They tell good tales in Nashville. This morning I spent at Ingram, one of the biggest book publishers and distributors in the US, giving a talk to its staff, and signing books for retailers.
These events can often be a little dry; some handshaking, conversation about book markets, a long walk down corporate corridors. Not in Nashville.
Sitting down to lunch with the staff of Ingrams was possibly one of the most fun things I have done on this entire tour (and that is saying something). Because Southerners can tell a story.
Here are just a few of those I can remember: One woman, S, (I will not name her, for reasons which will become clear) told a story about a business trip with her husband to Georgia, where she met a man who had an interest in alligators near the Okefenokee Swamp (this is a real place. I checked). (“I got an earache and he told me he could fix it. Two days later he told me the stuff I’d been squirting into my ear was alligator sperm.”
Did it work? I asked, after a polite pause.
When they left, on a private plane, he had handed her a folded towel, with the instruction not to open it in the air. So she did, of course, revealing a small, live alligator. Once home, she had kept it in the bath, digging up bugs and worms to feed it, while she worked out what to do. “But it started to look kind of sick. So I rang the alligator rescue, and the next thing they told me they could prosecute me for bringing an alligator over state lines. Oh I was cursing that man.”
S went to her local pet store, who knew her well, and pleaded for help. She ended up paying them to create the paperwork that would get it safely back over state lines. Where, apparently, it is now safe and well. She was pretty responsible. It does not do to tip an alligator into the local creek in Nashville.
Other stories I heard – too many and varied to repeat her – involved: a bathtub for ten, a man called Bubba who caught a catfish that wouldn’t fit in a car, and a dog with a prosthetic leg who gnawed her other foot off. And that was just lunch.
After lunch, Sharon, whose husband works in the music industry, took me for a drive. Surprisingly, music is only the fourth most important industry in Nashville. First is insurance, second is religious publishing, third is tourism and music comes fourth.
The landscape is lush and hilly, the houses of Brentwood, where many musicians live, are generous and surrounded by acres of parkland. We stopped outside Dolly Parton’s Nashville home, so I could take a picture, and then drove past the houses of Kenny Chesney and too many others for me to recall.
Every half a mile or so there is a church. “The South is Bible Belt,” said Sharon. “And Nashville is its buckle.” (Southerners also have a great turn of phrase. When I told Sharon as an author you never knew what kind of audience you were going to get next, she said: “Oh I know, honey. It’s all chicken or feathers.”)
The South is also famous for big weather. She told me a story about driving an author through a mini-tornado which ripped off her boot. In the author’s bag had been a Christmas bell, which embedded itself firmly somewhere in Sharon’s car. “That darn bell rang every two minutes. Every single author I had in my car considered it a challenge to find it.” Even Pulitzer-winning Richard Ford had a go. No luck. They sold it in the end.
We visited Music Row, where studios sit in residential houses, the Parthenon, a life-sized repicla of the real thing. And now I am taking an hour in my hotel room eating yellow squash and gnocchi before my last gig, at Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books. If the stories tonight are even half as good I may have to rethink my career.
Damn. I just realised I forgot to tell the one about the goat that ate a car.