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This country never lets you forget you're an alien.

Every time I come here it seems like I pick up some new aspect of this whole strange bundle of quirks and assumptions and linguistic tics* that's called "being American", to the point where I just about think I'm getting a handle on it all†. And then you get something like tonight, at the Ryman Auditorium with Ricky Skaggs and his Kentucky Thunder**, which reminds you that no matter how well you think you speak the language, you're still a stranger in a very strange land.

It wasn't the show itself, which was predictably awesome - I'd seen Skaggs at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and blazin' picking and tight harmonies are assured. It's how he acts in front of a home crowd. He was personable enough at Cambridge; jaunty, telling the odd story, geeing up the crowd for the obligatory drunken audience participation bit. But tonight was something else altogether. Quotations from scripture to back up his idea that bluegrass needs to blend old and new; a near-to-tears appeal for prayers for Ralph Stanley's grandson (badly injured in a car crash, apparently); down-home tales of mother's fried chicken rubbing shoulders with assertions that no-one need fear these hard times, because the Lord will provide for everybody. Not a hint of irony from Skaggs, not a hint of scepticism from the crowd. He was right at his ease, chatty, friendly, knowing full well he and his crowd had the same rapport as decades-old friends. And there was me, sitting front and centre, never feeling so far from home.

But still. Fantastic show, which fully made up for my serial failure to see any damn bluegrass while I've been here††, and I came away with a baby American flag*** and ruing a near-miss at winning a couple of tickets to a bluegrass festival here in the fall autumn (they went to the lady in the seat next to me, who was very excited indeed). And it's a perfect signoff from Nashville, which I leave tomorrow morning for Richmond KY via a (probably awful) Greyhound journey and a brief halt in Louisville.

A freight train precisely like the one I will not be hopping tomorrow morning

I've been in this city too long and not long enough - two days is plenty for tourism, but two months wouldn't be enough for the music scene. There's clearly a massive depth of talent here, beyond the hordes of bands in the Broadway tourist bars (although a few of them ain't bad). The Station Inn seems like the kind of place you could go every night for a year and not see a bad act, and the hostel alone has four or five guys who are here to play the open mic nights and work the A&R men, hoping for a headline gig or a record deal (a hell of a lot of the American music industry does its business out of Nashville). I've lacked the energy or the money to join the hostel party animals on their nightly jaunts hopping from bar to bar and band to band since dawn, alas. Next time. I am resolved there will be a next time.

Nashville in numbers:

Confederate flags spotted: 2! South may rise after all†††

Number of times I've bought the Tennessean: 2****

Number of times killed crossing the road due to instinctively looking the wrong way: still a big fat 0. I might make it out of here alive...

Hours 'til my Greyhound out of here: 11

Hours 'til the wedding: 36

Days left 'til I leave America: not damn enough

*I've been merrily "have a good fourth of July, y'all"-ing with the best of them today

†I've even, at the third time of asking, just about got to grips with the stupid shitty coinage

**none of whom are from Kentucky. False advertising! I demand my money back

††turned up 10 minutes after showtime at the highly-spoken-of Station Inn last night, was told it was full, stuck around for a bit then gave up and went to drink beer at the hostel. Another guy from here turned up 10 minutes after I did and waltzed right in for what was apparently a "fantastic gig", damn him

***some charity was handing them out to all and sundry for July 4. I asked if I was allowed to wave one and was told "Sure! if it wasn't for you there'd be no us!"

†††Admittedly, they were both ratty antiques framed in a second-hand bookshop run by a guy who seems to be fighting the good fight for the Confederacy single-handed - shelves full of Civil War books, dumb liberal-bashing jokes pinned up everywhere, general vibe of "right-wing racist asshole" overlaid on the standard "cranky old misanthrope" template for bookshop owners. Great place, though, and I came perilously close to spending $150 I don't have on a full set of the fabulous Foxfire books

****I know I said I'd never buy it again, but I gave it another go after learning it has a reputation as a liberal bastion. It, um, isn't. Although it was heartening to read an impassioned defence of gay marriage in the letters page
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This hostel's been overrun by a horde of Canadians down from Toronto for Canada Day* and July 4. They have chosen to mark the occasion by growing big old moustaches† and chewing tobacco constantly, and having only stumbled to bed six hours ago their first act** on waking was to crack open another beer. I salute their dedication to the redneck cause.

*I have no idea why they thought Nashville was the place to spend it. These inscrutable Canadians and their mysterious northern ways.

†The none-more-redneck horseshoe

**They seem to do everything in concert, with the precision of an ant colony. Clearly Canadians have some sort of sinister hive-mind thing going on, and more study is required
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HAHAHAHAH FUCK YOU WORLD I HAVE A STETSON HAT. And a poseable Johnny Cash action figure, but that wasn't one of my primary mission objectives. I can now declare this holiday a success and head home†.

