Tennessee is often described as three states in one: East, Middle and West. This is ridiculous, as it is more like six. Maybe ten. When I lived in Mississippi, I was surprised to learn that it felt like one whole state. In less than two years I went to every significant city in Mississippi worth going to, except Natchez, which they say is extremely interesting.
Meanwhile I had lived in Tennessee for over half my life and barely knew the area outside the triangle of Knoxville-Chattanooga-Nashville (in which, if you count a certain way, half the state’s population lives). And I wasn’t sure I actually lived in Appalachia, since the drive from Chattanooga (Hamilton County) to Knoxville (Knox County) is mostly flat, even though if you go from Chattanooga in any direction for just a few miles, you will come across mountains.
Somewhere in mystical tales of yore there was this place called northeastern Tennessee. There was a geographical area called the Tri-Cities (Sullivan and Washington Counties), but even outside of that allegedly was people living in Middle America who work and live and love. I had no idea where these people were. I had passed through it on the interstates, and I knew it was more mountainy, but I had no clue how that relates to the rest of Appalachia or the state. As for West Tennessee, no city outside Jackson (Madison County) and the Memphis area (Shelby County) has as much as 20,000 people, so I just assumed it’s a boring version of Wyoming.
Last year I did a county collecting project. I generally don’t drink much anymore, so I’ve started driving around southeastern Tennessee when I get restless. At this point I’ve been just about everywhere in southeastern Tennessee and recently even found the legendary backroad into Gatlinburg that skips all the traffic.
For last year’s project, I visited all 95 counties and had a sip of Tennessee whiskey as I drove through each. I have no moral problems with drinking and driving. My ancestors fought a whole Revolution to avoid taxes, and then President Washington led an army against his own veterans because they couldn’t afford to pay his stupid tax. So I feel like each drink-and-drive is a little victory in the culture wars.
I stayed off the interstate, and I only allowed myself to take a highway that barely skimmed the county if I had been through it extensively before. You don’t learn anything on the interstate.
Conventionally and legally the state is divided into East, Middle and West, but I think there’s also the dimension of horizontal thirds. Wherever you are, the northern third is far less populated than the lower two-thirds, with some obvious definite exceptions. But most of the really isolated areas are in the northern third, and the only real exception to this is the Tri-Cities, which to my understanding used to be the major metropolitan city in Southern Appalachia. [I realize I’m using a lot of uncertain language in this post.]
It wasn’t until maybe a week ago that I realized you can use Google Maps to see how the layout of the mountains go. Which I still haven’t done, because it kind of defeats the purpose of county collecting. Some maps say the Plateau fans out to take up all of Eastern Kentucky and most of West Virginia. Others say it’s just a tiny sliver. In past years I had been through both fairly extensively (as far as interstates go), but I didn’t really pay attention. So I have no idea how mountainy most of the Kentucky mountains are. I’ve written a little about southeastern Kentucky before. I think north of that area it’s just big hills that might as well be mountains.
It’s also important to understand that different maps will draw boundary lines differently for geography. I’ve included several helpful maps at the bottom.
The South is usually divided into the Deep South and the Upper South, but I feel like this is really inadequate. Especially because I live in “Deep South” Georgia two miles from Tennessee without a peach tree in sight. It should be divided like Germany into the Mountain South and the Low Country South, even though sometimes the dividing line isn’t totally clear.
Understand that Appalachian mountains aren’t cones like you think of. They are series of ridges stacked on each other, and it’s not always clear where one mountain ends and another begins. Often one side will be steep and the backside slopes down so slowly you don’t realize you’re going downhill.
So from Alabama and Georgia to New York, here’s how the regions of Appalachia work. To my understanding. This might be slightly inaccurate. These regions vary widely in how wide they are based on which state you’re in, but they’re all present throughout.
You have the Piedmont, which doesn’t count. Atlanta is technically here, but that’s not really a mountain city at all, aside from Stone Mountain.
Then you have the Blue Ridges, which is a series of high elevation ridges on a plateau. This sucks a donkey dick to drive through, and nobody lives here. North Carolina Appalachia is entirely in the Blue Ridges, and it’s the most depopulated Appalachian state by Appalachian region, unless you count the narrow sliver of South Carolina as Appalachia, which no one does. You enter and leave the Blue Ridges very suddenly. You’ll know when you’re in it or not.
I’ve driven extensively through backroads in western North Carolina, especially in the southern half of the region. They say it’s a major barbeque area, but it doesn’t have people, so I don’t know where you find this barbeque. The best places I’ve found are on US highway 64 in Murphy at Rib Country (which I don’t know why anyone would order ribs in North Carolina) and Herb’s.
