What Happens When Your Hometown Looks Nothing Like It Used to
Now Mt. Juliet Road has gone from two lanes to four, and they can’t put in traffic lights fast enough. There’s Bar-B-Cutie and Jet’s Pizza—and those are just on the lot where my elementary school used to be. There’s an amphitheater in Charlie Daniels Park. And right off I-40, sprawling over 103 acres, is an 830,000-square-foot shopping center called Providence MarketPlace, as if the Belk and Best Buy were part of the Lord’s divine plan. Earlier this year, Realtor.com named Mt. Juliet (that’s JOOL-yet) one of the top 30 boomtowns in America. Ahead of D.C., Philly, and Boston.
Mt. Juliet is booming because Nashville, about 20 miles west, is too big for its britches: Somewhere around 100 people move there every day. I didn’t experience this madness firsthand because I moved to New York in 1996. The changes hadn’t bothered me much—or so I thought—until a few years ago, when I brought my husband to see where I grew up.
Sasha is from Odessa, Ukraine; his primary point of reference for the South was the movie Doc Hollywood, with Michael J. Fox as a snooty surgeon stranded in Grady, South Carolina, a fictional hamlet of art-directed county fairs and sun-dappled swimming holes. I knew the Mt. Juliet of my day had none of Grady’s charm, that it was just some little nowhere place. But at least it was a place. Now when we drove down Mt. Juliet Road, my nowhere looked like everywhere else, like suburban Denver or Dubuque.
I felt like a fraud. Sasha had always thought of me as a girl from a rinky-dink town. More to the point, I had always thought of me as a girl from a rinky-dink town. It made my shortcomings less mortifying (“I’m just a girl from a rinky-dink town...”) and my achievements more triumphant (“I’m just a girl from a rinky-dink town!”). I liked being a person who had left Mt. Juliet. How dare Mt. Juliet leave me?
Then last fall my mother broke her ankle, and I went home five times in 12 months. The landscape just kept getting shinier and harder to ignore. So finally I decided that instead of just bellyaching about the place, I’d set out to really see it—find anything left from the past, get acquainted with what was new. It would be like living a country song, though I wasn’t sure which one: “Ain’t It Good to Be Back Home Again” or “The Good Old Days Are Gone”?
My mother, born in 1943, went to the same elementary school I did, back when the building held all 12 grades. Her father was Mt. Juliet’s first police chief; one of her earliest memories is the sound of change jingling in his pocket when he put on his pants in the middle of the night to answer a call.
I asked her to show me her old stomping grounds, a request she couldn’t have taken more seriously if I’d been Charles Kuralt. “This used to be McCorkle’s Store,” she said, cruising slowly past the park next to the new commuter-train station. “Behind it was Mr. Smith’s worm ranch. You’d fill an ice cream container with worms and then go fishing.”
She drove me to one tiny pocket of the old Mt. Juliet that still exists, like Brigadoon: little houses with porch swings and part-brick columns. It’s where my mother grew up, in the days when she was just Betty Joyce.
She pointed out where everybody lived: Miss Iva Nell, who had drapes that pooled on the floor like bridal trains. (“That’s why I like to have my curtains long.”) The Bateses, who had the first TV in the neighborhood. The guy who cured her dog, Shep, of the mange. The preacher and his five daughters. Miss Carrie Cawthon and her cats.
This is not what small-town living ever meant to me. I grew up in a suburban split-level where we ate boxed mac and cheese. I went to ballet class in the next town over, watched hours of MTV, and was mesmerized by the worldly teacher who wasn’t married to the father of her baby and asked whether we had ever seen Hiroshima Mon Amour. The universe was out there, just beyond my reach, but I felt trapped in a black hole of church, football, and church services where people prayed about football. There was only one way for a woman to be, and that was tan.
I wanted to live in New York, the place I knew from magazines and movies, where people did complicated, exciting things like taking taxicabs to see their therapists. I never had my mother’s fond Mt. Juliet memories—yet now it seemed I was the only one who cared that there was a CrossFit right down from a guns and ammo shop. My mother was completely unfazed. “Look how they’ve expanded the library,” she said. “Did you see we have a cupcake place?”
