James Brown’s Tennessee connections

December 26, 2006

James Brown, who died on Christmas day, had several Tennessee connections. First, he played across the state–from Memphis to Kingsport–throughout his career. Perhaps the oddest venue for him was in 1979, when he sang on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. According to an article in today’s Tennessean, the “Godfather of Soul” sang  “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”

In the early days, his career was one of the many black entertainers boosted by Nashville’s WLAC, a powerful AM station whose most famous disc jockey, John R., aka John Richbourg, played what were then called Rhythm and Blues records. According to the Tennessean, “Starting with his 1956 hit, ‘Please, Please, Please,’ the station and disc jockey John Richbourg gave Brown’s music its first exposure to a national audience, said Don Boner, a writer from Indianapolis who has researched WLAC’s history.

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Get on the bus with Nathan Bedford Forrest

December 19, 2006

The American History Forum and Civil War Education Association, an organization offering various American History and Civil War Tours, has an interesting one lined up for June of 2007. Riding with Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Battle from the Start is a one-bus tour that traces the life of the infamous “Wizard of the Saddle.”

The tour will be led by Edwin C. Bearss, Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service, who vaulted to fame when he was one of the narrators of Ken Burns’s PBS series, The Civil War. bearss1.gifThe tour, which begins and ends in Memphis, costs $1,585 double occupancy if paid in full by December 31.


Tennessee places second in pot growth

December 19, 2006

The Los Angeles Times reports that marijuana is now the number one cash crop in America, a $35 billion dollar market. According to the story,”A report released today by a marijuana public policy analyst contends that the market value of pot produced in the U.S. exceeds $35 billion — far more than the crop value of such heartland staples as corn, soybeans and hay, which are the top three legal cash crops.”

California is the number one source, growing $13.8 billion worth of weed, and Tennessee comes in at number two with an estimated $4.7-billion cannabis harvest.

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More on the Smokies “Road to Nowhere”

December 19, 2006

The Asheville Citizen-Times has an entire section on the controversial extension of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park road along the north shore of Fontana Lake. Newly elected Congressman Heath Shuler and others have proposed that Swain County, North Carolina accept a cash settlement instead of building what would be an environmental disaster.

Congressman-elect Shuler, who used to be a University of Tennessee quarterback, has called the right play for this issue.


Billy Graham statue unveiled in Nashville while son readies megabuck mausoleum

December 13, 2006

An article in today’s Tennessean announces that today the Southern Baptist Convention is unveiling a statue of Billy Graham, the leading evangelist of the the 20th Century–some might say of all time.
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From the article: “The statue of Graham holding a Bible in one outstretched hand and standing in front of a 17-foot-tall cross will be permanently installed at Commerce Street and Eighth Avenue, on property owned by LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

On the same day, an unreal article in the Washington Post tells of conflict in the Graham family about where Billy and his wife will be buried. Ruth Graham, who raised five children in the mountains of North Carolina while Billy was on the road saving souls, wants to rest not far from the couple’s Montreat home. Franklin Graham, the son who now leads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has other plans, wanting to bury his parents in a “library” theme-park in Charlotte.

Here’s a paragraph from the article–the “she” is novelist Patricia Cornwell: “The building, designed in part by consultants who used to work for the Walt Disney Co., is not a library, she says, but a large barn and silo — a reminder of Billy Graham’s early childhood on a dairy farm near Charlotte. Once it’s completed in the spring, visitors will pass through a 40-foot-high glass entry cut in the shape of a cross and be greeted by a mechanical talking cow. They will follow a path of straw through rooms full of multimedia exhibits. At the end of the tour, they will be pointed toward a stone walk, also in the shape of a cross, that leads to a garden where the bodies of Billy and Ruth Graham could lie.”

Jesus wept.

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Rival scholars claim new site for Sgt. York heroics

December 9, 2006

An article in today’s Tennessean states that a professor from Tennessee Tech and another from Middle Tennessee State University have found the site of Sgt. York’s World War I heroic actions that led to his lifelong fame.

Tennessee Tech issued a press release back in March of 2006 claiming that “TTU’s Michael Birdwell and MTSU’s Tom Nolan think they have the artifacts to prove it — including 12 of 15 rounds from a Lee Enfield Model 17 rifle believed to have been fired by the Tennessee war hero when his marksmanship killed 25 German enemy troops and helped him capture 132 more in the 1918 battle of Meuse-Argonne.” The pair went back to France in November, and came home with what they claim is conclusive proof that theirs is the one true site.

Yesterday, Middle Tennessee State issued its own release announcing that the professorial pair had spent two weeks tramping over the battlefield and recovered more than 1,400 artifacts.

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Leipers Fork: The Tennessee Martha’s Vineyard?

December 8, 2006

This week’s Nashville Scene contains a gushing piece on Gary Fisketjon, who at one time occupied the enviable position of publishing’s ediutorial enfant terrible. It was he who unleashed Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City on the American public as a Vintage Contemporaries paperback. He later worked at Knopf with the following writers: Annie Dillard, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Highsmith, Brett Easton Ellis, Haruki Murakami, Kent Haruf, Michel Houellebecq, Donna Tartt, Tobias Wolff.

