Armchair Anthropology: Gatlinburg and the Culture of Caricature

I went to Gatlinburg Saturday just for the sake of going somewhere. As I was walking around, I got thinking about a great armchair anthropology piece with all kinds of witty jokes. I think Sevier County has more artwork of black bears than actual black bears. Something about how only on vacation would you want to buy a Betty Boop shotglass set or a print of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis playing poker. Nothing says trash culture like a five acre (year-round) Christmas village with a Denny’s. Bluegrass restaurant with brand new old wooden floors and rusted iron plumbing fixtures and mason jars for salt and pepper shakers where the waitresses are all “white Mexicans” speaking painfully broken English. Probably something about how I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in mini golf just because it has an animatronic black bear drunk on fermented honey screaming at bees.

But when I got home, the inspiration was gone. Sorry. The muse isn’t speaking. You don’t get your gut-wrenching emotional tone piece about the feeling of lostness that secretly haunts us all.

What’s interesting is how much Gatlinburg hasn’t changed since I was last there almost a decade ago on my last church youth group trip the summer before college. Like, it has the exact same trinket shops selling the same kitschy junk you could buy anywhere. Or selling kitschy junk you would never buy except on vacation. Same bars and restaurants. Same three franchises of the same candy shop within a mile of each other. I get that Ripley’s has poured a lot of money into it, but how are the same bars and corndog stands and keychain shops still open? They added a Zaxby’s, so that’s an improvement. The above bluegrass restaurant is new, and it actually has really fantastic variations on eggs Benedict, even though I almost immediately threw up all over the sidewalk because the eclipse was still messing with my health five days later.

If the history of Appalachia is defined by isolation and poverty, then is Gatlinburg — or anywhere in Tennessee below its northern border counties — really representative of hillbilly culture? Poor people listen to Florida-Georgia Line and Big Sean, not Nickel Creek and Gene Clark. And really, most of Tennessee Appalachia is not these huge inhospitable cliffs like you get on the eastern sliver of the state. The Tennessee mountains are mostly ridges, valleys, and plateaus. There is often much higher elevation in Middle Tennessee than in East Tennessee (those are legal distinctions, almost like provinces within the state). The Cumberland Plateau in eastern Middle Tennessee is more of a Nevada than the ridge-and-valley region that makes up most of East Tennessee, even though obstensibly Middle Tennessee is defined as being merely hill country.

Tennessee is probably the most settled of the other south-of-Maryland states’ mountain regions. The irony of this isolation stereotype is that Middle and East Tennessee is where most of the state’s population is located. Aside from the Memphis area and Jackson, no city in West Tennessee has 20,000 people. There’s even a black majority rural county, Mississippi Delta style. But aside from an hour’s travel on the southern border, I’ve never been through West Tennessee and can’t imagine what it is like. Do they have actual farms? Is the part near Missouri still the south? Are there actual municipal buildings and village squares and highways, or is it like Nevada where the county seat is just an unincorporated census-designated area?

What people never seem to think about is that you could also divide Tennessee into thirds from north to south. The southern two thirds are far more populated than the northern third. I’ve hung around northern Middle Tennessee some. It’s a trip into the country. Southwest Tennessee is more built-up than north central in some places. Maybe it’s because the southern half of the state has more rivers, which create valleys and open up transportation. Northern Middle Tennessee is much more rugged than southern.

The Cumberland Gap lies around the Virginia-Kentucky-Tennessee border. It used to be a major highway. And there’s almost no one that lives there. Isn’t that weird? You would think it would have become a major city like Atlanta.

There’s something about Tennessee where cultures have become caricatures of what was once authentic and organic. Beale Street in Memphis was a disappointment (though they aren’t whistling Dixie about the ribs and catfish). And I don’t see how a major metropolitan area like Nashville could be at all associated with music from the country.

The only reason Chattanooga pretends to have a choo choo is because of that stupid song. Today the train station is a crappy Holiday Inn with a restaurant where the waiters sing at you. The locals just use it as a landmark, like “Hey there’s a new coffee shop three blocks down from the choo choo.” That is, the locals who actually go downtown.

