The statue of Sam Davis, the ‘Boy Hero of the Confederacy,’ on the grounds of the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville, January 2022 (Jay Nordlinger)

Out and about in the capital of Tennessee: music, barbecue, and other serious things

The weather is the most boring subject in the world — but not always, right? Two days ago, it was 75 degrees here in Nashville. Today, it’s 28 (at least for a while). Kevin Williamson informs me that, in Dallas, it was 77 — then 21, on the same day. How’s that for variety?

In Nashville, the weather is soon in the 40s. And for Michiganders like me — hell, we barely need to wear a shirt. (I exaggerate a little bit.)

• Hang on, who’s Nashville named for? Who was Nash? I’ve never known. He was Francis Nash, a general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Born and raised in Virginia.

The big Nash in my life, I suppose, is George Nash, the historian — particularly of modern American conservatism. (He is also the chief biographer of Herbert Hoover.) Then we had the cars — the Nash automobile, made in Kenosha, Wis., about a hundred years ago.

• A friendly and knowledgeable lady named Ramona tells me, “Here in Nashville, there are Jack’s people and Martin’s people.” We’re talkin’ barbecue. There are devotees of Jack’s BBQ, founded in 1976, and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, founded in 2006 (in another town — little Nolensville, Tenn.).

Interesting that Martin’s calls itself a “joint.” Isn’t that ordinarily left to other people?

• “You get the same food in Midtown as you do on the Strip,” says Ramona, “and it’s half the price. On the Strip, you’re just payin’ for the name.” That’s wisdom.

• Checking into my hotel, I’m greeted warmly by another woman. I present my driver’s license and she names an eatery three blocks from me, in New York. Turns out — she’s a native of Brooklyn who once worked in my area of Manhattan. Small world.

• Speaking of eateries: Hard by the hotel there’s a taqueria. And an Ethiopian place. (There’s a whole Ethiopian community here in Nashville.) Typically American.

• Some years ago, I was in Oklahoma — or was it Texas? I can’t remember. Anyway, I said something like “here in the West” — and some readers jumped on me. “West? That’s not the West! You’re in the middle of the country!” Fair enough — but those states were the West, once upon a time. And they still have a western feel, at least in part.

Hell, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the fight song goes “champions of the West.” (This confused me when I was a child, because I thought of the West as Arizona, California, Oregon, etc.) And how about Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.?

All of which is to say: Nashville is plenty western, no matter where it is located. How ’bout this? Western enough for you?

And how about this?

How ’bout a visit to Robert’s Western World?

You get the picture (literally).

• A man exits Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, belching. I think, “Must be good.” Also: “What is this, China?”

• The women in Martin’s call me “darling” and “sweetheart.” (The waitresses and bartenders, I mean.) One could get used to this, or I could.

• Shall we pause for some language? How would you pronounce the name of one of the main streets: Demonbreun? A young woman from the area — a teacher, to boot — tells me: “De-MUN-bree-un.” The street is named after Timothy Demonbreun, who, in his pre-American days, was Jacques-Timothée Boucher, Sieur de Montbrun. I will quote Wikipedia:

a French-Canadian fur trader, a Lieutenant in the American Revolution, and Lieutenant-Governor of the Illinois Territory. He is known as the “first citizen” of Nashville, Tennessee.

• Another language item: All of my life, I have thought “Jack Daniels.” But several signs here tell me: “Jack Daniel’s.” The man — the whiskey man — was Jack Daniel.

I’ll be damned.

• This, too, is a language item, in a way: Nashville bills itself as “Music City.” What do they mean, “music”? I find that certain people are very, very touchy about musical nomenclature. What does “country” mean? How about “country-western”? How about just “western”? Not to mention “rock,” “jazz,” “blues,” “indie,” and so on.

Gun people, too, are very, very touchy about nomenclature. Heaven forbid you use the wrong word. You may be familiar with an old expression: “This is my weapon, this is my gun. This is for fightin’, this is for fun.”

(Pardon the vulgarity.) (But what the hell.)

Back to music, and what to call it: I used to refer to all music that isn’t classical as “popular” — which, of course, doesn’t cut it, as people let me know . . .

