Nothing I had ever read about it before, could have prepared me for the experience, and the opportunity, really, of living in southern rural America for a couple of years.
The town – a pre-civil war railway station, nested at the feet of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Native American Appalachia, and protected by the Cherokee National Forest. A rolling-hills place, with long, bright winding roads, shaded by maple trees, golden-orange and crimson-red at season-changing times.
The people – a genuine community, for whom the town’s culture and traditions are bigger than their individual lives. They never rush in traffic. Always ready to lend a hand to the one in need, kin or stranger. They always smile, and are probably the nicest people I have ever met. They live in this small corner of Cherokee-protected Heaven, and may just as well be on a different stratosphere altogether than their fellow Americans from New York or San Francisco.
Coming from such a distant culture, in every sense, I could only sit and marvel at the ways the people lived their life here, from the regular breakfast biscuit at Pal’s, to my roommate’s music choices.
For about half a year, I had lived in the same house with this American country girl, which made me almost swear I’d entered the set of a Western. Every afternoon, she would go to work on a ranch, taking care of a herd of horses, her favorite animals. This was, of course, not incompatible at all with her morning classes at the University and her preparation as a future accountant. She would come back from the ranch in her dirty brown boots, jeans tucked away in them, a checkered shirt, and her sun-dried blond, braided hair popping out of her wide-brimmed cowboy hat.
Hey! How y’all doing?, she would say, showing her freckled face around a large, white-teethed smile. The quintessence of greetings in this old-fashioned corner of the South.
Each evening was catching her practicing hours on end, in our open living room, on another of her passions, bluegrass music. Being part of the University’s bluegrass band, playing the banjo, she was rehearsing for an upcoming show. The sound of her fiddling, together with her vocalizing of what it seemed to me as the same song over and over again, probably forms one of the most vivid pictures of my life in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. To this day, the banjo’s high pitches are glued in my mind, and whenever I hear similar tunes, they take me straight back to those bluegrass-filled days.
I didn’t tell my American-country-girl roommate that I went to see her perform at the University’s Homecoming concert. I wanted to get a chance to catch a glimpse of her, undisturbed, in her own musical universe. The wooden stage was set in front of this Old South red brick building with front columns, white and tall. The Tennessee 3-starred red and blue flag swirling above in the warm spring breeze. It was the ideal place, in the whole wide world, to hold this Sunday celebration: that old railway town, where in the roaring ‘20s Columbia Records organized the famous Johnson City Sessions of bluegrass.
A fine day, y’all, at the Blue Ridge foothills, where my roommate’s upbeat banjo rhythms were telling me the story of old Tennessee.
First image credit: East Tennessee State University.
- Wade Mainer: Musician who bridged the gap between Old Time music and Bluegrass (independent.co.uk)
- Birthplace of Bluegrass (rymanauditorium.wordpress.com)