This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States features the great State of Tennessee, a dynamic wonderland in the American South. Our tour guide is my Embassy colleague Geoff Benelisha, who grew up in the eastern part of Tennessee and will share his personal perspectives on the best things to see and do while on his home turf.
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Tennessee: Music and Much, Much More
by Geoff Benelisha
Tennessee offers cultural, historic, and scenic attractions that exemplify the diversity of American society. There are beautiful mountains, bountiful rural areas, and iconic cities whose names are known around the world. Thus far, three U.S. Presidents have come from Tennessee — Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Andrew Johnson. The State has given birth to or nurtured distinctly American musical forms, including Rock ‘n Roll, Soul, Blues, Country, Folk, Bluegrass, Mountain, and Rockabilly. Tennessee music has deep roots in our country’s past and still forms the soundtrack to our present and future.
Tennessee is located in the southeastern United States, bordered by eight other States, a distinction which only Missouri shares. You can thus easily combine a visit with travel to other interesting locales. Virginia and Kentucky lie to the north, linking Tennessee with the nation’s Capital and the northeast corridor of major cities. North Carolina, to the east, shares the Appalachian Mountains and provides the closest access to the sea. Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi provide a gateway to the Deep South. Lying across the Mississippi River to the west, Arkansas and Missouri are Tennessee’s gateway to the great American plains.
The population of our State is approximately 6.5 million, which puts us 17th among the 50 States. Our largest city is Memphis, home of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n roll. The capital is Nashville, a cultural, economic, and academic hub known worldwide as the “home of country music. Other famous Tennessee cities include Chattanooga (made famous by Glenn Miller), Clarksville, Knoxville, and Oak Ridge (home of the Manhattan Project).
Tennessee’s economy centers on agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism. More than 82,000 farms lie within its borders. Poultry, soybeans, and cattle are the primary agricultural products. Principal manufacturing products include chemicals and transportation equipment. Indeed, transportation figures heavily into the State’s economy, with corporate headquarters of large enterprises such FedEx and Nissan North America. Tourism is also a major economic driver, with dozens of popular attractions and an extension network of pristine parks and natural recreation areas.
It is believed that the territory was first settled about 12,000 years ago by Paleo-Indians who were the predecessors of the Muscogee and Yuchi tribes. The first European to reach the territory was Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540. The name Tennessee evolved from ”Tanasqui,” which Spanish explorer Juan Pardo recorded in his journal as the name of a local village during his expedition in 1567. As European settlements were established along the mid-Atlantic coast, Cherokee tribes moved into the territory from the lands now known as Virginia.
The first British settlement in Tennessee was established in 1756. Increasing numbers of settlers arrived in the 1760s and 1770s, representing the start of the great American westward expansion from the Atlantic.
Founded in 1772, the Watauga Association was the first constitutional government established west of the original 13 colonies. After the American Revolution, Tennessee was the 16th State to be admitted to the Union, on June 1, 1796. (It was the last to join the Union in the 18th century.)
The State was part of the Antebellum South’s plantation economy. In 1861, voters first rejected a referendum to secede from the Union but then approved secession in a second referendum. After the war, during the administration of Tennessee-born President Andrew Johnson, Tennessee became the first of the former Confederate States to be readmitted to the Union.
In terms of size, Tennessee covers more than 42,000 square miles (109,000 square kilometers). The State is divided into three legal and geographical regions, each with a distinct cultural identity. It should be no surprise to you that in a long, thin State running horizontally, the three regions are known as West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and East Tennessee. In the rest of this article I will talk about each region in turn, highlighting their distinct features and special attractions, starting with the West.
West Tennessee is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain, a geographic region that begins in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches into southern Illinois. It is at lower elevation and has a warmer climate than the rest of the state. The city of Memphis is the economic and cultural center of West Tennessee. Memphis is widely regarded as being the home of the Blues, which sprang up in the early 20th century, and as the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll in the mid-20th century. Both musical styles developed along the iconic Beale Street, which is still the centerpiece of the Memphis music scene.
A few blocks away from Beale Street is Sun Studios, where musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins got their start in the 1950s. No visit to Memphis is complete without seeing Elvis Presley’s legendary home, Graceland. A pilgrimage site visited by more than 600,000 people each year, Graceland is one of the most-visited private homes in the United States and indeed the world.
One of the country’s most tragic and compelling landmarks is in Memphis. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address in Memphis on April 3, 1968 while in town to support the Memphis Sanitation Strike, part of the Civil Rights Movement. He was assassinated the next day as he exited his room at the Lorraine Motel. The preserved Motel now forms part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is well worth a visit.
Like most Americans, I grew up seeing images of the Motel. However, it was only when I saw it for the first time in person that I truly appreciated its significance. Earlier this year, my wife and I visited Memphis. We walked to the Civil Rights Museum and up the steps of the Motel, and stood in the exact spot where Dr. King was shot. I have been to many historically significant sites, but I had never before felt the combination of awe and sadness that came over me as I stood in that spot.