(Quick story: An old friend of mine, a rocker, once said to me, “You don’t like any rock-’n’-roll song.” I protested, “Yes, I do!” He said, “Name one.” I said, “ ‘Penny Lane.’” He said, “That’s not a rock song! That’s a classical song!” He had me there.)

• You hear music up and down the Strip in Nashville. It pours out of bars and other establishments. Live music, I mean. It starts at 11 in the morning. Inside, the music may well be amplified — which is absurd, given the small sizes of the places. But I have ranted about the “overamplification of American life” before, and won’t subject you again. (Here is an essay from 2014.)

• American society is inundated with recorded music, coming out of loudspeakers, coming out of phones, coming out of every nook and cranny. I’m glad there is a town that honors live music. (Austin, Texas, is another, I believe.)

• But hey: a record shop! They used to be as common as — I don’t know: gas stations or churches.

• Check out this burst of lavender — standing out in a pretty macho town:

• Who’s this angel? She stands outside the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the home of the Nashville Symphony. “Schermerhorn” does not refer to a musical instrument. It is the name of the late Kenneth Schermerhorn, who was the music director of the Nashville Symphony for more than 20 years.

The base of the angel reads, “The Nashville Symphony expresses its most sincere gratitude to the citizens of Nashville for their love of all forms of music . . .” I wonder whether this is more a wish — a nice thought — or more a fact . . .

• So, what do we have here? An auto dealership or a football stadium?

Just kidding. But seriously . . .

I, of course, love capitalism, and I also love tradition. This is a perpetual tension within an American conservative. (Of course, you can say that capitalism, or free enterprise, or a free economy, is a tradition.) I think corporate sponsorship is wonderful. A blessing. But . . .

This is not the same thing, but let me tell you a story: I used to tease my friend Tom Griesa, a late federal judge in the Southern District of New York: “How’s work going in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan building?” One day, he said, “You know what the best name for a U.S. courthouse is? ‘U.S. Courthouse.’”


(I grew up with Tiger Stadium. Now they have “Comerica Park.”) (But Michigan Stadium remains “Michigan Stadium” — for now?)

• Bridgestone Arena (originally Nashville Arena) is where the NHL team plays: the Nashville Predators. “Smashville”!

• Back to the Strip — where there is a very active begging community. While I’m on the phone, one man says to me, “Can you give me some money? I’m starving.” (Lotta starvation goin’ on.) I ask him to wait a minute. Then, withdrawing a bill from my wallet, I say, “I’m going to give you a dollar and wish you all the best.” He looks crestfallen — angry even. He wants more, and says so. Frankly, I’m a little sick of giving away dollars. I’m practically hemorrhaging. So I say, “Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it back.” The man walks away, angry — but keeps the dollar.

I’m full of sympathy (and even empathy, in some cases). But I have long, long experience with beggars on the streets — in our country and in others. I’ve been giving away money since I was in my teens. And my impression is: Our beggars are evincing an ever-greater sense of entitlement.

I don’t ask for a thank-you. But I think it’s okay to ask for — no guff.

• You have to admire an establishment that advertises itself as the “shame o’ Nashville.”

• Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, as you know. The capitol building was built in 1859 — completed that year, rather. A sign says that “slaves and convicts quarried and transported limestone for the Capitol, which was used as a fortress during the Civil War. President and Mrs. James K. Polk are buried on the east lawn.”

Let me show you a picture:

There ought to be a statue on top of that pedestal — but it was toppled during the George Floyd protests, and associated riots, in the summer of 2020. The statue was both toppled and damaged. It will be repaired and reinstated at some point, according to news reports.

The statue was — is — of Edward W. Carmack, who lived from 1858 to 1908. He was a politician and newspaperman. Interesting life, which you can look up. He was a great foe of Ida B. Wells, the civil-rights pioneer. Carmack endorsed the lynching of black men who had tried to establish a grocery store. He incited a mob against Ida B. Wells (“Get the black wench”). Fortunately, she was out of town when the mob showed up.

Nasty piece o’ work, this Carmack was.

• Elsewhere on the capitol grounds is a statue of Andrew Jackson. More interesting, to me, is the statue of Sam Davis.

