I was in a bathroom stall at a bar when I read an ad on the back of the door: “Nashville is…cowboys with smart phones, southern belles with tattoos, southern hospitality and culture with a SoHo flair.”
I went back and sat at the bar and peeled the label off my beer while I wondered who the hell really believed that. Someone had to have thought it was brilliant. Someone had to have okayed it, proofread it and sent it off to be printed. A cowboy with a smart phone is just a Billboard country songwriter, churning out lines like sit on my tailgate, you look good in that skirt — trash that somehow makes a lot of money. A southern belle with a tattoo is just a sorority girl who got too drunk in Panama City. Southern hospitality with a SoHo flair is just a restaurant where a historic home used to be, with a middle-aged chef from somewhere else, who thinks that cheese grits are the essence of southern cuisine.
Glossy magazines drunk on a post-recession lust for Americana call it “new Nashville,” and its soulless overgrowth has never sat right with those who loved this city before it became a destination, before its low-key charms were traded in for a pale imitation of Brooklyn cool. The fact that a publication based in East Nashville — the neighborhood that had always offered a semblance of counterculture for those who don’t just want pearls and derbies — was now touted as a synthetic “new Nashville” is indicative of just how far gone the Nashville I grew up in is. And how even further gone my parents’ Nashville is.
I sent a picture of the bathroom ad to my father. He simply replied, “drink.”
My parents used to be lounge singers. They met in 1982, and hated each other until someone asked my dad to accompany my mom on the piano. It was like Billy Joel backing up Patsy Cline, I always thought — or maybe they raised me on so much Patsy and Billy that my mind created an amalgam. Whatever the case, my mother Jackie’s “Walking After Midnight,” and my father RJ’s “Piano Man” were crowd favorites.
In ’83 they formed a duo, and toured the country dragging a six-by-eight trailer painted red and black to match their Toyota Supra, “the import car of the year,” they always proudly add when telling the story. My dad looked kind of like Peter Frampton. My mom looked kind of like Linda Ronstadt. He was a party animal. She was a ballbuster. Country music was in a sweet spot between the Johnny Cash cool of the 1970s and the Garth Brooks cheesiness of the 1990s, and my parents fit right in. They would duck their heads down while passing through small towns, their matching cutoffs and perms a little too much for the middle of nowhere. Soon they were making more than $100,000 a year, raking in their share of 1980s excess, when big-hatted tycoons with painted women on their arms might throw a hundred-dollar bill on stage and slur, “play a slow song.” I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea that resort lounges once booked residencies for a month at a time, and that musicians could make six figures touring the country in a sports car. Like the Nashville I grew up with, it just doesn’t exist any more.
My whole life, they told me stories about their days on the road — showing me not the parents I knew, but the young people I never got a chance to meet. I liked to hear about the time RJ broke his leg skiing at a resort in Aspen, and how Jackie lovingly wheeled him on and off the stage every night. Or the time Jackie got a black eye moving equipment, and altered her eye makeup each night to match the bruising. Their hotel caught fire one night in Monroe, Louisiana, and my mom made my dad run back inside because although he’d remembered the dog, he’d forgotten her makeup bag and their pot.
Their fans became friends who punctuate their stories. My favorite is a woman they called Queen Hum, an overweight southern heiress whose catchphrase was, “Let’s drink a little liquor and talk a little trash.” My father would introduce my mother on stage as “the vivacious, irrepressible, inextinguishable songstress, Jackie Holland.” I always wonder, but have never asked, if they ever foresaw how extinguished they would one day be.
They married in 1985 in between tour dates. My father wore a pink cummerbund to match my mother’s tiered lace gown, their perms still in sync. Five years later they got pregnant with me. My grandmother claimed that a psychic told her I would be more famous than Dolly Parton — a story my mother told crowds across the country, as they continued touring until she was eight months pregnant. To this day, my mother’s pet name for me is Dolly.
Parenthood forced RJ and Jackie to settle down. My dad began producing local artists, and my mom started a nine-to-five at an insurance company. While my dad recorded, I would hang out with the ghosts in the basement, which looked like a ’70s porn set preserved for posterity. The brown tile floor, white laminate countertops and pastel-striped wallpaper glowed underneath the nicotine-stained fluorescent lights. It smelled like wood and burnt coffee, and it was always kept cold for the recording equipment. I’d put on one of the musician’s giant Wrangler denim coats and rifle through the cabinets. Past the whiskey, ramen and scattered peppermints from years of takeout orders, I’d find hot chocolate packets that were probably older than I was. I’d rearrange the alphabet magnates on the freezer to spell my name while I waited for the microwave to warm up water in a Styrofoam cup. I always hoped to find something I shouldn’t see.
I knew those things existed from my parents’ parties they’d have in an attempt to keep some part of their old life alive. I’d squeeze through adult legs in my nightgown, catching various words I wasn’t supposed to say while I chased around our black Pomeranian, Jazz. I would inevitably tire on an armchair somewhere. On one occasion I’d been set up in my bedroom with a Disney movie and a bowl of pretzels. I watched through the cracked door as people went downstairs into the basement and came back up laughing. Once everyone was back on the porch playing music, I tiptoed down. I stood in my pink socks in the gasoline-scented underground, trying to make sense of a poster of Travis Tritt and Randy Travis performing at a concert, their microphones airbrushed into penises.