East and Middle Tennessee barbeque are functionally the same as Western Carolina. Pulled pork with a thin tomato sauce that is vaguely sweet but also has a strong vinegar element to balance it out. North Alabama is much the same, but they also have a local specialty “white sauce” made out of mayonnaise (though not in northeastern Alabama, which is the last edge of Appalachia). I know mayonnaise on barbeque sounds gross, but it works. I’m a huge evangelist for North Alabama barbeque. The red and white sauces also work well mixed together in a baked potato.
And by “barbeque”, I mean pulled pork that is hardwood smoked. Not ribs. Not beef. Not something in a slow cooker with barbeque sauce. And definitely not chopped pork loin. Words have definitions.
Appalachian barbeque is Orthodox Christianity; it’s the real thing and probably the original. Memphis and Mississippi barbeque is Catholicism; they do ribs, and it’s a lot different from the original, but there’s still some validity there. Texas is beef, which is protestantism; they’ve diverged farther from the original, but really it’s just a variation on Catholicism, and there’s still a lot of redeeming goodness.
In St. Louis they put a rack of ribs on a grill and drown it in sauce. That’s Mormonism.
Tennessee begins on the western edge of the Blue Ridges, since the people there had trouble crossing the mountains to do politics in Raleigh. Unicoi County is the only Tennessee county entirely in the Blue Ridges. This area is generally outlined on a map by the Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
You know how Dolly Parton always said she grew up in the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridges? Well, the bitch lied. She is from Sevierville (in Sevier County). Her theme park is to the east in Pigeon Forge. Then you have Gatlinburg, which is borderline with the Blue Ridges. Dumb whore.
Anyway, this used to be a major moonshining area until FDR kicked everyone off their land. People figured out they could make more money distilling moonshine than selling what little corn they could grow. The Smoky Mountains have lots of little hollows where you can hide a still, though people only lived on the outer skirts (meaning that you could still have a huge national park without displacing people). Then they would run it out to the people in Oak Ridge, who displaced more people FDR kicked off their land for the second time after building Norris dam a few years before. Much of the South was dry, so these carpetbaggers were dismayed to discover they couldn’t live like they were in Manhattan.
And once you get off the tourism roads, Sevier County is about as poor and broken down as you would think. I have no doubt that the locals hate all the tourists and the few ruling investment families who whore out their heritage and make the main highway into a giant traffic jam. But they’ve got a Margaritaville now, so it evens out.
After the Blue Ridges there’s a wide valley called the Ridge-and-Valley region or the Great Appalachian Valley. There are some farms here, though the soil in this part of Tennessee is just rocks. This valley has various low ridges, but Tennessee has several broad rivers that used to flood all the time before the Democrat Party threw asphalt into our river for no reason (and, again, displacing East Tennesseans from their land), so a lot of this is relatively flat in Tennessee. Go north far enough in this geographic region and you’ll reach the famous Shenandoah Valley.
Then you might have some tight ridges called the Cumberland Mountains or Allegheny Mountains, which is just a difference in name. These also suck. This is kind of an extension of the valley and leads up to the Plateau. It starts in the northern half of Tennessee and continues north.
Finally there is the great Cumberland Plateau, which is called the Allegheny Plateau further north. On the eastern side, this is a massive cliff. The interior has many deep gashes and valleys, and the western edge generally slowly slopes off (though sometimes it’s also steep) so that you aren’t always sure when you’ve descended the Plateau. This is where all of the coal is found. There was very little coal in Tennessee, so we avoided the scrip towns and strip mining.
After the Plateau there may or may not be some kind of hills that could count as mountains. To my understanding the Plateau technically only extends in the southeastern parts of Kentucky and West Virginia, so I don’t know what other mountains these states have, but I was surprised to drive through Charleston, WV and discover skyscrapers in a mountain bowl valley. So I think the pioneers just sucked at geography.
Middle Tennessee begins, generally speaking, at the water divide of the Plateau. That’s at least what they say, but it just looks like they split the counties east and west. Sequatchie County used to be in East Tennessee, which makes sense geographically. Marion County was transferred to Middle Tennessee, but then they realized that was retarded and moved it back.
You have “the highland rim”, which supposedly is a bowl that takes up most of this area, but most of Middle Tennessee just looks flat. So again I think they lied when they named this stuff. In the center is the Nashville basin (Davidson, Wilson and Rutherford Counties). This is the worst part of the state, both geographically and culturally, and you should never go to the Nashville basin. The highland rim is at its highest at the northern part, and I’m not totally sure where the Plateau ends. You pass through the rim at the northern edge of Nashville on the interstate.
