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Insider Driving: Song of the South

Inside: Musical Itineraries

As so many road trips do, it started with the radio.

A voice told me to go. It came singing through the static late one night, from a corner of the FM dial. The voice belonged to a singer named Ron Sexsmith, and the song was "Lebanon, Tennessee."

I'm going down to Lebanon, Tennessee
From where I stand, it's as good a place as any
I don't know anybody there and nobody knows me . . .

You have to understand: this song slays me. Those opening lines alone carry more heartache and hope than an entire gospel album. The drum beat is as steady as a slow-moving train; an organ drones in the distance as Sexsmith sings his small-town dream. I had to stop the car to listen to that plaintive, broken tenor. The next morning I bought the record, and "Lebanon" was on my stereo every night—a haunting lullaby for a town I'd never heard of.

Countless singers have rhapsodized about April in Paris, autumn in New York, or leaving vital organs in San Francisco. But songs are also great democratizers, able to make "Luckenbach, Texas" (Waylon Jennings) seem as mythic as any metropolis. Songs turn our Nowheres into Somewheres—until all those Winslow, Arizonas ("Take It Easy," the Eagles), and Slidell, Louisianas ("Joy," Lucinda Williams), are inseparable from the melodies they inspired. "It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw," sang Simon and Garfunkel, and from the glory in that line, they could have been singing about Valhalla.

American music has always been about geography and our deep attachments to place. For every love song to Clementine or Peggy Sue, there's another for Lake Charles, Louisiana ("Up on Cripple Creek," the Band), or Muhlenberg County, Kentucky ("Paradise," John Prine). Songs are to travel what whistles are to trains; each is integral to the other. No one knew this better than Bob Dylan, the Rand McNally of rock and roll—forever stuck inside of Mobile, outside of Delacroix, or down Highway 61.

For a singer, the place informs the song: it's hard to imagine Neil Young writing "Helpless" without an Ontario to remember. Yet for a traveler, the song informs the place, coloring our perceptions, mining for riches where we might have found none. Scanning a road map, I was amazed to find that Lebanon, Tennessee, actually exists—there it was, half an inch east of Nashville. And though I knew less than zero about the place, I knew that if being in Lebanon could make me feel half as good as the song did, I simply had to go.

And so one morning I set off from new york with a carful of music and a crazy whim. I crossed the Hudson into Springsteen's "swamps of Jersey," then counted the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike until I reached "The Sound of Philadelphia" by MFSB. At 10 a.m. I made "Baltimore" by Lyle Lovett, then cut west toward Phil Ochs's "Hills of West Virginia." From there I hauled it "Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" with Flatt & Scruggs. Bill Monroe took me from "Roanoke" to "East Tennessee Blues," where I caught John Fahey's "Knoxville Blues." Thirty miles east of Nashville, I cued up the Sexsmith disc, and with the song as my guide, took the exit marked "Lebanon."

Get off the bus on the border of town
Head in from the east
Walk into a bar, take a seat in the corner
Be a man of mystery

All right, so I didn't take a bus into Lebanon, but I did head in from the east, as prescribed. Here the border of town was a two-mile strip of motels, truck stops, and discount appliance stores, the marquee outside one flashing "John 20:31 . . . Washer-Dryer 279.99."

As for bars to walk into, there weren't many open on a Sunday night. A biker joint called the Players Club looked like the kind of place where a "man of mystery" might get the bejesus kicked out of him. Instead I tried my luck at the Waffle House. I took a seat in the corner, naturally. The late crowd consisted of three bleary-eyed truckers on cross-country runs. They'd never heard the Sexsmith song.

"Ah, but I bet you know the way to San Jose!" I said. No one laughed.

Folks don't treat you mean in Lebanon, Tennessee
But like a human being—they'll take you in off the street
They'll bring you in their homes down there
And give you something to eat

While no one took me in off the street, I certainly wasn't treated mean, and the next morning I was given something to eat (eggs, grits, biscuits, and gravy) at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store off I-40. Lebanon, it turns out, is the birthplace of the Cracker Barrel chain, whose faux-folksy cornpone restaurants have proliferated like kudzu along Southern interstates.

From a brochure near the gum-ball machine I learned that Lebanon, seat of Wilson County, has a population of 21,000 and was once home to Sam Houston and the original Aunt Jemima. Today the county's best-known residents are Charlie Daniels and Reba McEntire. I also learned that Lebanon's own Cumberland University holds a college football record—for being beat by Georgia Tech, in 1916, by a score of 220 to nothing.

After breakfast, I strolled around the town square, with its Civil War monument, barber poles, and enough antiques dealers to stock a road show. Lebanon, I discovered, is the self-proclaimed "Antique City of the South." "Five-dollar charge to look through window—free if you come on in!" said a sign outside one store. I browsed through piles of estate jewelry and hunting knives at Cuz's Antiques Center, then took a drive down West Main Street, a broad avenue lined by stately Victorians that soon gave way to car dealerships and drive-ins, and, finally, to rural Tennessee. It was pretty—for about eight minutes. Then I got bored and turned back into town.

Outside Bonker's Pizza I cornered a few skateboarding teenagers, got out the boom box I'd brought, and played the song for them. They weren't convinced that Lebanon was "as good a place as any," but they admitted the tune was catchy.

In fact, no one I talked to in Lebanon knew of the song's existence. Ron Sexsmith is hardly a household name, but you'd figure a tribute to a town of 21,000 people would get some airplay in the town itself. I guess the real Lebanon was enough; they didn't need an imaginary one.

After lunch I paid a visit to the chamber of commerce. Executive director Sue Vanatta was "tickled pink" to learn there was a song honoring her hometown. We sat in her office and I pressed play on the boom box.

