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A New Jersey Yankee in the Heart of Country


I have never been a fan of Country Music. I remember when it was referred to as Country Western, and the twang was a killer to my ears. That down home sound was a downer. My dad was a fan of the old show “Hee Haw”. I couldn’t be anywhere near the television, or in listening range when it was on. As soon as they started popping out of the cornfield, I’d be popping out of the room. No Buck Owens or Roy Clark for me.


It has always just been a personal preference. Even at the age of seven, I knew I didn’t like the steel guitar, or any type of honky tonk sound.  The music, the outfits, the big hair on the female singers was definitely not anything that was going to win me over.  The only place I wanted to hear a banjo was at the “Country Bear Jamboree” at Disneyworld.

I was always a Soul Man. Give me The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Martha and Vandellas “Dancing in the Street.” I loved the funky dance sound, not the lament that someone ran over my wife with a pickup truck, and my dog died of grief ballads of the country crooners.  I wanted to ease on down the “Soul Train” line, and not worry about what the “Wichita Lineman” was up to.

For me the South was rednecks, moonshine, trailer parks, tobacco, kissing cousins, dueling banjoes, pickup trucks, the Civil War and bad music. That all sounds like stereotypes, and I guess they are. Although I am not a fan of people who use stereotypes, I can say that they are real timesavers.

I am part of a group that gets stereotyped constantly, so I should be careful of the danger in using stereotypes. When you lump everyone together in a particular group without looking at the individual, you are using a tremendous amount of bias.  I realize that as an adult, and try to see people as  a solitary personality, but somewhere deep inside a stereotype there is a microscopic kernel of truth.

That kernel sometimes just seems to pop open like microwave popcorn and let out its warm, buttery goodness. I guess I have always kept that kernel when it came to the land below the Mason-Dixon line. I have traveled quite a bit but never that much in the South.

My Northeast heritage has pretty much kept me a city boy at heart, although I grew up a few miles from a farm market called COWTOWN. It is South Jersey’s version of a country farmer’s market, but it always gave me the creeps. There was a rodeo there on Saturday evenings during the summer months, and I never had the desire to go there once.

I certainly didn’t want to see the poor, defenseless calves get roped. What was the point in that? Rope the cowboys instead, that would be a better show, and those stupid rodeo clowns jumping in a barrel. I always hoped they would get skewered by one of the bulls – clowns are annoying especially when they are dodging cattle.

Besides, what’s up with cowboys in New Jersey anyway? Growing up, there was a Country Western bar called the Circle K around the corner from our house. I have never understood the cowboy mentality in good ole Jersey. It seemed to be a phenomenon in Southern Jersey. Where the farmland and the livestock was.  You might find Vinnie the Shark in North Jersey, but you certainly aren’t going to meet Vito “Tumbleweed” Gambino.  So, I never got the country vibe. I didn’t want to rope it, ride it or sit a spell.

With all that said, I recently made my first trip to Nashville, Tennessee – Music City. It was someplace I never thought I would visit, and suddenly I had a Southwest Airline ticket taking me to the land of the Grand Ole Opry.  How could this possibly transpire, you are asking yourself? Let me explain.

 

Over a year ago, Gary’s cousin and her family moved to Nashville. They have lived in various places like Austin, TX and Santa Barbara, CA., so the move to Nashville seemed a bit peculiar to me, but everyone must plant their roots where they feel comfortable. I knew they had good taste and were certainly savvy travelers, so I just had to accept that they had a hankering for Hooterville.

Several weeks ago on the CBS show Sunday Morning they presented a segment on a special exhibition of Art Deco automobiles called “Sensuous Steel.” It looked like a fascinating exhibit. Both Gary and I were interested in seeing it, and I assumed that it was being held in New York City. I was ready to head to the Big Apple, and then the announcer explained it was at The Frist Center For Visual Arts in Nashville.  Okay, so no Big Apple just a lump of lard and some Hushpuppies.  I told Gary he should let his cousin and her husband know about the exhibit, since it looked like a worthwhile show.


Gary sent a text to his cousin, and the next thing I knew we were going to fly down on Labor Day weekend to visit Gary’s family, see the exhibit, explore Nashville and celebrate Gary’s birthday.  I was excited to see the Gary’s cousin’s family, and at least I knew now that Nashville had a museum that wasn’t quilts and Minnie Pearl’s hat with the price sticker on it.

Although I love to travel and see new places, I am not a good traveler. I hate the whole ordeal of the airport, the security checks, the body scanners, carting the luggage. I always feel like cattle being herded onto a tin can, that gets hurled into the wild, blue yonder.