I made this observation about caricature culture to a friend from high school. He said that’s the whole south. He might be right. And it’s been that way for a while. Lynyrd Skynyrd was fake southern. I don’t believe a word Ronnie Van Zant says. He reminds me — particularly in the song “I’m a Country Boy” — of the passage in Johnny Cash’s second autobiography where Cash says that people today sing about picking cotton and you can tell they are lying.

Aside from two-faced niceness and a libertarian conservativism, is there such a thing as a real south? Southern pride seems to be merely a reaction to northern snark. Then again, we never got the waves of immigration the rest of the country did, so we are a different ethnicity. Our ancestors were settlers, not immigrants. Maybe it’s just a deep subtlety. I really wish northerners would quit moving here and voting Democrat after ruining New Jersey and Massachusetts with the exact same politics.

One thing that has changed about Gatlinburg is the mass of (legal) moonshine distilleries and wineries in Sevier County. I guess the county loosened some laws. And of course it’s moonshine, because everything in Gatlinburg is a parody of its own history. I can’t blame them though. A propped-up economy based on tourism is probably much better than the sparse corn and tobacco farming I’m told it used to have. Granted, it’s probably all minimum wage retail jobs, so maybe nothing has changed. That’s probably the reason why moonshine was such an Appalachian thing, because it was an easy way to make money. It’s the equivalent of blacks selling crack in the hood because that pays better than KFC.

Southern Appalachia (I’m including West Virginia and Kentucky) is like Mississippi without the black people. There’s a reason all popular music is a combination of Appalachian bluegrass and Mississippi Delta blues. Both have essentially the same history and the same social structure. This lack of agency where people don’t even both planning for the future. Wealthy outsiders buying up the natural resources. A total lack of factories or industry.

And it’s not just the Mississippi Delta. I went through Hot Coffee, Mississippi, about an hour south of Jackson. There’s a sign that says you are about to enter downtown Hot Coffee. And it’s two stores. One of them is an average-sized gas station with every available space crammed with clothes and frozen foods and other things the rest of America buys at Walmart. It’s not too far from Crystal Springs, where Robert Johnson is from.

Most of Mississippi is under-developed and extremely rural. If you enforced building codes half the state would be homeless, but the Delta is still the most third world. Whole towns of just twenty houses, and if they’re lucky there’s a convenience station nearby. Imagine having to drive an hour to go to the grocery store. At least Hot Coffee is near a major highway.

If your car broke down in the Delta, you wouldn’t have any cell service and the three cars that pass you in an hour aren’t going to pick up a hitch-hiker, so you would have to just pick a direction and start walking along the highway, hoping that you don’t get mugged and that there’s a small city before sunset. Keep in mind that there are a lot of legends about the Devil making deals with people in the Delta (most famously Robert Johnson), given that at the end of the year before the planting season in January on cloudy overcast days the landscape is spooky as hell. I’m a big believer that the external appearance of a place reflects the social, economic and occasionally supernatural realities, so I can’t guarantee you that the Delta isn’t haunted in some degree. I realize I make Mississippi sound like Kansas, so just imagine the Delta as Stull Cemetery lasting for almost 200 miles.

Anyway, Gatlinburg. If nothing else, it has a lot of really neat architecture, and not in a post modern New York values vomit way. The air feels great in the morning (I arrived at 6am and beat the traffic, because my sleep schedule is all messed up). There’s a legendary bypass that lets you skip over Pigeon Forge, but no one has ever found it. Fantastic, if somewhat fake, southern food (real southern food is cooked in a crock pot, and no one knows anymore how to make fried chicken or biscuits or coconut cake). Homemade candy and jams to give as Christmas gifts, because realistically that blackberry jalapeño jam will sit in the back of your fridge until it turns to mold. Top notch aquarium. And they’re building a Margaritaville.

I’ve always found trash culture interesting. You learn the most about a civilization by its literature, but where the people spend their money and time is a good runner-up. People force themselves to “get into” Mozart and Shakespeare, but college football and Marilyn Monroe and retarded t-shirts about how beer is better than a woman grab people by the throat.

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