The western foot of the Plateau is where all your whiskey comes from that’s worth drinking. Like, all the whiskey in the world, because Scotch is a joke, Irish is a marketing campaign, and Canadian is an embarrassment. In Kentucky, almost all your bourbon distilleries are in this region. In Tennessee, you have the only two distilleries with any history to them. The most famous is Jack Daniels, but it’s over-priced and bland. My personal go-to whiskey of any kind is George Dickel No. 12.
West Tennessee is determined by the river, with the exception of Hardin County, which is bisected by the river. The first fifty miles or so from the river is actually pretty hilly, often much more so than Middle Tennessee. I was surprised how much I liked West Tennessee. Quaint little Southern towns untouched by time (or economy). I also found that the accent was the exact same as in East Tennessee. Or close enough, since each county has a slightly different affectation.
Someone out there told me most West Tennessee people are fans of the University of Tennessee (in Knoxville) instead of Memphis. Benton County has a bluegrass festival every year. So this area is, as it turns out, thoroughly Tennessee. I approve.
Memphis is famous for its ribs, but is that just Beale Street tourism? I went to Sparky’s in Atoka (Tipton County) for some southwestern Tennessee ribs. They aren’t whistling “Dixie”. Memphis ribs are one of the few things in this world that are truly not over-rated, even when cooked by white folks.
One thing I learned is that most of the country is rural small towns. This sounds obvious, that most states you drive through have more geographical area that is rural than urban, but you don’t really internalize it until you drive the small highways. Interstates just pass by things, but on the highways you endure every red light.
There’s a small city called Morristown (Hamblen County) north of Knoxville. Geographically small, but it felt like a sprawling metropolis hidden somewhere I never knew existed. And it has some Civil War history when East Tennesseans wanted to break away from the rest of the state. I had never heard of this place before, but here it was in my backyard.
There were many cities like this in southern Middle Tennessee.
I also learned that everything is kind of the same wherever you go. People buy the same garbage and waste time on the same tv shows. There’s the same fast food restaurants. Even the local diners are the same hamburger. Whenever I travel, I try to get the barbeque, because that’s one of the very few items that has unique local variations.
And every “quaint little downtown square” is the same. All small Southern towns are the same. The cover of your folk-rock album could be anywhere, and no one would know the difference. And then you get into the residential areas, and all the architecture is the same. This was pretty disappointing, but it wasn’t surprising. Local culture is a façade.
[As an aside, I was amazed in eastern Ohio and upstate New York at the lack of franchise restaurants.]
In light of this, does it really make a difference where you live, so long as you can have a decent job and a close group of friends? That’s probably the biggest lesson I learned in Mississippi, that the actual reason you think your town sucks is probably because you suck.
As much as I romanticize living in the mountains, I got really tired of driving winding roads at night in the rain going down the side of a cliff. I would get kind of frustrated when I couldn’t see the landscape outside, but really I know it was just forests. I would try to guess where I was geographically based on the rises and falls, but there’s so much variation, and I didn’t have a good idea of how the mountains and hills lay out in northern counties. I also got really tired of getting lost because the roads didn’t have adequate signage.
Occasionally there was a gorgeous little mountain town I couldn’t see because it was dark and pouring rain. That was pretty upsetting.
In some of these northeastern counties, especially in the Blue Ridges, I was amazed how poor and isolated people were. Houses were just cinder blocks and vinyl crammed against the side of the mountain. Where did these people work? The whole county can’t be on welfare.
I know it’s cliche and kind of mean, but in some of these isolated mountain counties, you can see the incest on people’s faces. That stereotype has a lot of history to it, though maybe not as much as it’s been hyped up. I guess when you have the same families in the same village for 200 years, there’s going to be some overlapping.
My favorite county was Cocke County. I also liked Smith, Bradley, Clay, Roane and Unicoi Counties.
The names were bizarre in that they didn’t match. The Unicoi Mountains are not in Unicoi County. The city of Benton is not in Benton County. Decatur is not in Decatur County, although Decaturville is. Tiptonville is not in Tipton County. There were lots of things like this.
I delayed writing this for several months, because I wasn’t sure how to write such an expansive experience into a blog post. I figured it would be as long as my Mississippi post. But I’m finding I’m having trouble filling in the details. I definitely learned a lot, but it was more about how to use a state highway map to get to obscure places than anything tangible. So this post is kind of a gonzo stream of conscious without the kind of extensive rewrites of my longer posts.
I learned how to tell which highways would be more flat and straight, because those are in a box with the shape of Tennessee inside, and they turn into a triangle when they have to go through a difficult area. By this I can sort of tell the geography of the state on the state highway map, so that’s kind of neat. I’m pretty sure I passed Carl Perkins’s childhood home without even realizing it, so that was disappointing, since he’s my favorite Sun Records artist. I learned that living in the mountains is great so long as it’s somewhere like Chattanooga in a broad river valley that’s easy to navigate; in other words, I like saying that I live in the mountains so long as I don’t have to actually live in the mountains.
