Where the SUV is king

Nashville's Confederate past in the civil war rubs uncomfortably against its present

Getting to Nashville is proving hard. After scrambling through security at Chicago airport, peeling off my shoes as if entering a mosque and being frisked by the guards whistling and clapping like evangelicals, I'm told that my flight is cancelled due to "bad weather". Well, OK, it is raining. In a departure lounge seething with delayed fliers to Lincoln, Memphis, and beyond, the big guy on the desk confirms: "It's not looking good, sir." Only as the runway staff check out and the planes nose into hangars do I get a whiff of Nashville. Via Washington DC. At 6am.

I curl up on a hard bench getting in the way of squadrons of cleaners. Dozing through intermittent "Orange Status Alerts" and jazz standards, I dream of Nashville, which now feels as mythical as Atlantis. All I've got to go on is Robert Altman's 1975 movie and the words of Bob, a fat guy I met in the departure lounge who says Nashville's doing "real nice"; a city of half a million people, "but there's room there, room".

Two flights and time zones later, I'm there. It's clear from the interstate that this city doesn't subsist on Tammy Wynette alone, with hoardings for private healthcare (250 firms, "four times as many heart transplants!") and Christian publishing ("Your Bible's better open than shut") flanking the gap-toothed skyline of telecom towers. Downtown, there's barely a soul on the sidewalk. Music Row, where fortunes and empires formed and fell, is a modest affair of chalets. And on every corner there are colleges, elite institutions such as Vanderbilt in its lush arboretum or Belmont, a Baptist university where lecturers call on pastors for their references. Nashville feels sleek and impenetrable.

Like all good pilgrims I head to the Country and Western Hall of Fame, less a museum than a cathedral. It's a profligate complex, a kitsch Guggenheim with its slalom structure; you explore the roots of country, shuffle down aisles, huddle in listening booths that form stations of the cross; everywhere sweet, plangent country plays, fusing folk, blues and gospel to form the official soundtrack to American insularity. Its apotheosis is the swoon of the Nashville sound, a hymn to reaction - witness Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry, Ronald Reagan's state pardon of country legend Merle Haggard. Yet country's populist origins offer other possibilities - there's cowgirl Kitty Wells whose caustic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" got her banned by NBC, and Delford Bailey, "the wizard of the harmonica", dropped from the Opry for reasons of race. As you descend past Elvis's gold-plated Cadillac, interviews and archive recordings fuse into a cacophony that belies the suspect silence of "the hall of fame".

But this feels like Nashville past not present; the future is less the condominiums rising from "the Gulch" and more the sprawl of Davidson County. The undulating wooded hills form a radiant frame for mile on mile of fantasy villas; development in seceded districts such as Belle ville or Brentwood offers an object lesson in the unplanned landscape - speed-built palaces on wooden frames, gardens like golf links, private roads "adopted" by groups such as "Davidson County Republican Women". It makes Surrey look modest. And the exit from modernity figured in these mock plantations is mirrored in the hermetic Christian institutions that serve them; Pentecostal high schools, mall-sized churches, bowdlerised bookshops. Out here there's no sidewalk; out here the SUV is king.

The dream of secession runs deep here, symbolised by the civil war, or as some have it, "the northern war of aggression". The town, late to join the Confederates, became a Union bridgehead; its hills are studded with the forts that consolidated their advance, gardens still yielding axe-heads and bullets. And a museum in nearby Franklin, the site of the war's most ferocious battle, reveals this trauma is far from healed.

Carnton Plantation is an unexceptional sight; a handsome Federal-style house with a commanding porch sits in the midst of abandoned cotton fields; down the slope, beyond the hog smoking room are the slave quarters. Trees shed their leaves and on the ground heaps of Osage oranges moulder with mutinous slowness.

In the mansion I zone out to the languid spiel of the guide, a dreamy woman in her twenties. Fixated on wall-hangings and gibbed windows, her descriptions are weirdly couched in the future tense: "In 1796 Randal McGavock will come here from County Antrim . . . his son John McGavock will go on to marry Carrie McGavock." As I slope round in guided-tour stupor, a motif establishes itself: blood. The carpet is ripped back to reveal blackened traces; upstairs two huge pools, "about a shoulder-blade apart", stain the floorboards; there are the rings of a bucket that slopped formaldehyde; then outside I'm invited to imagine amputated limbs stacked like a woodpile. All in the same forlorn monotone devoted to interior furnishings.

The house was a field hospital during the battle wherein, on one day alone, the Confederates lost 6,000 men. Actually, what the guide says is: "We lost 6,000 men." And, increasingly, her identification with the Confederate dead and indifference to Union losses becomes apparent: the cemetery at the fringe of the plantation is full of Confederates; the whereabouts of the Union dead seems not to be of interest. Equally obscure are the fates of the slaves sent to Alabama during the conflict. Indeed, the fact that the war sought to maintain a slave economy seems unworthy of mention. I think of Robert Lowell's description of another monument "to the Union dead" in Boston, sticking "like a fishbone/In the city's throat". This one goes down all too easily.

As I exit, an old boy in Confederate uniform berates me. "They laid me out here, dead, on the porch." I smile feebly. Then among the stubby graves a boy soldier adjusts his pageant gear, as if seeking inspiration from his dead counterparts. In Nashville, dream and actuality, past and present, keep pretty close company.

Steve Waters is a playwright and runs the MPhil in Playwriting at the University of Birmingham

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