“I listen to real country, but not this shit.”
Ten years ago next week I was standing in a green room at something called the CMA Festival inside the Tennessee Titans’ stadium, ushering a professional wrestler from various press interviews to merchandise signings and then to the stage, where he was helping emcee the event.
The wrestler wanted to know something about the upcoming band so he could ad lib on stage. Neither of us knew them, or any other band in the lineup. We were yelling to each other over the crowd — of course I ended up yelling that last part too loud in a hospitality tent with scores of folks purposed with shoveling that shit.
Everyone was looking at me. One radio executive guy walked over.
I gritted my teeth. My impeccable taste in American roots music couldn’t save me now. Jason Isbell wasn’t gonna suddenly parachute in for an extraction. So I just took my whipping.
“Son, this whole thing here [he started waving his hands] is a sellin’ a good time. That’s all. It’s not art, it’s not poetry. Maybe you don’t want to hear that, but it’s about a good time,” he said.
“Hey look, I didn’t -” I started to say, but he cut me off by laughing. That’s what Capital ‘N’ Nashville does when you complain about its character, or its tact or gaudiness or pandering: it keeps on doing whatever it is you object to and laughs. And makes money off it.
“Our boys go out there and bust their asses to figure out how to give folks a good time,” radio guy said. “That’s it. Find what they want, find what makes ‘em pay to show up and then when you get it you run their asses ragged with the good time ‘till they don’t want it no more. We’re here to have a good time.”
The man patted me on the back and went to get a beer from an ice chest. I said nothing.
“Ask him the name of the band,” the wrestler said.
A few years ago my wife and I sat next to defenseman Kevin Klein, now of the Rangers, in a cramped restaurant. He was on a date and we didn’t say anything to him. The Predators were good that season but still building towards the level of reverence we hold them in now. Maybe I should’ve said something to him. Maybe it would’ve helped his date.
There is a weird code of silence about celebrities in this city. If you’re famous and actually want to be left alone to do mundane stuff like get coffee or go to the store and not be famous doing it, this is your town. Nicole Kidman is a really nice person. I don’t really have anything to say to her when I see her around, so I don’t. No one does.
Welcome to Nashville: No one talks to Jack White in public and everyone is better for it.
A few years later I was waiting with my wife to get a sonogram of our first child and saw Shea Weber in the waiting room.
“HEY SHEA GOOD FUCKIN’ HUSTLE ON THE FORECHECK OUT THERE LAST NIGHT,” I screamed.
I’m just kidding. I didn’t say anything. But I told that joke to a Canadian friend one time and he rebuked me, “That’s the difference, man, in Toronto you would have.”
Would have what, been an asshole in an obstetrician’s waiting room? Is that how hockey is supposed to be? I don’t know. We don’t know here, but we’re starting to accept and enjoy that ignorance. We just made all this stuff up: The Tim McGraw, the chants, the offensively bright yellow (sorry, “gold”) sweaters, the catfish, the “Thundercats” logo — this whole happy mess is the result of an experiment to successfully grow a hockey fan base in a total vacuum, absent its heritage and its dogma.
A bunch of white trash and transient hipsters didn’t just up and become Nashville Predator fans three weeks ago. The Predators got here in 1998, long before Nashville was an “It” anything, and didn’t do much to earn anyone’s interest. Then they almost lost their franchise to the Canadian equivalent of a Bond villain.
Then the city and a handful of local businessmen fought back and kept the Predators from moving to Kansas City or Ontario. It wasn’t so much an effort to keep a beloved team — or sport, let’s be honest — but the idea of that good time.
When the franchise was announced a healthy amount of Michiganders had migrated to Middle Tennessee to work at a newly opened Saturn auto plant. When the Predators would host Detroit over the Christmas holidays, the seats at Bridgestone Arena could become two-thirds red. No one seemed to mind. Over the next two decades the health care industry and no state income tax would bring in white collar labor from New England, New York, and Illinois.
And the Southerners wandered in at a steady rate. You’d see NASCAR fans who liked the speed (and its ensuing violence), college football diehards with nothing to do after New Year’s, and even one Kentucky basketball fan I met in a beer line one night who told me he only started buying partial season ticket packages to lock in better seats for the SEC basketball tournament at Bridgestone Arena. Then that guy from Kentucky got hooked on hockey. Predators hockey.
I’ve lived in Nashville for 11 years. I’m from Georgia. When I was 10 my family was stationed in Virginia and my Boy Scout Troop went to a Capitals game at the old Patriot Center. The game I saw was fast and fun and the logos were cool.
Moreover, it was an entirely new sport free of the burden of assigned family loyalties and crippling disappointment (see: Atlanta). In a million Canadian think pieces about non-traditional hockey markets I’ve never seen anyone figure out that a fresh start is a wonderful gift to a fan. This is the South. If the wrong thing happens in college football we’ll set your yard on fire while you’re at church. Sometimes it’s nice to go enjoy a game free of such a consequence.
When you’re an ice hockey team in Tennessee with a bright yellow robot cat logo and piano keys on your jersey collar there’s no such thing as a bandwagon. The whole fan base is made of bandwagon.
That’s how you survive as a NHL franchise in a non-traditional market: You don’t bring hockey to a city, you let a city bring its culture to you. If the growth of a particular sport is often crippled by the provincial prejudice of its birthplace, the cure isn’t flavorless universalism — it’s new kinds of provincialism, y’all!
Besides, acceptance of the actual game and its eccentricities comes easier than you’d imagine. We needed a more fluid, higher-scoring game than Barry Trotz so we got a coach who almost fought a player that one time. We like that. We were told a charismatic talent celebrated too much for a stodgy French culture so we welcomed him with a total embrace of his “antics.” That pissed off the French, and we love that.
We’re going to enjoy playing against the best player in the sport on its biggest stage and holler like idiots doing so. We’re going to enjoy the otherworldly goaltending of Pekka Rinne. We’re going to celebrate team architect David Poile for the wizard that he is. Haven’t won a Cup in your province since Watergate? Bless your heart. Cheer for us if you want, we don’t mind.
But please know we’re going to be big, bawdy, and offensively country about this whole hockey thing. We’re going to treat a rotation of one-night sensations as lifelong superstars. Is that a Colton Sissons hat trick to close out the Ducks? Well now he’s Wayne Gretzky in this state, and in this state no one watches the World Juniors.
The Stanley Cup Final is coming to Nashville, Tenn. Don’t overthink it. We’re not. This is fun.
Trust us, we’re about to run your ass ragged with a good time.