There'll be a job in Lebanon, Tennessee

"That's true," Sue whispered. "We've got only three percent unemployment in Wilson County."

I'll work on a farm, I'll work in some factory

"Well, maybe not farm work these days. There's the Hartmann Luggage factory—the world headquarters. Very good luggage."

Even with her Tennessee accent, Sue reminded me of people in the small New Hampshire town where I grew up—sturdy, no-nonsense, natives through and through. And that's when I realized what had been nagging at me since my arrival in Lebanon: switch the grits for home fries and the Confederate soldier for a Minuteman, and Lebanon could be my hometown. A place where school lunch menus get 12 column inches in the newspaper; where the downtown movie palace has been abandoned for a multiplex; where folks stick around for life, and their children do, too; and where no outsider in his right mind would spend a vacation.

Which isn't to deny that Lebanon is a charming little town. But in the end, it proved no match for the song. I said good-bye to Sue, took one last spin around the square, then hit the highway, bound for Nashville instead.

Back in New York, I managed to reach Ron Sexsmith by phone. I told him I'd driven 15 hours to see Lebanon, all because of his song. "Really?" he asked nervously. "Because you know, when I wrote it, years ago, I'd never even been there."

"Oh," I said, trying to hide my disappointment.

"Yeah, I was working as a courier here in Toronto. One day a box came into the mailroom postmarked "Lebanon, Tennessee." And the sound of those two words just hit me. I walked out of the mailroom singing to myself: 'I'm going down . . .' like a mock country song. It actually started as kind of a joke."

"Really," I said.

"But the more I got into it, the more it seemed to take on a deeper story line. I guess people can relate to that idea of wanting to start over somewhere. It was nice not knowing anything about the town—in fact, I kind of stayed away on purpose."

"Right," I said. "Good idea."

Okay, so it was a silly endeavor, driving all the way to Lebanon. But I have no regrets. How many poets have traveled to the mountain in Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben" only to find a molehill?Yet even if they'd known, they still would have made the trip. It's the going that matters, not the arrival—the idea, not the reality. Reality, after all, is only a part of it; the traveler fills in the rest. One takes from a place what one brings. Some of us bring Yeats. Some bring Michelin. Some bring Ron Sexsmith.

As for me, I still visit Lebanon as often as possible—in my living room, late at night, with my headphones on.

Two For the Road

Sometimes the best way to know a place is through its music. Here, two driving itineraries that put the roll back in rock.

Itinerary 1

ATHENS TO MACON, GEORGIA: ALLMAN JOY DAY 1 From downtown Atlanta, where you can find rare vinyl LP's at the excellent Wax 'n' Facts (432 Moreland Ave. N.E.; 404/525-2275), follow U.S. 29 east and set your radio dial to WUOG (90.5 FM), where indie rock lives. A 75-mile drive brings you to Athens, home to the University of Georgia (and WUOG), and one of America's premier alternative-rock meccas. The B-52's and R.E.M. got their start here; the scene is still vibrant today. Pick up the weekly Flagpole to see who's in town and, particularly, who's at the renowned 40 Watt Club (285 W. Washington St.; 706/549-7871). R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Michael Stipe first met at Wuxtry Records (197 E. Clayton St.; 706/369-9428), a choice hangout for musicians. Spend the night at the antebellum Nicholson House Inn (6295 Jefferson Rd.; 706/353-2200; doubles from $99, including breakfast). DAY 2 From Athens, go south on U.S. 129. In just under two hours you'll hit Macon, birthplace of Little Richard; erstwhile home of Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, and James Brown; and present-day site of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 888/427-6257 or 478/750-8555). Across the street, check out the Douglass Theatre, where Redding was discovered. Stop for a cheap lunch at H&H (807 Forsyth St.; 478/742-9810), where the Allmans ate free in their early days, then visit the side-by-side graves of Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley at Rose Hill Cemetery (1071 Riverside Dr.). Stay at the elegant 1842 Inn (353 College St.; 800/336-1842; doubles from $220, including breakfast).

Itinerary 2

CENTRAL AND WESTERN TEXAS: "BACK TO THE BASICS OF LIFE" DAY 1 Music-lovers could spend weeks soaking up the sounds of Austin, but there's even more in the heartland. Leaving Austin, tune your radio to KO-OP (91.7 FM) and feast on the wild mix of bluegrass, funk, and psychobilly. Drive an hour west on U.S. 290 and follow signs for tiny Luckenbach, immortalized in a 1977 hit by Waylon Jennings. Musical nomads still flock to this one-horse town to go "back to the basics of life," as Waylon sang, if only for an hour or two. Country-and-western jams often take place on weekend nights. Nearby Fredericksburg is a tourist-friendly town with plenty of restaurants and motels; stop at the Austin Street Retreat (408 W. Austin St.; 866/427-8374 or 830/997-5612; doubles from $135). DAY 2 A nine-hour drive northwest on Highway 84 brings you to the Panhandle city of Lubbock, most famous as the birthplace of Buddy Holly. Stay at the Woodrow House (2629 19th St.; 800/687-5236); ask for the caboose car (from $105, including breakfast). DAY 3 Holly's unmistakable glasses are among the memorabilia on display at the two-year-old Buddy Holly Center (1801 Ave. G; 806/767-2686). The singer opened for Elvis at the Fair Park Coliseum (10th St. and Ave. A); his grave is in the City of Lubbock Cemetery at 31st Street and Teak Avenue. Lubbock isn't just Holly's hometown: at one time or another, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis, and the Dixie Chicks have all sung for their supper here. See today's up-and-comers take the stage at the Texas Café & Bar (3604 50th St.; 806/792-8544), source of Lubbock's best brisket and the region's finest songwriters. Bring your ten-gallon hat.

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