I suspect I’ll be largely unsuccessful in this, but I wanted to write about what Tennessee means to me. My sister, Ashley, told me about the band above (Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors) a few months ago. She pointed me to this song, “Tennessee,” and it captures almost perfectly my own sentiments about Tennessee. One of the big benefits of taking this job with The Greeneville Sun is that it gets us home to Tennessee.
I wrote last year — or tried to, at least — about why the South is a special place. Far more talented writers have tackled that elusive question before. But Tennessee itself is different for me, in a more local kind of way. As the song above says, I was born in Tennessee and raised in Tennessee. Virtually all my best (and worst) memories for the first twenty years of my life take place in Tennessee. Still, it’s more than that.
One of the best memories I have is when Dad and I took a drive one summer day to Jefferson County, Tennessee, while I was home from college. We were hunting for any clue about my grandfather’s father and his roots. My great-grandfather’s story is still a mystery to us; we don’t know who his dad was. So Dad and I visited the musty archives room in the basement of the Jefferson County Courthouse, looking for any clues in what are known as bastardy files. You can figure out what that means. We drove around Douglas Lake in Jefferson County. One hundred years ago, that lake wasn’t there. The Tennessee Valley Authority, when damming the Tennessee River, created the lake in the process (this is the case for many lakes in East Tennessee). While efforts were made to remove and reinter bodies that would have been in the lake’s path, some weren’t. So, with our roots being so enigmatic, for all we know we could have kin buried under Douglas Lake, after all these years.
These are the sorts of things that aren’t exclusive to me and my family history, but which certainly anchor my affections to my home state. As I wrote in that piece last year, the South in particular is known as a place that often becomes a character in its own right, not just settings for our stories. I think when you’ve roamed around a place as much as I have roamed Tennessee — down its back roads and through its green valleys — it’s easy for a place to feel like a person, not just a place. Inhabit it with your own memories — the mind’s residue of life shared with those around you — and saying hello again to a place is like saying hello again to a family member. That also means you know a place’s shortcomings, yet you can love it in spite of them.
Why is it that some of us are so drawn to the concept of place, a particular place? Is it the sense of belonging? Is it a sense of homely comfort? Is it safety? Is it knowing that as well as you know a place — like people — there’s always more of it to learn? Always more to experience?
I think somewhere deep in my marrow I know the answers to some of these questions, but I have no words for them. I think one could spend a lifetime groping in the dark for the right words for such a thing and still not come close. It’s a wonder-ful thing, really.