Moving eastward, one comes to Middle Tennessee, which is characterized by rolling hills, fertile valleys, and great diversity of wildlife. At the heart of this region of the State is the capital, Nashville. With a booming economy, rich cultural offerings, dynamic nightlife, and a busy schedule of annual events — including a large independent film festival, the Country Music Association Awards, the Tennessee State Fair, ethnic and cultural festivals, and a large marathon – Nashville is a great place to spend time.
The city was founded in 1780 in a strategic location near Fort Nashborough by a group of Overmountain Men, so called because they traveled “over the mountain” to North Carolina to fight the British during the Revolutionary War. A replica of the Fort is maintained by the city government and open to visitors. As the Nashville grew it became a major river port and railroad transportation hub. A major objective of the Union Army during the Civil War, Nashville was the first Confederate state capital to be captured by Union troops, in February 1862.
Present day Nashville is known as the “Music City.” As Country Music has grown more popular both in the United States and worldwide, Nashville’s importance to fans and artists alike has only increased. From historical venues such as Ryman Auditorium – former home of the Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest running live radio show — to gleaming new facilities like the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, to the many honky tonk clubs, Nashville is a Country Music fan’s dream.
While in town, you can learn all about the State at the Tennessee State Museum. Also worth a visit is the Natchez Trace Parkway, a centuries-old Indian trail that is now a national park, extending 440 miles from Natchez, Mississippi through the Tennessee countryside to just outside of Nashville. With few road signs, ample scenery, and lots of historical markers, it is a highly enjoyable way to drive, whether for just a few miles or its full length. And don’t miss the Tennessee State Capitol, a National Historic Landmark. Completed in 1859 and modeled on a Greek Ionic temple, it was occupied by Union troops and converted into a fortress with artillery during the Civil War.
Middle Tennessee also boasts many excellent educational institutions. The most well-known is Vanderbilt University, one of the country’s top universities, which is named after 19th Century industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt who provided the school its initial US$ 1 million endowment despite never having been to the South. Other notable institutions in the area include the Tennessee State University, of which Oprah Winfrey is an alumna, and Sewanee: The University of the South, with its 13,000 acres (5,261 hectares) of scenic mountain campus.
Finally, we come to my home region, East Tennessee, whose most famous features are the high, rugged Blue Ridge Mountains. The area offers a wealth of outdoor recreation options and contains Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States. Much of the mountain range that forms the natural and legal border between Tennessee and North Carolina is contained in the Park. Gatlinburg is the most popular entry point to the park on the Tennessee side and offers visitors everything from five star hotels to rustic mountain cabins.
East Tennessee is also known for Mountain Music, particularly Bluegrass. On any given night in any given town in the region, visitors may be treated to a world-class banjo picker or musicians playing rare instruments like the hammer dulcimer. East Tennessee State University, located in my hometown of Johnson City, offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies, the only program of its kind in the world. Students have come from around the world to attend the program, though apparently no one yet from New Zealand. Come on Kiwis, East Tennessee is waiting for you!
Knoxville is the largest city in East Tennessee (and the third largest city in the State). It is home to the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee system. The Knoxville campus has many wonderful programs and departments, the most interesting of which is the Forensic Anthropology Center and its fascinating expertise in the study of human decomposition. The Center accepts body donations, with a roster of 2,500 future donors already signed up.
A more lively campus landmark than the Forensic Center is Neyland Stadium, home of the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team. The stadium is nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River, and many fans, known as the “Volunteer Navy,” arrive at games via the water. With more than 102,000 seats, the stadium transforms into the sixth largest city in Tennessee on game days. American football is massively popular in the South, and sports fans throughout the state live and die with the Volunteers. If you are lucky enough to be in Knoxville during football season, I highly recommend going to a game.
My final, and perhaps most important, topic for today cuts across the regions … barbecue. Memphis barbecue is one of the major regional varieties of barbecue in the United States. It is simply delicious, particularly the pork ribs. There are too many quality establishments to name in Memphis, but you certainly can’t go wrong with Central BBQ or Interstate Barbecue.
For me, however, any discussion of barbecue begins and ends in East Tennessee, where the style of barbecue is Carolina but the taste is quintessential Tennessee. The main ingredients are pork shoulders, smokehouses, and vinegar-based sauces, but the exact combination and application of those ingredients, well, that is where mastery comes into play. Once again there are too many fine restaurants to name, but my personal favorites are The Firehouse in Johnson City, located in a former firehouse building, and Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City, where both the décor and the food are classic.
So, that’s my quick sprint across my home State. There is much more to see and do, from spectacular waterfalls in the mountains to other-worldly caverns deep beneath those same mountains. And wherever you visit, Tennessee has a way of making you feel welcome. Southern hospitality is always on display in Tennessee, and there is something about the beautiful scenery and friendly faces that always puts a big smile on my face when I arrive home. Please come see for yourself. Come for the music, the food, and the sights with the knowledge that Tennesseans will welcome you with open arms.
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To Geoff’s fine review, I would add only that Tennessee is known as the “Volunteer State” because volunteer soldiers from Tennessee played an important role during the War of 1812, particularly in defeating the British at the decisive Battle of New Orleans.
For more information about Tennessee, things to see and do during your visit, and how to plan your trip, take a look at the State’s official travel and tourism website. If you are interesting in learning more about Tennessee’s rich history, click here.