She waved her hand at one of the larger houses, with a weathered gray barn behind. “A friend of your Uncle Nealon’s lived there,” she said. “They called him Corn.”
“Catchy,” I said, then felt sheepish when she smiled, fondly and unironically, and said, “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” I considered Corn and his wholesome, artless nickname. In his day, people didn’t make things harder than they had to be. Maybe my generation took itself too seriously, and I should just eat a cupcake and get over myself.
Nashville used to be the Akron of the South, a midsize burg where the Smiths never played. These days it’s living high on the hog. The economy is robust, the income tax puny, and tourism out of control. (Sometimes literally: It is one of the premiere bachelorette-party destinations in America.) The football stadium where the Tennessee Titans play sits next to the Cumberland River like the mother ship beamed down from space. Taylor Swift has a penthouse in one of the newer luxury high-rises. Nashville, a nighttime drama of sequins, secrets, and miscarriages faked with pig’s blood, has been picked up for a fifth season.
When people in New York ask where my accent’s from, I’ve always just said Nashville. It’s easier, or at least it used to be. Now people say, “Oh! So fun!” Then they ask me what they should do and see and eat there, or worse, tell me what I should do and see and eat there. It’s irritating when some stranger explains my own city to me, especially because I suspect I’m not cool enough to live in it anymore.
Truthfully, I worked hard to be cool enough for Nashville even in its squareball days, when my friends and I dressed up in our thrift-store cocktail frocks and went to the Exit/In to hear bands play. The bouncer usually rejected our fake IDs, so we stood on the sidewalk with a rotating cast of wiry guitarists, Vanderbilt students, and kids from the more upscale Nashville high schools who never seemed to have curfews, unlike those of us who had to get up for Sunday school. I fretted that my “artsy” bobbed haircut was too Buster Brown, but I was out on the urban frontier! Rebellious, free, and blessedly unaware that I was standing in what would later be one of Travel & Leisure’s top hipster cities.
Needing to see it to believe it, I took a drive through East Nashville, the hipster epicenter, a neighborhood where we used to lock our car doors. If Mt. Juliet had given itself over to brand-spanking-newness, East Nashville had hitched its wagon to vintage charm, of the sort beloved by those who adopt the olden days as a lifestyle brand. Simpkins Groceries, carefully and conspicuously restored, is now Any Old Iron, a boutique where you can pick up a Vivienne Westwood tote bag. Part of the old Fluffo mattress factory is now Fat Bottom Taproom & Beer Garden. I had to concede that the neighborhood had become a beautiful little place, and I shouldn’t begrudge Haulin’ Oats, the artisanal oatmeal boutique; after all, somebody had to preserve the past.
I stopped at Barista Parlor, a coffeehouse in what used to be a garage. But when I walked into that cavernous space filled with industrial pendant lamps and craggy plank tables, I forgot to roll my eyes. Because in that alien setting, I had a feeling at once so familiar and dear. The music, just for a second, sounded like the R.E.M. of my college-radio youth, and I could have been 16 again, out to explore the big city and hang with the alt kids, hoping to pass muster. Now I looked at all the man buns and tattoos and porkpie hats around me, and I was ever so slightly scornful. But I had to admit that I missed my younger days of costumes and props, of finding the right boots and the most obscure vinyl. I had been carefully crafting the person I hoped I would become, getting ready for my real life to start.
I couldn’t decipher the menu, which described the various blends of coffee as if they were fine wines, with “taste notes” (“raspberry, sarsaparilla, juicy”), so I told the counter guy to just give me whatever he usually drank. One of the advantages of middle age is that you don’t have to worry about being cool, because you already know you aren’t. I resisted the urge to tell him I was visiting. From New York.
Afterward, I just drove around without stopping, wishing I’d learned how to parallel park. I didn’t recognize a lot of the neighborhood names on my iPhone map (Pie Town?). I got stuck behind a Pedal Tavern, an enormous trolley with a bar and stools, powered down the street by a bachelorette party of eight girls in identical fluorescent tank tops and cowboy boots.