Southwest is not my favorite airline, because I hate the open seating arrangement. We have started doing the early bird check-in, so we can at least be placed in section “A” when boarding. There is nothing worse than flying on a pick our own seat airline as you board the plan, and you are at the end of the process. No one wants to sit in the center seat, so that is usually all that is available if you get on near the end of seating.

It stinks if you’re flying with someone and there are no seats left together. The first time we flew on Southwest that happened to Gary and I. We sat across from each other but both in the middle seat. We were next to a couple that both wanted aisle seats and were germaphobes. They both wore surgical masks like the plane was infected with SARS, and between them the passed a bottle of Purell across the aisle like a three hour relay race.

That’s when I decided I could only fly with the early pre-boarding. It is still a Russian roulette who is going to wind up sitting near you, behind you, etc. My other pet peeve is infants on a plane. I think the only way they should be allowed to fly is if they are still inside the womb, or there is a special nursery in the baggage compartment.  There is nothing worse than a crying baby on a long flight.

When we boarded the flight to Nashville, a woman got on the plane with a baby that looked about two years old. As my luck usually runs, she chose to sit in the seat directly behind mine.  I looked at Gary and said, “I feel a blog coming on.” I limbered up my neck, and prepared to do an Exorcist head spin the first time the baby made any type of cry or whine.

I must admit that the baby was either heavily drugged or a nipple was exposed during the entire flight, because I never heard a peep out of it. Thankfully, it is only a skip and a holler to Music City. We arrived at the Nashville Airport, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was clean, modern and Emmett Otter’s Jug Band wasn’t waiting to greet me as I came off the jet way.

First impressions are important, and so far so good. The only problem for our stay was going to be the weather. It was forecasted to be hot and humid – and it was!

Luckily, Gary’s cousin picked us up in a nicely air conditioned SUV, so we drove in style and comfort. I got my first lay of the land, and it was very picturesque.

Gary’s cousin, her husband and two daughters live in Belle Meade, which is part of Nashville although it is its own separate city. It is rolling hills, manicured lawns and many beautiful homes. In fact, it is Taylor Swift’s neighborhood, although I didn’t think we would be receiving an invite over for some afternoon tea.


There were no outhouses; corn liquor stills or sofas on anyone’s lawn, so I guess my redneck concerns were at ease for the moment. Gary’s cousin’s house was gorgeous –complete with a swimming pool, hot tub, putting green and outside lounging areas that you could live in. I could unpack and never leave the house, and I would be happy for the weekend. I didn’t need to venture into Music City. I could take a dip in the pool, open a good book, and wait for my outbound flight.

I couldn’t let the stereotypes I had held onto all these years, not get dispelled at least a bit. I had heard good things about Nashville. One of my favorite singers – Donna Summer – had moved there at some point, so I had to at least give the city a chance.

Country music has certainly changed over the years becoming more mainstream, and crossing over to the pop charts. I must admit that I purchased a Carrie Underwood song from iTunes recently.  At least I would know one song if I heard it on the radio while I was there.

Our plan was to visit the car exhibition at The Frist, see downtown Nashville, and tour Fontanel, which is the former estate of country star Barbara Mandrell.  We dressed in our heat wave gear and set out on our first excursion to the town of Franklin, which is a southern suburb of Nashville.

It is a small town with the country charm of Mayberry. We ate lunch at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant, which is well known in the area. Set up, with an old time grocery store look, I believe it use to be a Piggly Wiggly store, it has mismatched tables and chairs and down home cooking.


Gary’s cousin introduced us to Fried Pickles and Jalapenos that at first sounded weird, but were very tasty. Lunch was very good and I figured if an old Piggly Wiggly was good enough for Miss Daisy, it was good enough for me. We wandered around the town and saw some quaint shops. Southern hospitality is certainly still evident as every merchant greets you into their shops and asks “How y’all doing?” It is strange to be identified as out-of-towners when you are noticed for the accent you don’t think you have. We received several “y’all ain’t from around here are ya?” I was proud to exclaim I was not a local yokel and was just passing through. I was heading for the midnight train to Georgia.

The gentility even extends to leaving the store when they “ thank y’all for coming in,” even when you don’t purchase anything. It is thoughtful way to do business, and certainly feels neighborly. That is a definite check to the plus column of my southern living visit. The afternoon heat was beginning to get to us as we rushed from one air-conditioned shop to another. As our sweat began sweating, and we melted into the pavement, we decided to head back to swimming pool luxury and the great ceiling fanned indoors.

We were invited to go to a local high school football game where we had the chance to see Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in the bleachers, since their children attend that particular school. My love of football, country stars and heat quickly made up my mind for me, and I opted with Gary to remain at Casa Cousins with the water features and two adorable Australian Labradoodles. The dogs named Udi and Charlie are brothers, and they are lovable, cuddly creatures. 

