The Damndest Trade You Ever Saw: When Mr. Carrie Underwood Came to Nash Vegas

Image copyright @BillHobbs.

In the opening scene of Robert Altman's 1975 classic Nashville, Opal, a reporter from the BBC, supposedly filming a documentary about Nashville, visits a recording studio to interview country music stars. She first interrupts the session of fictional Grand Ole Opry staple Haven Hamilton. So Hamilton's son, Bud, takes Opal to a nearby studio, where the Fisk Jubilee Singers are recording with a white gospel singer.

Bud Hamilton is his father's manager and notably unlike his father in that he grew up in Nashville, has no Southern accent, and attended Harvard Business School. When he and Opal enter the Jubilee Singers' recording, they exchange these classic lines:

Opal: "Is she a missionary?"

Bud: "No--she's not. She's a gospel singer. She's the wife of our attorney." 

Opal justifies her off-color question with a boast about a previous documentary in Kenya. Without the slightest hint of irony, she compares the gospel singer surrounded by Fisk students to a white missionary converting indigenous Kenyan tribes to Christianity. A growing look of concern occupies Bud's face.

This exchange typifies Opal's character--preoccupied with her own wordiness, while unknowingly revealing herself to be a total dope. Throughout the film, she chases country music stars and records cliched, faux-poetic descriptions of meaningless settings, all while ignoring real Nashvillians. Her best line, however, comes in that first scene: 

"Look at that rhythm--it's fantastic. You know, it's funny--you can tell it's come down in the genes through ages and ages and hundreds of years, but it's there. Take off those robes and one is in darkest Africa. I can just see their naked, frenzied bodies dancing to the beat."

Bud's eyes widen as his smile slowly dissolves into an unsure smirk. He gives her that look--you know, the bemused incredulity that sits halfway between "You've got to be kidding me!" and "You ain't from around here, are you, hon?"

Attention Canadian-based North American hockey press: you are Opal and Nashville is giving you that look. 

The night of February 11, 2011, the Nashville Predators acquired Mike Fisher from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Nashville's first round pick and a second pick conditional on the Predators making the playoffs. The Predators, in the thick of a playoff run, had just learned center Marcel Goc would require season-ending shoulder surgery. Goc's injury left the Predators without three of their opening-night centers and scrambling for cohesive offensive lines. 

That night, however, the website of Nashville's preeminent newspaper, The Tennessean, infamously read, "Carrie Underwood's husband acquired by Nashville Predators." TSN's Sportscentre, the Canadian knock-off of Sportscenter, spent a decent bit of their trade-coverage just mocking The Tennessean's headline. Not only have Nashville's fans never heard of Mike Fisher, they're too obsessed with country music to care! 

Nashville's ignorance was a funny joke for the rest of the league, but a joke that betrayed a very serious sentiment. The Tennessean confirmed for Canadian fans what they already knew about the American South: not only did they not deserve hockey, they didn't really want it. 

So the funny coincidence became the story. More than one--which is to say every--major hockey news source either insinuated or explicitly suggested Carrie Underwood's presence would boost Nashville's attendance. Predators' General Manager David Poile had to give a formal response to the idea that an Underwood-attendance-boost was part of the organization's master plan: "I'm the hockey guy and I made a hockey trade. But if there is residual benefit from Carrie Underwood being at more games, that would be fabulous."

Country music is not Nashville's culture. Country music is Nashville's chief export--people go to Bridgestone Arena to see country music stars like people go to Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center to marvel at its steel support structure. If you think even one fan went to a Predators game to see Carrie Underwood this season, you are completely deluded. But you're not alone, and I'm here to help. 

HONKY TONKIN' WITH SHANE O'BRIEN

When the Predators traveled to British Columbia for the first time this season, the return of problem-child Shane O`Brien was a big story in Vancouver. Before a January 26 morning skate, the Vancouver press huddled around O'Brien's locker, giddy to hear what their former favorite source for controversial quotes had to say. 

Reporter: "Have you been to Tootsie's?"

O'Brien: "I don't even know where Tootsie's is." 

*Everyone laughs*

The question was telling. The answer was perfect. 

The reporter essentially asked O'Brien if he was up to his old tricks. O'Brien, dubbed the "Roxy Roller" by the Canucks' beat writers, was once infamous for frequenting the Vancouver night club The Roxy. And in the mind of the interviewer, Tootsie's World Famous Orchid Lounge represented Nashville's analogue. 

The Roxy is a nightclub. Tootsie's is a honky-tonk. Red velvet curtains hang on the wall of The Roxy. A grimy black and white picture of Hank Williams Sr. hangs on the wall of Tootsie's. There are nightclubs in Nashville. Tootsie's is not one. 

If the Vancouver media think Tootsie's is Nashville's version of the nightclub, however, that would explain a lot. The Bridgestone Arena sits on Broadway, a street of honkey-tonks, barbecue joints, and western clothiers. It's possible that a visiting reporter might walk down Broadway and think he's seeing Nashville's country-fried substitutes for nightclubs, fine dining, and the Banana Republic. He might think this is Nashville and the people walking past him, wearing "TAPOUT" shirts, cowboy boots, and fanny packs are Nashvillians.

It's not and they're not. Broadway is a facade--a western film's set painted on four blocks of store fronts stretching from the arena to the river. It's a big bug light for the people who haven't missed a Fan Fair in 20 years--a charming and historically significant bug light, but a bug light nonetheless. The only reason I ever had to go down Broadway growing up was to see the Preds.

