gentry died in a helicopter crash last September. I saw them on stage twice, and admired their powerful performance and honest, intelligent music. 
     Turns out that in February, Montgomery issued an album they had finished just before Gentry died, and not only has been touring, solo, but as chance would have it is coming to Bloomington, a mere 140 miles from Chicago, this Saturday night, playing at the Grossinger Motors Arena. Tickets are available.
     That seemed reason enough to dig deeper. So much of concert music is canned bologna  nowadays, I thought the Kentuckian's performances in the wake of Gentry's death might be more genuine and heartfelt than the standard fare.
    "I know I'm supposed to be a big badass outlaw or whatever," Montgomery told Rolling Stone in March. "But when we hit the stage a couple weeks ago without him, I was so nervous. I was like 'Oh my God' – I thought I was gonna get sick. But finally I felt him in there, and I started smiling."  
     Monday I contacted Montgomery's management and asked to talk to him for a few minutes about how he's holding up without the man he's been harmonizing with for so long—the duo officially formed in 1999, but they played together for decades before that. Maybe I'll hear from him Tuesday, most likely I won't on such short notice, but as I tell the boys, "It's called "trying.'"
     There aren't many groups that I like, but Montgomery Gentry songs are a few cuts above, and I quote them from time to time in the column. Now that I think of it, I would have included the recovery anthem "Some People Change" in my recent book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise," but after going through the time and expense of tracking down Beth Nielsen Chapman and paying her a fortune for "Save Yourself," I didn't have the heart.
     No matter, in checking what I wrote when I first encountered the group, I came upon this travelogue to Tennessee, and thought it merits posting.

     The day before we left, I walked a cigar down Wacker Drive.
     Why go on vacation at all, I wondered, when it is so very pleasant right here? What sights could be possibly better than these? Especially in Tennessee, of all places?
     Ah, well, I concluded, with a melancholy puff. People do these things. The boys and the wife are looking forward to it -- she has her heart set on climbing some mountain and staying at a lodge there. Might as well go without complaint and see what happens.

                                                                  - - -

     Nashville has its own Parthenon. Who knew? A full-scale replica, not of marble like the one in Athens, but concrete-studded with pebbles, smack dab in the center of a city park. It's huge.    

     Inside, a 42-foot-tall statue of Athena, facing a pair of 24-foot-tall, 7.5-ton bronze doors so skillfully hung you can move one with your pinkie.
     Delightful and unexpected -- here, in the Bible Belt, where people put Ten Commandments magnets on their SUVs, they erected an enormous pagan temple with a gilt Greek goddess in the center.
     And this was just the first morning of the first day. 

                                                      - - -

     My experience with country music began and ended 20 years ago with "Coal Miner's Daughter." But we were here, so why not go to the Grand Ole Opry?
     A great show. Impressive how they draw the audience into their 80-year tradition with a short film and a Minnie Pearl imitator revving up the crowd. They welcomed us to their 4,252nd consecutive performance, then got down to business with a blast of fiddle and a brace of blur-legged dancers.
     Acts came and went. White-haired pros with half a century at the Opry mixed with ingenues making their debuts.
     "This song is going to be on my new album, and I'd like to do it for you," said Jennifer Hanson, a leggy lass, touchingly sincere, introducing a tune called "73" that outlines the fracture of her family, its title referring, courageously, to the year she was born.
     Then a duet called Montgomery Gentry burst onstage. A driving beat, great lyrics -- especially "Lucky Man" -- sharp showmanship and twangy music. I had never heard of them before but instantly could tell that these guys were good. We bought their new CD and couldn't stop listening to it as we drove across the state.

                                                              - - -

     Homemade biscuits. Moon Pies. Sweet tea. Goo-Goo Clusters. Fried strawberry pie. Fried banana pudding. Turnip greens.
     Carthage. Alexandria. Tennessee's ancient world motif isn't limited to the Parthenon -- 170-year-old wallpaper at Andrew Jackson's home shows scenes from mythology. No doubt an attempt back then to lend classical luster to a frontier nowhere.
     Fishing barefoot in a river. Riding horses through dense woods. We spent three days hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whose beauty defies words—trees covered with delicate lichen and moss, banks of wildflowers, 10-mile-wide mountain vistas. The boys, whom I expected to drag their feet and pine for TV, instead surged ahead, particularly the older kid, as if he had been waiting his whole life for this. We went from worrying he'd refuse to climb to worrying he'd skip off a cliff.
     We stayed at the place my wife dreamed about—LeConte Lodge. No electricity, no roads, it's supplied by pack llamas. Toward evening, we watched the mist roll eerily up the mountainside, just like smoke.

