I have never regretted taking a trip. Never. I have regretted superfluous purchases, I have regretted sub par takeout when I could have just cooked it myself, I have regretted buying cups of coffee when it was free in the dining hall. But I have never once regretted the money and time spent on going somewhere or doing something. Never. I spent a month of my life and lots of my money in New Zealand, and some might say for what, but it was one of the most trans formative periods of my life: independent, solo, free, surrounded by beauty. I spent a summer in Washington, D.C., interning in the Senate, exploring the city, drinking at friends’ houses, unafraid of making mistakes in the way that the hot, humid weather encourages you to. I came away from that internship and, a year and a half later, do not have a remotely political job; perhaps I haven’t properly cashed in on those connections, some adults and peers would argue. But I wouldn’t trade my time in DC for anything. Last New Years, I went to New Orleans and it was crowded and often tacky, but I found something magical there, something unearthed, a city that doesn’t ask much of you, but allows you to be.
This summer, Madisyn and I drove to Nashville, choosing to drive instead of fly because something about that nine hour drive felt necessary, felt urgent, felt like it was calling us. Nashville was hot, and the road there was long, but it was worth it, this past July, worth it to make the trek down there. Our original excuse for to see Ray LaMontagne, an artist that has defined and bonded our friendship since we met two years ago in Cape Town and played his music on weekend mornings, his husky tones wafting in and out of our rooms as we slept in too late, wandered into the kitchen, made breakfast, and talked. Our schedules this summer meant that the only chance we had of seeing Ray together in a place that we actually wanted to go to otherwise was Nashville. So we booked the tickets in February. The lodging we worried about the week before. Madisyn has this effect on me. With her, I tend to plan a little less. We work well together.
The road to Nashville from Pittsburgh is one that begs to be periodically abandoned; the road kisses enough of the mountains of Appalachia that you can’t help but wonder what secrets, sideshows, and attractions are waiting just off the freeway. The road passes through western Pennsylvania, skirts Cincinnati and Columbus, kisses Louisville as the mountains open up into the rolling hills of Kentucky and Tenneesee. I’ve always been fascinated by highways, the way they so quickly pass cities; a distance that takes four minutes in a car holds thousands of homes, thousands of lives.
We stopped for a night in Frankfort, Kentucky, an odd little blip of a state capitol. It felt sleepy and small, but homey and historic, as if the small city does its thing year after year, and doesn’t give much concern to the whirling world around it. The next morning, we took back roads through endless miles of horse farms (marked by their trademark white fences) and made our way to the small town of Loretto, Kentucky, home of Maker’s Mark. I love the feel of Kentucky, the rustic nobility of it. After a tour, we powered forward to Nashville.
In Nashville, we found country, and history, and kitsch. We toured the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, where history just seeps out of every pew. Backstage at the Ryman is filled with whispers, with quiet chords and the rustle of some absurd sequined dress, probably worn by Queen Dolly. We even checked out the Country Music Hall of Fame, where Taylor Swift somehow has her own education center already, and I got really emotional reading about the pioneering women of country music, as I tend to get emotional reading about pioneering women of any industry. There’s something about those women of country: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn (oh man, I love Loretta Lynn) that is just so real and powerful: they were proud wives and mothers, but in no way took an ounce of shit from anyone.
In Nashville, we found sunflowers, and lots of coffee, and honkytonk music for three nights in a row because it was the best place we could find on Broadway, the only one that still felt real, frequented by old men and featuring a band playing Allman Brothers covers, rather than the other places on the block with lineups of Luke Bryan wannabes (Johnny Cash would be rolling in his grave if he knew what the men of country were mostly singing about these days) who don’t quite have the figure to be rocking the Luke Bryan sleeveless flannel wardrobe, IF you know I mean. Robert’s Western World lives up to the hype, folks.
We also found beer, specifically at Yahoo Brewing Company, where we each gave into the sampler, partially because it reminds me of that old peg game I used to play at my grandparents’ house. But most importantly, outside of Nashville, at the outdoor amphitheater call the Fontanel, we found sublimity, and joy, and peace in pure music. The story is too surreal to try and recount, but that day, while innocently sipping on the best coffee I’ve ever tasted at Barista Parlor, we met Ray LaMontagne, who was just sitting there, having coffee. And we talked to him for about ten minutes, about a bunch of things from his birth to his new album. We told him we had driven from Pennsylvania. We told him that his music bonded us. And he said we had made his day. It’s one of those memories that I want to tell everyone, but also want to keep close and precious, because how could anyone understand the absurdity and the supreme power of it? And then that night, we drove into the hills outside Nashville and saw Ray in concert, and he played “Jolene” and I just lost it, absolutely sobbing. His voice was so raw and powerful, his music so simple and pure and perfect. He even talked about Barista Parlor, and Madisyn and I took that as his way of giving us a shoutout. And the evening was perfect, and the sky was a million different colors, and we felt like Tenneesee loved us, maybe a little bit.