There was new construction in every direction, cranes looming wherever I looked. The cheaper buildings were made with flimsy-looking materials in the bright colors of school supplies. What did they make me think of? I realized they reminded me of Ukraine, the buildings cropping up in Odessa near the Black Sea, built with brand-new money. We spent the ’80s worrying about the Communists but forgot to worry about the capitalists.
A few raindrops splattered on the windshield, and there were steely clouds behind me, so I pulled onto the interstate to head back. Suddenly, the lighter skies ahead turned yellowish and the wind picked up, blowing cardboard boxes and shredded trash bags across the road. Then the rain came down in sheets. Was this at long last the tornado we’d practiced for in school, crouching in the hallway as we covered our heads with our biggest books? It was not. As soon as I got home, the gusts died down and the rain stopped, like someone had shut off a faucet. We had a psychedelic sunset where the clouds looked like pink and purple lakes. I thought of my fancy New York psychiatrist, who spends time in Tennessee, where his in-laws live. Once he’d said, “The storms there, they blow up out of nowhere, don’t they?” He talks about this place with an easy authority that I frankly find annoying, and I just grunted because I’d never actually noticed. But now I thought, Yes, I guess that does happen here. It’s really amazing. My mother found a video recording she made with a former classmate for their 30th high school reunion. She was 48 then, two years older than I am. She’s touring old Mt. Juliet with a microphone, stopping at places where things used to be. “Here’s where the telephone company was. Remember when the exchange was 261W?”
The town in the video looked so quaint to me. The old dry cleaner and funeral home, the deserted railroad track. Watching the video now (“That God-awful floral dress!”), Betty Joyce said, “Can you believe how much it’s changed?” But when I asked whether she felt sad, she said, “Oh, no. I’m so glad I got to see it happen.”
She loved and missed Mt. Juliet, but she was proud of it, like it was a child who’d left home to make its way in the world. She knew change was the natural order of things, bringing some losses and some gains. And I guess I know that, too.
On my last day, the two of us drove to Opryland USA, the theme park of my childhood. Or, rather, the place where Opryland had been. They closed it in 1997 to make way for the Opry Mills outlet mall, literally paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.
I wanted a photo to remember the trip and thought it would be a smarty-pants commentary to take it in “Opryland.” We pulled into an empty quadrant of the parking lot, which must have been the size of the Titans stadium. I’d never been to Opry Mills, and when I’d imagined this moment, I’d expected it to be melancholy—but we started to laugh, like we were pulling off a stunt. I put on the Nashville T-shirt I’d bought at the airport and threw my arms open to embrace the splendor. “Yeah, like you’re presenting it to us!” my mother said, getting into it.
She’d probably snapped a million photos of me on this same patch of earth, on the carousel and in the Tin Lizzies, at ages 5 and 9 and 12. How long had it been since she’d taken my picture, told me to get my hair out of my eyes? Long enough that it made me weirdly happy to stand in a parking lot that could have been anywhere, wearing a tourist’s shirt. It felt ridiculous and sweet, and not such a bad place to be. Like home.
Who needs Disney World when you have Opryland USA? Alas, the beloved country music theme park was closed in 1997 to make way for the Opry Mills outlet mall. Photo: Courtesy of Amy Maclin
Mt. Juliet Elementary used to be Mt. Juliet School, including all 12 grades. The building was demolished in 2006, and today the lot is home to stores and restaurants—like the Bar-B-Cutie of “Get your booty to Bar-B-Cutie” fame. Photos: Courtesy of George Page and Pamela S. Perry.
Actually, this house is in present-day East Nashville. The neighborhood has a retro vibe you might call “Meemaw chic”—and it’s one of the city’s hottest real estate markets. The behemoth is Nissan Stadium, home to the Tennessee Titans. Yes, in 1997, the state got a pro football team, and lo, how the angels did sing. Photos: Courtesy of Jennifer Wright/Alamy.