With the house to ourselves for several hours, I relaxed on the sofa under the ceiling fan and snuggled with the dogs, who I found out love to get in your face and give big doggie kisses. There is nothing better than just kicking back and letting the stress go on a quick get-a-way vacation. I joined Gary in the pool and the dogs followed through their own personal doggie door.

Water is certainly a primal element. There is nothing as calming and soothing as being near the ocean or hearing the sound of gently running water. Although I am not a swimmer, I have always liked dipping my feet in a pool or floating on a raft. I got into the pool and clung to a foam lounger like a survivor on the Titanic.  The dogs circled the pool and watched us float around. They had such cute faces, like a combination Teddy Bear/Chewbacca. I just wanted to hug them.


I maneuvered myself over to the side of the pool where I was face to face with the dogs. I reached over to pet them and received the biggest direct in the mouth tongue kiss from Charlie. It took me by surprise. I thought, “Well I can certainly take that off my un-bucket list – being French kissed by an Australian Labradoodle in Nashville.


Our next day’s sojourn took us to Fontanel which is the former estate of Country star Barbara Mandrell. The mansion is a 27,000 square foot log home, which is the biggest residential log cabin in the world. It is located on a 136-acre property that includes a restaurant, a farmhouse country store and coffee shop, a Goo Goo Outpost, an amphitheater and Music City Zipline Tours.

It was our chance to see how a country star lived and worked, as her tour bus was also on the property. I remembered Barbara Mandrell from her variety show that was on in the early 80’s. It featured Barbara and her two sisters.

Our first stop on the tour was the farmhouse where you purchase tickets, and it also served as a gift shop where Barbara Mandrell merchandise was sold. They featured

everything from CD’s, apparel, ice scrapers, and mandrellas for the rain. I’m not sure why you would need a Barbara Mandrell ice scraper, but now I know where you can get one.  Knowledge is power!

I am always ready to buy a souvenir or trinket, so I grew impatient to visit the Goo Goo Outpost. It was taking too long to make the ticket purchase, since Clem Kadiddlehopper couldn’t figure out which was the best way for us to buy the tickets for the mansion tour since it is timed, and we also wanted to visit the 2013 Southern Living Idea House that had been built on the Fontanel property.  The house will reopen early next year as a Bed and Breakfast.

While Clem worked on the quadratic equation, Gary and I headed to the land of Goo Goo. The Goo Goo Cluster is a candy treat created in Nashville in 1912 by the Standard Candy Company. It is a yummy combination of caramel, marshmallow nougat and roasted peanuts covered in milk chocolate. I had heard about them on some Food Network show, but had never had one.  I love chocolate and peanuts, so I couldn’t wait to try one. The Outpost had hats, t-shirts and tons of candy.


I was in Goo Goo heaven. Since I wasn’t a Nashville native I didn’t realize that there were three flavors of the Goo Goo Cluster. There is the Original, The Supreme and Peanut Butter. So I did what anyone else would do who was faced with those choices – I bought all three types.  The scorecard for my southern trip got another positive check. I can admit that I was gaga for Goo Goo, especially the Supreme that contains pecans.  It is just a little cluster of chocolaty goodness. Like a lot of southern cooking it is not about the healthiness; it is about the flavor.

I munched my Goo Goo Cluster, and we headed to check out the Mandrell Tour Bus. I must admit it was interesting to see the way a celebrity can travel in style on a bus.

Outfitted with even sleeping bunks with their own separate televisions, and of course a full bedroom for the star, Barbara knew how to go Greyhound.

To get to the mansion itself, you have to take a shuttle bus. The residence is pretty far back onto the property. The shuttle driver was friendly and for entertainment while we were waiting for the bus to load up, we got to watch episodes of the old show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.  There is nothing like watching Barbara as she croons a ballad through an 80’s dramatic halo effect lens. Like it was filmed through Vaseline and panty hose. Such moving nostalgia cannot be found anywhere except on a bus in Tennessee.

Once the bus was officially moving we all watched a video about the building of the world’s largest residential log cabin. It was an interesting story about the selection of logs and how the mansion was constructed. The house is named Fontanel which in French means something about a crossing stream I think, but the most common definition is the soft spot in an infant’s skull.  There definitely must have been a soft spot in someone’s wallet when building this giant cabin in the woods.

The property was beautifully landscaped and we were dropped off at the entrance. The group of tourists, us included, entered the atrium foyer which used giant logs to create a large skylight ceiling.  This was an impressive beginning with a large color portrait of Barbara and her sisters, Maybelline and Listerine on the wall.