Today has mostly been about the rampant consumerism so far, in fact. But I did manage to get a pic of the previously-mithered-about Union Station building, which I am still disgusted is no longer a station:

Since we're on the subject of trains, a snippet of last night's beery tomfoolery: some Yanqui (New York, intelligent, well-travelled, should surely have known better than this) remarked off-hand that it wasn't surprising I hadn't been to mainland Europe much, what with the lack of rail connections. I asked him if he was joking. He wasn't. I asked him if he'd heard of this Channel Tunnel thingy. He hadn't. I told him we'd spent years building a giant rail link sweeping clear under the Channel from London to Paris. He laughed in my face. I recruited a nearby Glaswegian to back me up. He still didn't believe us, and continued to maintain it was all a giant wind-up until a chap from Minnesota allowed as how we weren't making the whole thing up.

Granted, inventing weird lies about Britain to feed to Americans is a fine sport (I think my brother managed to persuade someone that heroin was available in supermarkets and it was briefly fashionable to contract AIDS during the '80s). But the finest sport is when you tell them entirely true things and they will not be convinced. (Can't remember if the same brother ever convinced anyone that yes, all swans are owned by the Queen and it's illegal to kill them).

Nashville in numbers:

Confederate flags spotted: still 0. Seriously, what is wrong with you people? South ain't gonna rise unless you buck your ideas up.

Portions of grits eaten: 1. I have no idea why. I got terribly excited about the idea of eating grits last time I came to the south, and discovered last time that they're the sort of hideous slop you work hard and better yourself in order to get away from forever. Biscuits, on the other hand, remain fantastic.

Number of times I've been invited to have a great day: dozens

Number of times I've invited someone to have a great day: 3 or 4, but the phrase is tripping off the tongue more and more easily

Number of times I've forgotten to tip due to transatlantic cultural differences: 0. Score one for the downtrodden service workers of America!

Number of times I've bought the Tennessean newspaper: 1

Number of times I will be buying the Tennessean again: 0††

Number of times killed crossing the road due to instinctively looking the wrong way: still 0. Hooray!

*really 3 or kinda 4 and so on. We'll drop this footnote now, right?
†I should probably go to the wedding I actually came here for, I guess. But hey, STETSON**
**however, the damn thing's black, which may be the colour of awesomeness but is extremely impractical in 35-degree heat. Oh well
††seriously, no wonder the American newspaper industry is fucked***. Hideous page design and typefaces, maybe two original stories plus a bunch of rehashed AP tape, and a loathsome op-ed calling on Christians to beware the coming dark times now that sinister anti-American, anti-Christian, pro-world government forces control the White House? I wish I had a pile of Morning Stars to run around sticking into the newspaper vending machines†††
***granted, the British newspaper industry is also fucked, but for somewhat different reasons
†††which are the only thing I would keep about the American newspaper industry
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Late night porch on a hostel. Cold beer; warm breezes and mournful train whistles blowing in from downtown, all of them from freights or from Amtraks heading any place but here. How is it possible that a city built on country music, to which railroads are as misery is to the blues, has no passenger train service? Went past the old Union Station earlier, a massive old pile oozing grandiosity and Civic Weight, like all good railway stations, which deserves to be the heart and soul of the city. Making it a hotel is like turning Trafalgar Square into a car park†. Of all the many things I don't understand about America, how the railroads have fallen so far, so fast is the most baffling. Even if I understand the economics behind it... dammit, a city like Nashville needs a railway station, one as grand as the building it used to have. And maybe one day it will once again have one.

*except it's really day 2 etc and so on blah blah
†except that might actually be a goodthing
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For utterly inexplicable† reasons, Nashville has a Parthenon**. It is made of pebble-dashed concrete, built on land awarded to some woman for covering some Injuns in boiling water, and is probably not as impressive as the one in Greece. It did, however, give rise to the best sign ever:

$10 for bike rental at this hostel... and it'd be worth it.

Nashville in numbers:

Red necks acquired: 1 (note to self: buy Stetson)
Number of times killed crossing the road due to instinctively looking the wrong way: 0, but subject to change
Number of times a native assumed†† I was Irish: 1
Number of times I have had to pronounce "tomatoes" wrong because I could not otherwise make myself understood: 1
Number of Confederate flags seen: 0, disappointingly

*Technically it is day 2 in Nashville and day 3 in America but no-one wants to read about a 10-hour layover at JFK followed by 16 hours sleeping

†Well, OK, I'm sure there are reasons. But that would involve me looking it up on Wikipedia and then coming back here to explain them, and it seems easier to outsource the workload***

**I'm going back tomorrow to hack the marbles off. These foreigners can't be trusted to look after 'em, after all.

††This seems to happen to a lot of people. I'm guessing that calling someone English off the bat is a deadly insult round these parts

***Although as that second sentence suggests I went ahead and did some "research" on Wikipedia anyway


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October 2011

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