And that's why O'Brien's answer was perfect--Tootsie's is right across the street from the Bridgestone Arena. 100 feet away, tops. No joke--you can look into Tootsie's from certain parts of the arena's upper deck walkway. 

Nashville is a city of suburbs. Nobody lives downtown. There is no ultra-hip dance crowd in Tootsie's for O'Brien to pound shots with. O'Brien probably lives in Franklin with the rest of the Predators and Titans, driving downtown for the games, not giving a second glance to that little purple building nearby. Never does he glance longingly from the driver's seat of his Range Rover, dreaming of drinking with Sam Elliott's character from the Big Lebowski in a dingy hole in the wall. 

KE$HA AND ME

Growing up in Nashville in the late nineties was a little odd, caught between two cultural institutions for which I had no natural affinity. Nashville gets about a half inch of snow per year and I never owned ice skates. But I didn't have a ten gallon hat, either. The only John Deere product I ever needed to operate was a leaf blower. 

There are five distinct stages of growing up in Nashville.
1. Distaste

You're riding in a friend's parents car downtown. The Toby Keith song "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue" comes on the radio. You hear something about "Lady Liberty shaking her fists." You roll your eyes. The car arrives at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. As you watch the Predators lose 1-2, you wonder how they can skate across the ice so much and only score three times.

2. Interest

You see Johnny Cash's music video for "Hurt" for the first time on CMT. The Predators make the playoffs for the first time. You watch David Legwand score the first home playoff goal shorthanded on ESPN. The lead story in the Tennessean's election coverage mentions Toby Keith is a registered Democrat. 

3. Enjoyment

You watch Jordin Tootoo, in his mustard #14 jersey, beat the piss out of Jeff Woywitka at center ice. The Predators trade for Peter Forsberg. The next day, you're singing "I Like It, I Love It" in the supermarket. 

4. Understanding

Surfing Wikipedia, you read where a guy named Dave Pahanish wrote Toby Keith's latest overtly patriotic screed. You go see him play the Bluebird Cafe. Watching the Olympics live, you start rewinding the parts where Ryan Suter is skating backwards, noting how he subtly cuts off all the attacking forward's angles to the goal. 

5. Embrace

In the line at Jack's BBQ you get into a fight with another fan about Joel Ward's defensive contributions. Somehow the argument ends with a heated debate about the best guitarist in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. 

You know who doesn't share this complicated relationship with the genre? Actual country music artists, the people who moved to Nashville from rural Midwestern towns, hoping to become famous singing about their former lives. Nashville hasn't been a setting conducive to raising a future country star since the Industrial Revolution. Country is for people in the country, wherever that may be. That's why Wisconsin-native Ryan Suter loves his Alan Jackson records and the local boy Blake Geoffrion wouldn't recognize a single song. 

Ironically, the music Shane O'Brien fist-pumped to in Vancouver was more likely a true Nashville product than anything he'd hear in Tootsie's. Club scene staple Ke$ha grew up in the area, with parents in the music business. Her first demo tape featured a "gorgeously sung, self-penned country ballad" and "a gobsmackingly awful trip-hop track." Guess which got her signed? 

Yet, for pursuing a career seemingly antithetical to that of a country star, Ke$ha's music embodies the tenuous relationship of Nashville and the music it produces. By balancing her over-produced dance hits with the slightest hints of irony, she subtly suggests the whole thing to be elaborate joke, enabling those, who might otherwise feel guilty, to enjoy her music under the pretense of "getting it." 

Which is all to say, Nashvillians realize a lot of country music is mass-produced lowest-common-denominator crap. Thanks for telling us a joke we all laughed at before you walked in the room. But that's true of any genre of music. And Nashville's brand of gentle self-deprecating ribbing is as honest a coping mechanism as any.

Next time you walk down Broadway, look in the window with the souvenir T-shirts, the ones with the chicken that read, "Viva, Nash Vegas!" Yea, you're really in the country--just like you're really standing next to the Great Pyramids or the under Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. 

LET US PREY

When country music was slightly less of a cash cow and more of a respectable art form--before country pop became synonymous with the whole genre--the Ryman Auditorium was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the "Mother Church of Country Music." In a sense, the honkey tonks around the Bridgestone Arena are vestigial from that era, before Nashville banished the worst kitsch to its own suburb/theme park/quarantine.

Now, in the so-called "buckle of the Bible belt," this city of 799 Christian churches, the cultural and spiritual epicenter of the city has moved, right across the street, to the Bridgestone Arena. Hockey is our religion, these are our saints, and these are our prayers. Will the congregation please rise and turn your missalette to page 43, "Osgood, you suck. It's all your fault."

We don't care about Carrie Underwood, talent competition winner from Muskogee, Oklahoma, because she doesn't represent us or our city. But Mike Fisher, unassuming gospel-music fan, dragged here by family in the music business? Sounds like a Nashvillian to me.

There's even a codeword, I'll let you in on, to identify still great country music, made in the tradition of the Ryman: Americana. The word itself--just "American" made to sound European--reflects the inherent absurdity of high-brow country music. It's a word both as contradictory and as perfectly descriptive as "Athens of the South."

You didn't know all that? You didn't understand every intricacy and historical detail of the music we created? Then you don't deserve our music! All Canadian country stations should be uprooted and moved to Southern markets, where they'll be more appreciated. After all, if folks don't immediately appreciate something as much as the people who invented it, they shouldn't have it all, right y'all? 

***

Opal: Do they carry on like that in church?

Bud: Depends on which church you go to.

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