Fisketjon is the latest celebrity to take up life in Leipers Fork, there to join other luminaries, most of them from the music world. The common Leiper Forkians take pride in the celebrities among them, just like their counterparts on Martha’s Vineyard, and make a point of not gushing when some famous soul comes to the grocery store or ambles down the street.

This article makes it sound like that Fisketjon is not just one of the summer people, but here to stay, conluding with the following:

“It is here, then, that Fisketjon comes to do the work that made him successful and that continues to drive the success of his stable of writers. He comes to sit at his kitchen table with its worm-worn wood, or at his window looking out on the Williamson County hills, because it is only here that he finds room and time for his craft. The next great American novel may be written in New York City, or California, or Washington state. But chances are it will be edited in Tennessee.”


Reworking Tennessee Factories

December 7, 2006

Knoxville residents and UT students have been, for decades, vaguely aware of Robertshaw Controls, a factory that hunkered down along Third Creek between the main UT Campus and the Agriculture Campus. You can see it by going here and clicking on “satellite.” Now the old factory has been sold, and will soon be torn down. Jack Neely, the “Secret History” columnist in Metro Pulse, weighs in this week on how no one seems to have considered adapting the facilities for other uses.

“Historic building” is not limited to plantation home or old courthouses. Factories in Tennessee have been successfully redeveloped, and can be used for distinctive shopping or residential areas. Two that come to mind immediately are outside Nashville.

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The Mill at Lebanon is an ambitious project involving taking an approximately 200,000 square-foot campus on 15 acres, just one block from the square in downtown Lebanon, Tennessee and converting it to mixed use retail/entertainment/office/residential redevelopment.

The Factory at Franklin has transformed the circa-1929 buildings that once served as the Dortch Stove Works, Magic Chef and later the Jamison Bedding Company, just six blocks from downtown Franklin, into a shopping and dining complex.

Much of the manufacturing capacity of Tennessee was (and was is a sad word in this case) concentrated in East Tennessee. My home town of Kingsport has suffered from several factory shut-downs, including the Borden Mills, where my grandfather worked; the Kingsport Press; the local foundry. While vague plans are underway to rework the Borden Mills building, the other facilities either have been or will be demolished.

Reworking factories for new uses, as Franklin and Lebanon have shown, can be a great way of reusing historic buildings and hosting housing or commercial ventures in truly distinctive surroundings.

:: Metro Pulse Online ::


Robert Plant Records in Nashville

December 6, 2006

The December Rolling Stone has a piece on Robert Plant, the former Led Zeppelin wailer who is now recording an album in Nashville with T. Bone Burnett and Alison Krauss.

Plant was interviewed near the famous crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to play dazzling blues on the guitar. He describes seeing Brownsville’s Sleepy John Estes singing on a tour that came through England while Plant was a teenager in the early 1960s. “When I saw Sleepy John Estes and heard that voice–part pain, part other-wordly–I went, ‘I want that voice!’ I can do that plaintive moan better now than when I was 19, in Zeppelin.”

He also didn’t mind stealing Sleepy John’s songs. Led Zeppelin recorded “Custard Pie,” an uncredited cover of Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down,” with lyrics from Sleepy John Estes’s “Drop Down Daddy.” And they put out “Moby Dick,” which written and first recorded by Sleepy John Estes under the title “The Girl I Love.”

Wonder if Plant revered the old bluesmen enough to send them any money? Sleepy John Estes died in poverty in Brownsville, and only in death has been recognized by his hometown. And Plant? “Now I’m free,” he says. “I can drive through Mississippi, use my credit card, and nobody even looks at it.”

Actually, the people who see Robert Plant’s credit card probably wonder how someone who looks like a homeless person–Plant was repeatedly rode hard and put up wet–actually has a credit card. 14_336_full.jpg


Get Ready Now: Civil War Sesquicentennial Begins in Four Years

December 6, 2006

While the national news media argue over whether to apply the term “civil war” to the unpleasantness in Iraq, a piece in today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press (subscription only, so no link) says that tourism officials in Georgia are making ready for the 150th anniversary of our Civil War.

According to the article, “About 900,000 people a year come through the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the nation’s first and largest military historical park. The tourism injects about $36 million to the area’s economy, Mr. Culpepper said.”

The article quotes a Georgia tourism official who claims that Georgia is second only to Virginia in Civil War sites. I have always heard that Tennessee had more Civil War battles than any state except the Old Dominion, but “sites” covers a lot of ground.

I was a mere lad during the Civil War centennial, and we boys at Miller Perry School would turn out for recess wearing blue or grey kepis and conduct mock battles. My parents, although we lived in Tennessee, always bought the Atlanta newspaper every Sunday, and each week that newspaper printed a facsimile copy of a front page from 100 years earlier.

Americans never get as fired up about 150th birthdays as we do 100th or 200th–we love our zeros– but the anniversary will mean increased tourism for Tennessee. This time around, I think we’ll see more attention spent on African-American participation in the war. I hope that Tennessee cities and towns make some solid gains on preserving battlefields and significant structures. If we don’t, we’ll have a new version of The Lost Cause.