We were lead into what was called the “Great Room” it was certainly the size of a high school gymnasium built out of logs.  There was certainly a lot to see. It wasn’t my style or taste, but it was fun to look at the memorabilia scattered around the room. Apparently, when Barbara first saw the room she said, “Wow! This is a great room” and that it is how it got its name.  I am glad she didn’t say, “Wow! Look at the size of that wood!”



There were bedrooms with various themes, but Barbara’s bedroom was the most interesting. It contained a canopied bed with mirrors on the underside of the canopy. Evidently Barbara was “Kinky before Kinky was Cool”. It could also be the inspiration for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”, if Barbara’s husband wasn’t into a bit of exhibitionism.

The hallway between the bedroom and the bathroom was an entire wall of mirrors, so somebody liked seeing him or herself from every angle. The white marble bathroom was over the top with gold fixtures and 360 degrees mirrors. Barbara used it also as her office. I guess the acoustics were good. Several of the women on the tour got into the large tub to pose for a photo shot. I thought to myself “damn why didn’t I think of something so tacky?”

There were no photo opportunities for me. I didn’t need to post to Facebook that I had visited Fontanel. I came, I toured, I dosie doe- ed, that was more than enough. All that was left on this trip was the Frist Center and seeing downtown Nashville.

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is an Art Deco building that is reminiscent of the interior design of the Empire State Building.  It was a pleasant surprise, and I was glad to see that culturally Nashville had other interests besides the music scene.



We had made it to the exhibit that had inspired the whole trip.  “Sensuous Steel” – The Art Deco Automobile. It was well worth the trip to see these gas powered pieces of art and style.  I never thought of using the word sensuous and Nashville in the same sentence, but it seemed to be working with this collection of vehicles. These were beautiful machines, and I would have gladly driven anyone of them out of the museum. 



I took out my iPhone to snap some photos of the autos. All the cars were outlined with a tape that the spectators could not cross to protect the relics. Although, I was not crossing the line with my feet, I leaned over slightly to snap a picture of one of the car’s interiors.


An unseen Car Nazi quickly reprimanded me. A museum security guard had slithered up behind me to let me know that my leaning body was crossing over the line of demarcation. Southern Charm was not a part of this gentleman’s forte.  Okay, so Billy Ray Hitler yelled at me.  I quickly saluted Mein Fuhrer and moved on.

After hitting the museum gift shop – remember I like souvenirs. It was time to head into downtown Music City. While we were in the exhibit there had been a sudden storm and down pour of rain, but I was fine with it. In fact, I was flattered that Nashville wanted to rinse itself off for me. We waited a few minutes for the rain to slacken and then headed for the bars, saloons and shops. There is some interesting architecture in the city including the Country Music Hall of Fame.


We went into the Wild Horse Saloon which is a pretty big establishment with three floors of country entertainment value. They have food, dancing and live entertainment – everything a country fan could want.  There are many bars and clubs in this area, and you could listen to the country sound until the cows came home.  We took a look-see into a few of the establishments, and that was plenty for me. 


I had made it to the land where twang began, and I had survived. I bought several souvenirs to prove I had been in Music City, and I was ready to be on my way. I had developed a different appreciation for this Southern city, and I realized I could visit without feeling like I had just come out of the woods from Deliverance.

I guess I wanted to develop a whole new version of the South in my mind, but I learned that there still is a “good ole boy” network that survives in the land of the old Confederacy. A country club, that is the neighborhood where Gary’s family live still applies the rule “no Blacks, no Jews, no Gays” for entrance into the membership. Also, if the one of the all-white male members dies, the surviving spouse loses her membership in the club.


I can’t believe that this type of racism, bigotry and exclusion is allowed to occur in 2013. I have to remember that the look and sound of Country Music is certainly changing, and the new artists provide a different contemporary sensibility, there are still those old hateful notions that cling to certain areas of the southern population.

As I packed my bags, I reflected on my time in Nashville. My stay with my partner’s family was excellent. I couldn’t have asked for better accommodations and hospitality. Nashville and its environs pleasantly surprised me. I certainly liked the food, and the friendliness of the retail merchants, and I would return for a second visit.


I also knew, that I would always be a Northern at heart. I realize that there is prejudice and racism in the North also, but I don’t see it as blatant as that country club with its antiquated rules. I realized that I could let my stereotypes go and see Music City in a different way. It is just too bad that those kernels of what we believe to be a truth are still so deeply planted in the minds of many in the south.

The next time I go to Nashville, I am going straight to the country club to request a membership application. I am going to tell them I am a Gay, Jewish cousin of Obama’s. I can’t wait to meet the welcoming committee. I’ll let you know what tee time is.


















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