The late, great, John Hartford (bluegrass/songwriter) was an early musical inspiration of mine and in 1972 we were both working on our hippie persona, mine in college and his as a recording artist, releasing some of his most clever and creative albums. One of the songs on his Morning Bugle album of that year was something called “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore”, a melodic lament about the Grand Ole Opry moving from Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium downtown out to its new home within a theme park. Linebaugh’s sandwich shop and a couple other references were adjacent to Ryman and Hartford suggested their eventual demise as a result of lost foot traffic.
Looking for a little adventure I decided that I’d go down there and visit all these little landmarks before they were no more.
Accompanied by my roommate and then girlfriend, we loaded up my old Chevy van and headed down South, stopping to camp a few times, all of us crammed in my van, trying to avoid the chilly fall temperatures. While it was far from an ideal arrangement, the idea was to save money and save money we would, regardless of my roommate’s ‘space blanket’ (a large sheet of plastic coated with a metallic reflecting agent) that crackled every time he changed positions, waking us all up in the process.
We cursed his space blanket but could hardly ban it in light of his potential hypothermia so badgered him into lying perfectly still, or as still as one can be when asleep and having no control over their body positioning.
We pulled into Nashville the next day, but as we parked the car the first time to begin our exploration it dawned on us that we faced a small logistical problem: we were northern hippies on an expedition into the South during the Vietnam War. Why this thought hadn’t reared its ugly head before was a tribute to our naiveté but we were walking into a potential Easy Rider scenario and suddenly freaked out at the thought.
It wasn’t by accident that a higher percentage of southerners filled the ranks of the military during ‘Nam and southern sentiment was decidedly not with the protesters of the North and West. Regardless of the morality or intelligence of the U.S. continued involvement in the conflict, the majority of southerners were dedicated to doing their duty and found the counter culture movement, in any form, to be repugnant.
I suggested staying in high profile areas and being as polite as humanly possible but it didn’t take long before our mere presence (long hair, bell bottoms, facial hair, etc.) was being scoped out and judged. We were curiosities in a zoo and the looks of the natives spoke volumes. Clean cut was the norm and, as such, we stuck out as a social anomaly.
My roommate always traveled in an old Army jacket but the pony tail threw the entire military ensemble off and screamed draft resister. Thankfully, he had sometime earlier ditched the Army helmet liner he used to cap off his look.
Because the both of us smoked pipes, we stopped into a tobacco shop to get some reinforcements but, immediately, the proprietor was checking us out as if we posed some dastardly threat to their way of life and while I was nervous as hell I brought a small bag of pipe tobacco to the counter.
In an impromptu move he grabbed my hand, turning it over palm side up and did a quick examination: “Well, looks like you’ve been doing some honest work with those hands”, which I took to mean that I was not viewed as a complacent, overindulged, protesting pussy. And that’s exactly how I responded, with an affirmation of what he believed, “Yes, I work pretty hard.”
What he wasn’t aware of was that even though my palms and fingers had the look of having wielded a shovel, calloused and brownish in color, it was a direct result of repeated exposure to darkroom chemicals I’d been into because of a photography class I was taking. So, ‘yes, I’m a protesting pussy but since you don’t know that, I get to pass GO and collect $200.’
Eventually, we made it to the Ryman and there, as Hartford had promised, were the landmarks destined for the scrapheap; Linebaugh’s, a place that catered to the taste buds of Brenda Lee, Hank Williams and a hoard of other country greats. We came, we ate (fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens). We moved on to Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, rummaged through the record bins where Patsy Cline must have shopped a time or two and called it an experience.
Yes, kids, that’s all we came to do and we did it. 550 miles for a bowl of hominy grits.
There were thoughts of taking the Ryman tour but it seemed to staid an experience for a bunch of hippies so we started to make our way back home. It was late already but we headed East for the Smoky Mountains, wanting to camp somewhere in the heart of it so we could wake up the next morning and see it at dawn. We finally found a place to land and the next morning stepped out to landscape that none of us had ever seen before. It was like some ethereal portrait of life on another planet and we spent the rest of the day taking pictures and finding different water falls and rock formations.
By the time we left to meander North on the Blue Ridge Parkway it was getting late again but I wasn’t worried because I’d already plotted out a camp site deep within the National Forest. It would take a while to get there but sounded cool because it was a singular stop after miles and miles of driving a narrow and winding two-lane highway. We drove into the night, fatigued but happy to get to the camp site.
After placing hippies in a southern city during the early ’70’s, this was error in planning #2. When we finally arrived at the site it was closed and I, the driver, was screwed because there was nowhere to simply pull over on the Parkway. On the right side of the road was nothing but rock or a steep drop off to my left so I had to keep driving and I already knew there were no other camp sites on the horizon.
I drove all night with my girlfriend spotting imaginary bears around every curve and there were hundreds and hundreds of curves. At one point, I was actually hoping a bear would jump out so we could end the suspense but it never happened. Instead I guided us all the way to a strip mall somewhere in Maryland where I parked and tried to get some recovery sleep so I could get home.
We camped once more that night in Gettysburg National Park and then made it the rest of the way but I learned a few things on that trip.
a) There are, at any time of turmoil in this country (eerily similar to right now), cultural differences to be taken into consideration so plan accordingly. In the case of this trip, get a haircut and a v-neck sweater.
b) Don’t allow travel surprises to occur when you have no plan B. Call ahead to the campsite administrators.
c) Don’t go close-quarters camping with anyone owning a space blanket.
And, finally, Hartford was right on most counts. The drunks are gone from the Merchant’s Hotel, now converted into a fine dining restaurant and Linebaugh’s is gone, turned into a courtyard next to Merchant’s. What he didn’t figure was that Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop survived with a few adjustments and that the abandoned Ryman Auditorium, although it lie dormant for 20 years, eventually went through a multi-million dollar renovation and regained its rightful status as a major concert hall in 1993.