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Austin Chronicle States of Distinction

By Jay Hardwig

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  My father tells the story of a certain Tennessean -- possibly Davy Crockett, probably not -- who ranged far from home to alight in Texas land. When time came to report to his loved ones back East, he gave this assessment of his new home: "Good for men and dogs, hard on women and cows." Being neither woman nor cow, I can't vouch for the latter half of that judgment, but as an expat Tennessean, I can report that I've found Texas an agreeable patch of land. My dog seems happy too.

Of course, Davy Crockett -- or whoever -- wasn't the first Tennessean to come to Texas, and I won't be the last; any look at the genealogy books will tell you that. Despite a remove of a couple hundred miles, the muddy Mississippi, and the swampy state of Arkansas, Texans and Tennesseans have long found a way to get in bed together. A good part of the Lone Star State is now peopled with their bastard children -- bony, hard-nosed sonsabitches damn near every one. Perhaps that's not entirely accurate, but there's no denyin' a certain synchronicity between the states, a bond bred from common roots, country music, and the seductive charms of alliteration. Tennesseans speak highly of Texans, Texans of Tennessee (except when the Lady Vols come to Austin to whup ass on the Lady Horns, but that's another story ... ), and relations between the states have always been better than cordial.

First off, there's all that history to consider. Most famous, of course, is the Texas Revolution, which was fought in Texas by Tennesseans. The briefest glimpse at the battle rosters confirms as much; if it weren't for the Tennessee volunteers, I tell my Texan friends, the Lone Star State would be a Mexican colony and the maquiladoras would be on the Louisiana line. Even as they were being trounced at the Alamo, the Tennesseans must've sent back good reports, because after the war, their friends and family came to Texas in great batches, hordes of them all at once, so much so that the letters GTT carved into the front door were acceptable Tennessee shorthand for "Gone to Texas." Having used up one frontier, I suppose, the mountain folk were anxious to use up another.

But there's more to it than history. There's the music: not just the Nashville-Austin connection of current commercial import, but a rootsier history that goes back farther, to Roy Acuff and Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and the Carter family, to Hank Williams, who rambled some in Texas but died, our local historians insist, in the back of a Cadillac in Knoxville, Tennessee. There's the universities, two great U of Ts, both clad in orange and white and both laying spiritual claim to the interlocking UT symbol, leading to all manner of debate as to what "the real UT" is. (It's the University of Tennessee, of course; I'll settle that one in the parking lot with anyone who cares to dispute me.) Finally, there's the almost legendary stupidity: Both states are famously stubborn in their ignorance, fierce defenders of the right to be righteously uninformed, bastions of backwater politics and drunken challenges to the manhood of any untrucked dissenters. It's a beautiful shared history we have.

There are distinctions, too, some fine but many elemental, and in my years of dual citizenship I have glommed on to at least a few of them. As a Tennessean by birth and a Texan by fate -- and by god ashamed of neither one -- I share these observations by way of cross-cultural comparison, in the spirit of greater understanding between two states dear to my heart.

(Nota bene: Hereafter, when I speak of Tennessee I am speaking of East Tennessee, my original stompin' ground. Nashville and Memphis, any true Tennessean will tell you, are different places entirely from Knoxville, and we East Tennesseans assume no responsibility for their vanities and excesses.)

The first thing any traveler heading from Texas to Tennessee will notice is that the trees get better. That's right, better. I'm talking big, lush, luxuriant hardwoods of all sorts, serious trees, lovely trees, shady trees, all set together thickly in great green leafy collections -- this compared to the scrawny live oaks that Texans feel partial to, hardscrabble bitterbarkers set a quarter-mile apart so as not to demand too much precious water, each of 'em looking like they're fit to die at any moment. A friend of our family, traveling from New Mexico to Tennessee, was heard to remark, "My Lord. The trees here have it so easy." That's right. That's the way we like it.

Tennessee's got mountains, too. Big old behemoths with their time-rounded ridges stretching out as far as the eye can see. In Tennessee, the Hill Country's celebrated Enchanted Rock would qualify only as a mildly curious hillock, good for sledding if the snows came, but not marvelous enough by any stretch to draw visitors from 15 counties. In Tennessee, you can gain 6,000 feet in six miles, if you've a mind to. Lose 'em too. And there ain't a soul in the state who doesn't know what a runaway truck ramp is.

Texas has more oil and Tennessee more hay, and it's not hard to figure out who got the last laugh there.

As for wildlife, the difference can probably be summed up by comparing the armadillo with the opossum, and truth told, if you put both in a cage, I'd lay five to one on the 'dillo every time. Squirrels are fatter in Tennessee, and there're no grackles or fire ants, but you'd have to give Tennessee the nod on both skunks and chiggers. Near as I can figure, that's a draw.

Both states have some nice rivers, and in both states the best of 'em are polluted beyond recognition, to where you can't swim in 'em or eat from 'em, but they still look kind of pretty if it ain't rained recently and washed all the soda bottles out of hiding.