                                                                   - - -

     After the park, Pigeon Forge, a godawful, endless strip of chain restaurants and go-kart tracks that makes Wisconsin Dells seem like the Garden of Eden. One could easily juxtapose it to the Smokies and make a compelling argument for the extinction of the human race.
     Too easily, and just as Tiger Woods doesn't practice two-inch putts, so I don't traffic in the obvious. I made the best of it and taught Kent how to shoot pool.
     Besides, that's where we saw the Dixieland Stampede, Dolly Parton's revival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Any experience that includes live thundering bisons and a piglet race supposedly redeciding the outcome of the Civil War cannot be all bad.

                                                                       - - -

     "Martin Luther King stayed in a motel?!" marveled Ross, as I tucked him into bed in our room at the Peabody. Ironic -- to him, King is a famous person, so of course he would stay somewhere fancy, like the Peabody, with its famous lobby-dwelling ducks and its duckmaster with his red jacket and gold-headed duck cane.
     I was explaining that tomorrow we'd visit the National Civil Rights Museum, cleverly carved out of the shell of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered in 1968.
     Like the whole state of Tennessee, the museum far exceeded expectations -- a vivid, throat-clenching, eye-misting experience. We spent three hours there -- the boys learning the saga for the first time, me picking up information I didn't know: For instance, King was stabbed by a deranged black woman in 1956. He later laughed off the incident, which seems the right approach to such situations.

                                                                       - - -

     Much of the country is still woods, and driving across its vastness was supremely reassuring. During the trip, the London terror plot unfurled, and the standard crew of flag-waving cowards took to the airwaves to announce that the only way to combat terrorism is to preemptively renounce the freedoms that terrorists oppose.
     Fools. It's a great country, and while we certainly can be harmed, we'll win in the end, if we keep faith in ourselves.

                                                                     - - -

      Memphis has a pyramid. Who knew? And of course Graceland. I went; how can you not? And since the place has been picked clean, culturally, there didn't seem any point to criticize. So I just went and enjoyed. It actually was interesting, and I learned stuff. His life, despite all the buffing, seemed hollow. By the time Elvis was my age, he had been dead for five years, and I decided that, all things being equal, I would rather be me than be Elvis, a revelation worth driving 1,900 miles to receive.

                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 15, 2007


  1. excellent parenting taking your boys on such a trip.i wasn't so lucky , I was raised by wolves. hitch hiked to the the smokeys with my girlfriend when I was 16. stopped at mammoth cave.

    took my 3 sons on the same trip a few years ago. have been there abouts many times in between. climbed mount le conte in the winter once

    love that area. so long as you bypass pigeon forge and gatlinburg

  2. I visited Nashville for the first time this past year. My most vivid memory is walking down the main music strip (Broadway?) on an early Saturday afternoon and struggling through countless drunken revelers checking out the bands in the bars. Seemed a little early to be lit up to me. The George Jones museum was sublime.

    A prosperous friend who has convinced himself Illinois is a cesspool was scouting property in the hills of rural eastern Tennessee. The realtor took him and his wife into a roadside general store and introduced them as visitors from Chicago. Consider the countless possibilities the clerk could respond with. She chose this: "You aren't gonna make fun of Jesus are ya?"

  3. Seems like Montgomery Gentry would be worth a listen. Apparently, the lyrics can be understood at least. A couple days ago, I listened to as much as I could stand of the Rolling Stones on an Indiana PBS station. Maybe they were singing important stuff, but I couldn't even understand the refrain, which was repeated at least a dozen times, and the sight of undead Mick Jagger hopping around the stage was off putting enough to cancel anything I might have gleaned from the song itself.


  4. Sadly, there's no more Gentry in Montgomery Gentry, with Troy Gentry having died in a helicopter crash last September...

  5. Memphis! Wonderful town. Beale Street. Streetcars. A minor-league ballpark that's a gem. A riverfront complex called Mud Island, with a working model of the entire Mississippi River that you can cool your tired feet in. A rock-and-roll museum as interesting as the one in Cleveland, but much smaller. They even used to have the original Memphis Belle (the famous WWII B-17) on display, but the weather was eating it up, so it's now at the USAF Museum in Dayton, OH...another great place to visit.

    Of course, I saved the best for last...Graceland. Especially during Elvis Week in August. Busload after busload of goggle-eyed visitors from the UK and Japan. The candlelight vigil that began the whole phenomenon of candlelight vigils. And the grave itself, with flowers piled six feet high...the Full Diana. Walking past The King's final resting place was still free in the Oughts. Now it costs you thirty-five bucks. Elvis is still raking in the moolah, forty-plus years after he passed on.

  6. "I'd rather be me than Elvis." Now that's something we all need to learn - all things being equal......


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.