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Southern discomfort

Even many longtime residents of the region don't feel completely "Southern."

Published June 11, 2006

Nearly eight years ago, I landed my first job and migrated north to the South. I was fresh out of college then, an intern in Miami.

"Get your cowboy boots, Amy," my new editor said, delivering the news by phone that I had the job. "You're coming to Tennessee if you want to."

At that young age I never had imagined myself in Tennessee, and I knew nothing of the state. In fact, as I would learn, I knew virtually nothing of the South. I was raised on Florida's west coast, among retirees and people relocated from Long Island and Jersey, by parents from the Northeast and Midwest. I knew boating and beachgoing, but was ignorant of the Grand Ole Opry, kettle corn and turnip greens. I didn't care for grits or country music and felt more comfortable in Birkenstocks than cowboy boots.

I've lived most my life in the South, but I've never considered myself Southern. I was born in Syracuse, N.Y., but I was a toddler when my family moved to Florida, and I've never considered myself a Yankee, either. I have no memory of my birthplace. As Southern population booms - it is projected to comprise 40 percent of the nation by 2030 - I am among a growing number of Southerners who don't identify themselves as Southern.

What is a Southerner? It's not so much a geographic designation as a cultural one, and such a person is easy to identify but hard to define. I imagine a Southerner as someone who pronounces the word "suth'-en-a." Who drinks whiskey Saturday nights and sings Onward, Christian Soldiers on Sunday mornings. Who enjoys a plate of turnip greens despite the smell. Who is in the habit of saying "yes, ma'am." Who displays an unflinching sense of heritage and tradition derived from the many generations who made their homes long ago among the hollows and bayous of the region. These are some of the traits of those I've been pleased to meet here in Tennessee, but I am not such a person.

Florida is an anomaly of the South, a state that is less Southern as one travels southward. North Florida is agrarian, a region steeped in faith, patriotism and NASCAR. Farther south, one seldom hears a Southern lilt, and thick New England accents mingle with a Hispanic roll of the tongue. During my short stay in Miami, the city was more than 50 percent Hispanic, and getting around was tough without knowing Spanish.

The culture of my youth was derived from the beaches of Tampa Bay, where my family spent most weekends on our little pleasure boat. While my husband grew up visiting bluegrass festivals in the family RV, I grew up at jazz festivals and camping on the family boat. Today the residue of this beachy childhood lingers in my music and food. I prefer Toots and the Maytals to Big & Rich and enjoy eating my dinner with jerk seasoning and yellow rice. I am taking Spanish lessons.

Yet after nearly eight years, I am comfortable in Nashville. As a resident of Music City USA, I enjoy some country music. I've seen the Grand Ole Opry and actually own a pair of cowboy boots. I like grits and have acquired a deep appreciation for the laid-back hamlets of the Tennessee hills. I've picked up a few Southern traits. I've added "y'all" to my vocabulary, and I'm always blessing someone's heart.

Sometimes I am out of place. On a recent vacation with my husband to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we toured Cades Cove, the most-visited part of the park known for its 150-year-old log cabins and other pioneer structures hand-built on pristine land. It was a pleasant day, but midway through I was hungry. Accustomed to a Subway on every corner, I was astonished to learn that there was not even a hot dog stand available - nothing - for lunch. We had journeyed not only high into the mountains but back in time, and we hadn't thought to pack lunch. As I watched an old mill churn out cornmeal, I hungrily and desperately wondered whether I could somehow make lunch out of the stuff.

Southerners complain transplants are eroding their culture. This is part of their own doing. The Country Music Association took its CMA Awards, the genre's pre-eminent awards show, to New York City last year as part of an ongoing push to broaden the genre's appeal. Even the venerable Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and a backbone to many small, Southern communities, has toyed with dropping the regional name to reflect its global reach.

I also believe many transplants are lured here by the pleasures of Southern living - the idea of rocking beneath a magnolia tree, sipping a mint julep and listening to Johnny Cash - but they refrain from calling themselves Southern because of the negative connotations the word conjures. The hillbilly stereotype sticks - and it is an accurate representation of some parts of the region.

But I've lived here long enough to know the stereotype is mostly false, that most Southerners work doubly hard to express their professionalism and courtesy because they feel they have to. My husband, born in Central Florida and raised Southern, says I am not Southern, but Floridian. I'm not really sure. I may have lived in the South most my life, but in some ways I still feel like one of those transplants.

Amy Green, raised in Clearwater and Sarasota, is a freelance writer in Nashville.

[Last modified June 13, 2006, 16:18:40]

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