In the end, I'd have to say Tennessee has a darker, more gothic landscape. Texas can get to a man (I'd not last three weeks in Lubbock, I'll swear to it), but for a certain sort of historical fecklessness, it's hard to beat the hollers.

Aside from geography, there's also a marked difference in high culture -- and by this I mean football, food, and fiddle music. Both states have elevated football-watching to an art of its own, a religion even, capable of uniting vast splats of diverse peoples into a unified, monomaniacal, footstompin' mass. While Tennesseans could never match the Texan passion for high-school football (Lord no) or even for the pros, I've got to give the Volunteers the nod on the college game. Watching Tennessee pick apart 'Bama -- "Buck Fama!" as we say in Knoxpatch -- among a bourbon-fueled, slightly rabid sellout crowd in Neyland Stadium is an experience just this side of transcendent. You can achieve minor epiphanies just listenin' in on the radio.

With football comes food, and in that matter both states claim allegiance to barbecue. As a fellow who's put a lot of time into the relevant research, I have to give Texas the prize for barbecue. Still, there're points on both sides. In terms of style you can count on a Texan to have more woodsmoke 'n' vinegar in his barbecue, a Tennessean more sugar and tomato. In Tennessee, my sandwich is chopped pork; in Texas, sliced beef. In Tennessee, your beans might be baked; in Texas, they're near to always simmered. (Again, I lay no claim to West Tennessee barbecue, where you get slaw on your sandwich if you don't ask 'em to hold it.)

illustrations by Penny Van Horn
Texas also must be praised for the breakfast taco, which is damn near the perfect food as I conceive it, and which can be had at almost any restaurant, gas station, or pawn shop in the Lone Star State. I've previously made public my high opinion of biscuits, which are blessedly abundant in Tennessee (picked fresh from backyard biscuit trees, of course), but I must here admit that the breakfast taco has stole my heart and thrown away the key. I now consider no breakfast complete without a side of beans.

There are other distinctions in the haute cuisine of the two states -- white gravy vs. brown gravy, hashbrowns vs. homefries, and Goo Goo Clusters vs. pralines to name a few -- but this is not the place for an exhaustive study. I would be remiss, however, to ignore the eminent intoxicant tradition cherished by each state. For cold frosty ones, Shiner, Lone Star, and Pearl beat any indigenous beer of Tennessee on pure heritage alone, and I have to give Texas the microbrew edge on top. For moonshine, however, Tennessee is justly famous. While there can be no doubt that the Lone Star State folks have put down their share of homemade liquor, Tennessee can likely claim more citizens who have gone blind or crazy on account of their passion. A well-made moonshine, any connoisseur will tell you, is a subtle and wondrous thing, with definable feints and overtones, a strong finish and a pleasing bouquet. Plus it gets you snot-slingin' drunk.

Perhaps the strongest of contemporary ties between the two states is the country music industry. Plenty has been written about that, so I'll only add that it seems to me Nashville is more about neon and Texas is more about truckstops -- but that's a recent development and we Tennesseans don't claim Nashville anyway. Beyond that, it must be acknowledged that both states are good words to put into country songs: "Texas" because it's symbolic of all things not New Jersey, "Tennessee" because it's an easy word to rhyme. (Which is why, in my experience, you don't hear many country ballads about Utah.) It is only when you travel farther back in time that you find clearer, more indigenous distinctions of both tone and style -- an aesthetic divide captured most cleanly when comparing the Texas cowpunching ditty to the Tennessee murder ballad. Among other things, it becomes clear that hi-yi-tippie-yi-yi-yo is a uniquely Texan sentiment.

Food, football, and fiddle music: Beyond these three cultural cornerstones, there is little to motivate the artistes in the two great states. Neither can claim a homegrown helping of the fine arts (no matter how many paintings Fort Worth can afford), and opera lovers in either state are in slim company indeed. Texas has a thankful lack of those precious folk crafts that abound in East Tennessee -- the kind of cornhusk trinkets that my wife calls "prefabricated Appalachian crap" -- and for that you have to award points. And while there is interesting work being done with pinecones and old tires in both states, the concept of fine arts remains a contradiction in terms. Would that it remains so.

Beyond all this, of course-- beyond ditties and chiggers and rivers and pork and football -- comes the issue of the people, and just what sorts of folks you'll find in each state. Here, I'm happy to report that I've found both states filled with good, honorable folk doing their damnedest to get by and then some. They're both friendly places, on the whole -- although possessed of some grim history -- and a man or dog could count himself lucky to be set down in either one. (Again, no word on women and cows.) The main difference, as I see it, is that Texas is a prouder state than Tennessee. While I've been known to crash a few gongs in praise of the Volunteer state, I'm something of an exception. By and large it's a humble state, quieter and not quite as brash as its Western counterpart, resigned and even content in being 47th best at everything, known to most of America as a long stretch of I-40 and the home of Graceland. Put it this way: In Tennessee, pride is a sin; in Texas, it's a birthright. There's some who might dispute me on that, but in the end I'd say it's laid out most cleanly by one simple fact: You still can't buy neon in the shape of Tennessee.

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