Monday, November 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis and Nashville

I'm driving along Nashville's West End Avenue in my 10-year-old Buick LeSabre (a veteran of 155,000 miles and still counting). I'm on a story assignment with a young journalist from Chicago. Memphis comes up in the conversation, and she asks about something she's heard: "Nashville and the rest of Tennessee hate Memphis, right?"

It wasn't the first time I'd heard about the Bluff City's uneasy relationship with the rest of the state. I remember back in the 1970s when an Ivy League-educated, Knoxville-reared journalist colleague of mine in North Carolina described Memphis this way: "It's the largest city in northern Mississippi."

He didn't mean it as a compliment.

I'd asked him about Memphis because the city had held a fascination for me since the early 1960s when I was a teenager. That was when I discovered the blues and first really appreciated rockabilly. I've since spent a lot of time in Memphis (including maintaining an apartment there with my wife for the past four years), and I've developed some ideas about what makes the city different.

Let's start with politics. Today, with all the Tea Party shouting and Republican resurgence, Memphis is a blue speck in a sea of red. One reason, of course, is that the majority of the approximately 700,000 people who live there are black. The farther east you travel from Downtown and Midtown, the whiter and more Republican it gets.

The racial divide that killed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 remains an old sore that's not completely healed. It's not uncommon to hear white people call Memphis Memphrica. Willie Herenton, the city's first black mayor, a brooding, thin-skinned man obsessed by race, didn't help much despite nearly two decades of rule. His successor, A.C. Wharton, also black, offers promise that some long-missing salve may now be applied.

"Boss" (E.H.) Crump, the city's political dictator for much of the first half of the 20th century, has been dead a long time, but his legacy still casts a shadow. Crump was every bit as powerful in his city as Richard Daley Sr. was in his. Maybe moreso. When Herenton ran unsuccessfully for Congress this past year, he was inevitably compared to Crump, who also served for a time in Congress.

In my mind's eye, Memphis is dark, Nashville is light.

I was in Nashville much of the past week, and the city seemed to be thriving despite the devastating flood of last May. The skyline that Bob Dylan once sang about gets more sleek and impressive every year. Broadway, the main thoroughfare, was jam-packed this past Saturday night as college football fans (Vanderbilt played the University of Tennessee) crowded Tootsie's and the dozens of other venues, elbowing for room with the thousands of other folk who still flock to Nashville to see or become country music stars.

Memphis from Beale to Union can hop at night, too, but a northerly stroll up Main or Front Street is a journey into noir land. In many ways, Memphis remains the haunting metropolis Jim Jarmusch depicted in his 1990 film Mystery Train even if it's thankfully less desolate. That desolation once got nailed by legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson, who said downtown looked like "Dresden after the war."

"Memphis Noir" is a major reason I love the city the way I do.

For all of Nashville's Hank-Roy-Lefty-Webb-Kitty-Patsy-driven mystique, it still pales in comparison to the city where Elvis would only come out in the wee hours, dragging his mafia with him, to ride the Zippin Pippin in Libertyland when no one else was there, or the city where Jerry Lee Lewis showed up at the gates of Graceland late at night drunk and wielding a .38 while the oblivious boy from Tupelo was asleep at the top of the hill. Jerry Lee always figured he was the true king of rock 'n' roll.

Crime-wise Memphis routinely ranks just behind Detroit, enough to inspire the cop television show The First 48 before Police Director Larry Godwin complained about the bad publicity and made the show look for another city to embarrass. The crime, by the way, includes more than its share of political corruption, with John Ford of the Ford political dynasty leading a long line of pols-on-the-take who've marched off to prison or into other halls of shame. I interviewed Ford in the early 1980s while doing a story about Memphis politics. When His Majesty deigned to look at me, it was usually with disdain or at best utter impatience.

Interstate 40, the "Music Highway", connects Nashville and Memphis, but the disconnect begins with Nashville's corporate music infrastructure. Corporate Nashville has always fought a kind of war with roots music. Sticking with roots is hard when all you really care about is the bottom line. That's why it put an orchestra behind George Jones at the height of his career, hoping he'd cross over like Jim Reeves did.

Whether at Sun Records, Stax, Alex Chilton's garage, or in the 1920s-era blues saloons along Beale, Memphis music has always had an edge, a rawness, a real-ness that scared the bejeebers out of the corporate suits on Music Row. No wonder Willie and Waylon had to go back to Luckenbach. No wonder Steve Earle had to leave "Guitar Town". For new, rootsy talents on the scene today like Jamey Johnson, it may be just a matter of time.

Memphis, you scary, dark city by the Big Muddy, city of neon and shadows, you may be as poor and sometimes as rejected as an orphan in a Dickens novel, but unloved you are not. Believe me. I'm a witness, and I just gave you my testimony.

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