Tag Archives: Bristol Sessions

Tennessee’s history from A to A-and-a-half

One of The History Channel‘s few history-related shows is “The States.”  Actually, it’s not solely about history, but each segment does include some historical information, which is more than you can say about “Ice Road Truckers.”

Yesterday I caught the segment on my home state of Tennessee.  I have many pet peeves when it comes to popularized Tennessee history, and this program managed to hit several of them within the span of a few minutes.

For one thing, in her opening commentary, Memphis native Cybill Shepherd mispronounced “Appalachia.”  It’s “App-uh-LATCH-uh,” ladies and gents, not “App-uh-LAY-shuh.”  The indigenous pronunciation of a place is always the correct one, and no native to the region is going to lengthen the third “a” or soften the “ch.”  Doing so invariably reveals the speaker to be a flatlander.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a non-Appalachian—nobody’s perfect—but neither is it something one should be eager to advertise.

On the other hand, Cybill correctly pointed out that Tennessee is “very long.”  I don’t think anybody would argue with her on that one.

More seriously, the show’s view of Tennessee’s history was pretty myopic.  I know that you can’t offer a thorough overview of two centuries in just ten minutes, but the selections seemed a little odd to me.

There was, for instance, a biographical examination of Jack Daniel.  I think we can all admire Daniel’s entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m sure his product is exceptional.  (Being a teetotaler, I haven’t tried it myself.)  Still, for a state that’s produced three presidents and countless military commanders, this is setting the bar a bit low, isn’t it?

One of the on-air commentators stressed—I kid you not—that Jack Daniel was a real person, “not like Betty Crocker or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”  I immediately had this mental image of a Godzilla-sized nineteenth-century distillery operator rampaging through the streets of New York.

The inevitable main topic was the history of music, which I found annoying but completely unsurprising.  People seem incapable of thinking about any other aspect of Tennessee history; Elvis and the Grand Ole Opry are apparently the Alpha and Omega of the Volunteer State’s past.  They loom over it like (to use a ready analogy) the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

The next time a cashier gives you a Tennessee state quarter, take a look at the reverse side.  Illinois has Lincoln, Massachusetts has a Patriot militiaman, Missouri has Lewis and Clark, New Jersey has Washington crossing the Delaware, North Carolina has the Wright brothers.  What does our quarter have?

From Wikimedia Commons

A guitar, a fiddle, and a trumpet.  We’re the pep band of the American union.

The exclusive focus on Nashville during the music segment was also irritating.  If we’ve got to concentrate on country music history to the exclusion of all else, then let’s at least get something straight.  The birthplace of country music was the state’s mountainous east, not Nashville.  Bristol is where the Victor Talking Machine Company’s 1927 recording sessions launched the careers of America’s first country superstars.  Johnny Cash himself called it “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

On the bright side, the Tennessee segment did include Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett.  I couldn’t help but wonder why these guys didn’t make their way onto the state quarter.  You could name any number of other figures or events from Tennessee’s past that left their mark: Sevier, Robertson, King’s Mountain, New Orleans, Forrest, Shiloh, Sgt. York, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  Tennessee history doesn’t start at the Ryman and end at Graceland.

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History