That studio my dad recorded in, which was called Masterlink, was originally founded by Monument Records, a label that was home to Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, among others. Everyone from Elvis to Kris Kristofferson to Neil Young recorded there. I got to shake Porter Wagoner’s hand there. I got to sit next to Dobie Gray on the couch. The rhinestones and perms were gone, but the music industry of the ’90s was still tied to the glory days of the ’70s, with an accessibility and a community that have disappeared and won’t ever return. Zac Brown ultimately bought the studio in 2012, saving it from being torn down. As wonderful as it might be that it wasn’t erased like a lot of Nashville’s history currently being leveled, now it’s just another renovated part of “new Nashville.” Its history is overshadowed by its copper awning and new name.
On my thirteenth birthday I outed my dad as a homosexual. It was after an over-the-top birthday party that I bratted out of my parents, because I went to a predominately Jewish school and was jealous of everyone’s Mitzvahs. Despite the volatility of our home life, they were very focused parents. They loved to spoil me. They rented out a Nashville nightclub, and all the pre-teens didn’t really know what to do with that. The kids went home early, and all of my parents’ music friends stayed until they kicked us out.
The party ended up back at our house. As guitars came out on the patio, I sat on the bathroom counter watching my dad brush his teeth. The conversation shifted to whether or not Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt was hotter, because I was thirteen years old and those were the dilemmas that consumed me. My dad didn’t just let me go on pontificating, he chimed in with his opinion. I remember no thought process at all, just the words, “Daddy, are you gay?” bubbling out of me. He spit toothpaste all over the mirror and smiled; we hugged, and then our lives changed.
Regardless of how good parents they were, or how good a life we had, my parents never prepared for life in one place. Our existence as a nuclear family was an impossible setup that they never foresaw. My father’s rambunctious spirit and childlike lust for life wasn’t easily sated by being a family man. My mother’s urge for my father to settle down made him rebel even more. Even though they’d drifted away from music row and into the insurance business, my father still produced a handful of acts and was building a publishing catalog. He used those endeavors as an excuse to party. She used his escapism as a reason to drink a lot of whiskey. Nashville has always been a drinking town, so neither was out of the ordinary.
My mom could be a very unpredictable and hostile drunk. When I was young I just saw her as the aggressor, but as an adult I can look back and see the pain she was going through, the love of her life slowly slipping away, and her world never quite in step. My father always seemed like the savior, but as a woman now I can see his part in the destruction too, never willing to fully commit to life with my mom in one place. But because he was the lighter of the two, I gravitated towards my father. “It’s like I picked you out of his nose,” my mom would say. Our bond was profound, but it also was advantageous to him in cementing a relationship that would keep my mother from ever being able to take me from him, something she often threatened. A month after that birthday party my parents filed for divorce.
My mom turned even more to alcohol and took out a lot of frustration on me. My dad began a tedious attempt at reliving his twenties, refreshed by his new sexual identity, and he wasn’t really there to sugar coat anything anymore. I kind of got lost in the mix, and by the time I was sixteen I was beginning a five-year rebellion that would lead to a bad car wreck and a stint in rehab. We all finally stabilized though. My mom catapulted herself from a secretarial position to an executive, and remarried. My father settled down with a partner too, and now runs his own company. I moved to New York, then Los Angeles. During that period of my life we were sometimes all very close, and sometimes very distant. When I finally returned to Nashville, we were in one of our off periods, and my parents hadn’t spoken in two years. From the moment I saw that ad in the bathroom stall, I knew I would never quite fit in with the new Nashville, so I set out to find what remained of the old.
I swindled everyone into spending Christmas together. An expensive bottle of Sinatra Jack dulled the awkwardness until we all ended up around the piano, my parents and I singing together for the first time. They’d never realized how much I’d picked up on just listening to them, and I didn’t realize how much was still there musically between them. At the end of the night my stepfather asked my dad if he ever regretted not making it big. My dad gave a tempered answer about how our family wouldn’t have happened had their career gone in a mainstream direction, and how he was able to find other joys in life as a result.
The Sinatra Jack had done us all a bit of a disservice, and at this point the night had dragged on a little too long. “You’re a liar!” screeched my mother.
My father’s not a liar, and I don’t think my mother believes he is. Drunk or sober, Jackie will still say that RJ was the love of her life. I know RJ loves her very much too, even if he doesn’t often let people see it. Sometimes it makes more sense to strangers if we let them think that we all hate each other. We’ve all spent a lot of time filling the gaps of what used to be, and the bitterness will still swell up after enough whiskey sometimes. Every now and then they’ll both take on a reverent tone with me, as though they still have penance to pay, as though it’s still not okay. “I’m sorry if I’ve ever disappointed you” has become an unnecessary refrain from both of them. What I don’t think they understand is that the life they gave me in Nashville couldn’t have been more special, that seeing my parents pursue a dream informed everything that I would want to be someday. I look around Nashville today, and see a lot of people my own age — friends, enemies, acquaintances — with a lot of potential to end up like my parents. But that’s the magic in keeping the old Nashville alive, the fact that they can still try, and just might make it —that is if it’s not all paved over with condominiums.
Recently, my mother told me a story I’d never heard before. Before she met my father, she was the lead singer of the house band at the Nashville Palace, a venerable honkytonk across the street from the Opry. It was the kind of place where people got discovered, and Jackie was just starting to get some attention when the club owner decided they could only pay a six-piece, and told the band leader to get rid of one of their seven. My mom was the one who got cut. After several weeks of customers asking about her, the owner asked her to come back. Never one to back down from a fight, my mother refused. If she’d gone back to the Palace, she might have made it across the street to the Opry, but she would never have met my father.
“I don’t have regrets,” she said, “but it’s not hard to look back and see what you did wrong.”