Born in 1842, he died in 1863 — hanged by Union soldiers. Davis is known as the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy.” He was 21, when he was hanged. You will find it moving to read about his life, if you haven’t already. A plaque at the side of the monument says, “He gave all he had — life. And he gained all he lacked — immortality.”

The sculpture, incidentally, is by G. J. Zolnay, or George Julian Zolnay. He was born on the Fourth of July, in 1863 (about four and a half months before Sam Davis was hanged). That was in Bucharest, where he grew up. In America, he would be known as “the sculptor of the Confederacy.” He mainly lived in New York, however — where he died in 1949 (at his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan).

One of those American stories . . .

• This is Nashville’s World War I memorial:

Words of Woodrow Wilson are inscribed at the top. They are from his famous war message, given to Congress on April 2, 1917. You may burn at these words — I will merely quote them: “America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.”

• This is the Korean War memorial here:

At the base are the words “Where Communistic Military Aggression Was Defeated.”

• There are memorials to our men and women in other foreign wars, too. To Tennessee men and women, in particular. Let me quote one line about Vietnam: “During America’s longest war they served with distinction and valor, but often without recognition.”

Of course, the Afghan War would later become our longest war. President George W. Bush is quoted on the relevant memorial here: “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.”

Bush uttered those words on October 7, 2001 — about four weeks after the 9/11 attacks — as we were launching our first strikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

• There is also a memorial to fallen police officers. I don’t really like that word “fallen” — sounds too pretty, almost. Poetic. “Killed” may be better. As far as I’m concerned, police officers are, in a sense, at war every day, in behalf of all of us.

• Here is a statue — an artwork — that arrests the eye and makes the heart sing, I think: Musica, by Alan LeQuire. The statue was put up in 2003. It sits in the middle of a traffic circle. My concern: that Musica is literally traffic-stopping, or -disrupting.

• How about this baby? I’d call it “Beat It!” Or maybe “Whisk It!”? In reality, it’s called “Good Eats!” and it is by Wayne Henderson. The sculpture was put up in 2015. It’s 16 feet tall and doubles as a bike rack.

• The purpose of a king is to rule — and the purpose of a tower is to tower, as this one does at Vanderbilt University:

• A restaurant, near Vanderbilt. Have you ever played the organ in Ognissanti church, in Florence, where Amerigo Vespucci is buried? Oh, that was me, sorry . . .

• Hmmm — is that Frist as in Bill Frist, the former U.S. senator, and majority leader? His family, yes: specifically, his brother Thomas F. Frist Jr., a physician-businessman-billionaire-philanthropist. Good for him (and the whole, remarkable family).

• On the street, I meet an adorable young woman from northern California — whose name is, really and truly, Sequoia. She is raising money for charity.

• With Hattie B’s, the hot-chicken place, I have a beef. They call their mac ’n’ cheese “pimento mac and cheese.” I think that should be “mac and pimento cheese” — as in Augusta National’s pimento-cheese sandwiches. You know?

(I have had both, I’m glad to say: the Hattie B’s product and Augusta National’s.)

• Behold the glory of the customs house — whose cornerstone was laid by President Hayes in 1877:

How about the façade, huh?

• A tune runs through my head:

Lida Rose, I’m home again Rose,

To get the sun back in the sky.

Lida Rose, I’m home again Rose,

About a thousand kisses shy.

• An interesting store name, interestingly rendered:

(Bill Clinton once said something that made an impression on me. I’m going from memory. Asked to explain his horn-dog ways, he said, “I was just the fat kid in the husky jeans, and . . .”)

• Who’s this lil’ fellow? I must show some respect. He is James Cecil Dickens — Little Jimmy Dickens — a mainstay of the Grand Ole Opry. He was a cool 4 foot 11. Born in 1920, he died in 2015. Wore rhinestone-studded outfits — long before Glen Campbell recorded “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Lookin’ good, Jimmy.

• “The Grilled Cheeserie”? Another name for that would be “Heaven on Earth,” thank you very much.

• If I ever started a company, I’d like to call it “Acme” — for tradition; for cartoons; and to be early in the yellow pages (if we still had them).

Thanks for joining me, everyone. Been fun. See you later.

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