I learned a lot about the state that I consider to be my home state. But that was more like, “Oh, hey, look at this little line of hills.” Grainger County is bisected by a ridge, which forms the beginning of the Cumberland Mountains. Greene County is hard to figure out the highways, and the people drive slowly. Union County is so isolated that I couldn’t enter from the north and had to reroute my entire plans. The backside of Signal Mountain (Hamilton and Sequatchie Counties) is the kind of place to hide if the police are looking for you. That kind of thing.
Seeing how geography determines county lines was really interesting. These political boundaries seem arbitrary but have a history to them. People understood that this side of the mountain or river isn’t the same as that side. It’s in these county lines that our pioneering heritage is most manifest, like the crumbling ruins of a Roman wall far away from Italy. So I’ve come to really appreciate the importance of the county system.
A Deracinated Race
Another thing that stuck out to me. I am sure I have distant relatives all over East Tennessee. I know there are a few in Jefferson County. I also heard something about a great aunt my father visits every year on Christmas. Beyond that, I don’t know. I don’t know where my relatives are. My grandmothers both grew up in Chattanooga. My maternal grandfather was from South Carolina, and my paternal grandfather was from Southern Indiana (and the family likely migrated from Tennessee).
Why don’t I know this? Why did I have to figure out my (probable) Melungeon ancestry by my own armchair anthropology? Where is my family from? Are we Tennesseans? I’m told we’re mostly Scotch-Irish, but I’ve also heard there’s some French and Dutch, though that may be totally false as far as I know.
I have a bunch of Greek friends. I make fun of them for being deracinated. They are the children of recent immigrants who exploit the country my ancestors built. Their idea of Greek culture is selling Albanian and Turkish food to stupid white people. The classic culture of their childhood churches isn’t Byzantine chant like in Greece but western pseudo-Baroque music with an organ.
But really, what American is not deracinated? Isn’t that the core concept of America? We are a people united by loyalty to the Constitution, not anything organic that normally unites a people. Many fake conservatives laud this as something amazing and special, but I think it causes a culture crisis. Our identity exists in the civic world of rights and democracy. We don’t know what we are, and so we don’t know what we are supposed to aspire to be. So instead we just built technology and commerce, and yes, sure, it’s the greatest country that’s ever existed, but the price of that freedom has been our very humanity.
What do I possibly have in common with “mountain culture”? I didn’t grow up listening to bluegrass. We didn’t have fried chicken round the family circle and hunt possum for supper. And I’m especially bitter that the Southern Baptist churches we attended were very much into soft rock worship and almost no old southern gospel.
The most formative influences of my childhood were Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Pokemon.
My father was a Baptist pastor who went Bryan College in Dayton (Rhea County), but he went to seminary in New Orleans and pastored in Long Beach, Mississippi. When I was six or so, he left my mother for another pastor’s wife, and when I was eight we moved to Chattanooga to be near family.
Does mountain culture even exist? What does that mean? I understand that culture is never quantifiable, but if I go to the most remote hovel in Carter County, will I really find anything unique?
My early childhood on the Mississippi coast made a large impression on my food tastes to this day. Some of my very few happy childhood memories are visiting my stepmother’s family in St. Petersburg, Florida. So I’ve always had a special heart for the Gulf Coast.
But what the hell about me is Appalachian? I probably have a little Melungeon ancestry, and I have the loudmouth impulsiveness of the Scots-Irish. I also hate deer because I grew up on a small mountain where they will run into your car because they are too stupid to value their own lives. I know how to drive mountain roads twenty miles above speed limit and hate those who don’t.
I could have grown up in Iowa and turned out almost the exact same. We didn’t hunt or fish growing up. We never made barbeque at home. My mother couldn’t cook, so there was no tradition of biscuits and fried chicken. Most of the gospel music I know is from Elvis and Johnny Cash compilations.
And what the hell is Appalachia anyway? There are three distinct regions, and the geography has made different cultures. Tennessee is moonshining country, and the few coal mining towns are just low hills at the eastern base of the Plateau. The Blue Ridges has probably no coal, but they have some skiing. Kentucky and West Virginia is coal country (which is why Lincoln made a point to divide Plateau Virginia from the rest of the state), and I’m assuming bluegrass music came from all throughout. Northwestern Georgia and Northeastern Georgia are definitely two very different regions.
This area around Chattanooga was snake-handling country, but that’s not something people are really proud about, and I didn’t know until I was an adult. Even now I come across conflicting stories about which side of the county it started on, because that history just wasn’t recorded well.
So I also learned that I have no idea what it means to be from the mountains, and in light of that I kind of learned I don’t really know what it means to be from the South.