AKA Abraham Bacoln

A tour, proposed
February 24, 2010, 10:08 pm
Filed under: photography, Tennessee

If you have the time, please read until the end. A question for you is waiting there. I can’t really put the question down without explanation, though. I apologize in advance – by necessity the following is going to be kind of rambling. I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together for weeks and I can’t seem to find a coherent whole around which to organize this mess, so bear with me.

For over five years now I have lived in New Orleans, and for most of that time I was living with someones who, like me, were from Tennessee. Are from Tennessee. I guess you don’t stop being from Tennessee, even after you die, do you?

For the last five months I’ve been living alone, and this has had an effect on me. This is the first time, amazingly, that I have lived by myself not in Tennessee. Every other place I’ve lived I’ve had someone with me, and that person has always shared my experiences with regards to growing up in the South.

I already feel like I’m losing my train of thought. I’m struggling here.

I found myself recently talking to my friends, specifically Paul, about what it was like growing up in Tennessee, and how different it is from here in New Orleans. I found myself talking at length, and marveling at the reactions of my listeners.

What it boils down to is this: I am just now beginning to realize, while living alone and not constantly in contact with someone who shares my experiences, that where I grew up was unique, different, and in some respects worth celebrating and embracing. All places are, of course, I’m not implying that my home state is somehow special. But unlike all other places, I have a personal connection to this one.

A segue: there is a musician, Jim White, with whom until recently I was only vaguely acquainted, musically-speaking. His songs, especially those on his album The Mysterious Tale Of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus, revolve around what it means to be from the South, and what God means in the South, and what conflicts and struggles we all suffer and redemption we achieve by virtue of having grown up there.

Another segue: my landlord had a temporary tenant staying in her part of the house. He disappeared for a few days, and I thought he’d gone back home. When he appeared again I inquired as to his absence and he informed me that he had rented a car and gone up to Memphis to visit the stomping grounds of all the blues greats.

Shortly after I heard this I found out that a filmmaker had become entranced with Jim White’s Wrong-Eyed Jesus album. He was fascinated with this land and this music and wanted to know where it comes from, so Jim took him out in some busted car and toured what he calls the South, and they made a film, and they recorded some great performances, and … it’s not a documentary, it’s not a normal movie, it’s … an event. It is Jim White’s South as presented by Jim White. It is Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

But still, it makes my head spin. It makes my stomach tighten up in a way I can’t explain. White mentions how he grew up in the South but because he was not born there he never considered himself a true Southerner, until one day he made the decision to return and force his way through all the experiences he had until he could come to grips with what it meant for him to be who he is.

Now we come to me, and you can see clear where I’m headed. I spent the years 2007 and 2008 back in my hometown in Tennessee and the whole time I was there I was busy fighting with school and personal issues and I feel like I ignored my surroundings. Sure I headed out with my friends into the woods to go rock climbing, or have bonfires, and sure I got a few pictures while I was there.

But the more time I spend alone and away without companions that are linked in to what it means to be from Tennessee, the more I find myself describing my experiences and my hometown to people that have never been there. I recently showed my book of pictures of Cookeville to someone who has never been anywhere near there, and I couldn’t even follow her reactions. My head was pounding lost in the thoughts of what it truly meant to have been there, and how this pitiful little book couldn’t begin to convey what my hometown really is.

Those two years I was back in Cookeville I spent documenting with my camera the things that to me were unique about Cookeville from the perspective of one who was from there, who had seen the same old tired things a million times. Suddenly I found myself looking at this book of images with someone who didn’t know what the square looks like, or Jefferson Avenue on a Saturday night with cars sitting in the parking lot of the People’s Stockyard (1947) watching everyone else slide on by wasting their time with nothing else to do.

And this … this fed into my desire to see Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and my desire to see all of Tennessee anew with fresh eyes. To visit Tennessee as an outsider, and take the photographs I have forever ignored because “I’ve seen that a hundred times.”

I feel inspired by White’s music. I feel inspired the story of touring the Memphis blues land. I feel inspired by the photographs of some of my fellow Tennesseans, and how they show me the land that I’m from in ways I’ve never expected and may never be able to recreate.

So here is what I propose:

This summer I plan to drive from the west side of Tennessee to the east, over the course of a week or more, ignoring all the major interstates, and trying to understand a little more about where I’m from. I’m going to try to take the pictures I’ve automatically dismissed, and bring back something I can show to anyone and say, “This is the Volunteer State. This is how it grows from the flat rich soil of the Mississippi River to the sharp steep hills of the Great Smoky Mountains. These are the people you would meet, the roads you would travel, the homes you would see.”

I want to do this. I need your help though.

If you’re from Tennessee, or have spent time there, what are the locations that hold a special place in your heart? If you could pick one thing to show a stranger to best represent what you love about Tennessee, what would it be?

If you’ve never been there, what do you want to know? What would you want to see?

And finally, I may need an assistant. I may need someone to drive for a while so I can shoot out the window and capture the moment. Someone who is patient and will understand when I have to turn the car around and go back to something I just saw, or will understand when I want to spend an hour in one spot waiting for the sun to go down just right.

I really do think I need to do this.

8 Comments so far
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Cool idea. I’ve been planning a tour of my own, to the east coast.

Will you be visiting the Kentucky Bend? I know it’s not part of Tennessee, but I remember you mentioning it before, and there’s definitely a unique connection.

I wish I could offer more ideas. The parts of TN that lie beyond 100 feet of my home still feel like a foreign land to me.

Comment by Atox

Atox: I think I will. I just didn’t feel like including it in the overall discussion, but I am definitely interested in seeing it.

Comment by Kevin O'Mara


It is because of the geography of the state- east, middle, and west. I (from the east) had more in common with folks from Western N. Carolina and Southwestern VA than I did Cookeville or Sparta, or Smithville… much less Memphis, Jackson, Martin, or Bucksnort.

Comment by NMDA

Here’s a list for starters:
Leiper’s Fork
Red Boiling Springs
Hartsville (never-used nuclear plant)
Northcut’s Cove
Strawberry Plains
Chattanooga–definitely the coolest re-invented city in TN right now.

Comment by towanda46

Great post. Great Idea.

I’ve got some East TN insight I think.

I recently rediscovered Sweetwater, TN. I recommend the drive on HWY 2 between Lenoir City and Athens. It has a cheese dairy, a sock factory outlet, and a retired guy who sales old bikes in his front yard for $20 anytime the weather is good enough.

Also, if you have time I like North of Knoxville into the Jelico, Lafollette, Stinking Creek area. (Stinking Creek is one of these places where the road off the interstate only goes 1 direction and there are NO businesses at all).

Downtown Knoxville still has plenty of industrial urban decay awesomeness.

Comment by dshular

Do you know when more precisely than “this summer?”

Comment by Jim

Mountain Momma’s! Last exit in TN on I-40E. Head toward Big Creek and it’s the only outpost on the left.

Comment by Jonathan

I can totally identify. Being an Alabamian in Virginia, surrounded by people from other states, has left me with a similar feeling, but complicated by the history of the state. I’d recommend driving down from Murfreesboro to Shelbyville to Lynchburg to the Jack Daniel’s distillery. And the back roads around Sewanee and Monteagle are another sight, too.

Comment by Deandra

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