This man is the only born and bred Sevierville man in the room. This happens to him often, I imagine; as a lifelong Democrat and progressive, spaces that give him a sense of belonging are few and far between. The Sevier County progressives’ meetup that we’re at is mostly a social club, though many of its attendants work hard in their own ways to grow the East Tennessee left. There are few enough in it that people travel from all over the county, and sometimes as far as Jefferson City and Dandridge to be there. He’s quiet but sturdy, on the older end of middle age, like many in the room, with overalls on and creases in concentric circles around his head like he’s spent his life smiling impossibly in all directions. He can tell you the history of this place in the way that no one in this room can and people where he grew up simply won’t. Sevier County, land of rollercoasters and mountains and flowers and moonshine? He has the dirt on it.
He’s got no interest in tourism, no particular need to smooth things over with the Chamber of Commerce or the arbiters of Christian values and staunch morality, or, especially, to to keep Dolly Parton’s secrets. Oh man, does he know things about her. He has it on authority that Dolly Parton’s boobs are at least 80% real, since the other women in her family have big boobs too. He knows that she comes incognito in a wig to visit the Partons (an old, sprawling family) up in the hills, and nobody bothers her but everybody knows.
He can tell you when and why the jobs left. He can pinpoint the exact moment where neoliberalism wiped away the GM parts plant from the side of the Little Pigeon River, and all the men who’d proudly said they wouldn’t let no union take their jobs were, suddenly, out of a job. The plant reopened in Mexico, and suddenly those guys said it was the Mexicans’ fault. He shakes his head. No, he says, it wasn’t. He says the plant is gone but the metals deep in the water remain.
He says he used to look across the Little Pigeon and see a shivering glow on its surface, light thrown from fires on the banks of it. Don’t look too long; men in white hoods are there, burning crosses, guarded by a sheriff with a square jaw. Used to be hard to get a job without the approval of the Klan. They ran roughshod over Sevier County, a long time ago, firebombing integrated schools, businessmen and police officers playing their game of violent dress-up, pretending that their actions had any ceremonial value greater than that of children pretending to be knights. He lowers his voice. They're still here, for sure, for sure. Sevier County racism does’t just disappear like that.
These things are all probably common knowledge in the county; I don’t doubt it. But very few people will talk to you about the Klan. Dolly Parton? Sure, everyone and their mother is related to her somehow. But the land of rollercoasters and mountains and flowers and moonshine, the land of the Dixie Stampede (called Dolly’s Stampede now) and the Hatfield McCoy Dinner Feud and fireworks and cuddly stuffed bears and country diners, over the music of the nightly summer concerts and festivals, I imagine somebody who thinks often about such things can still hear an echo of thundering hooves and see the shiver of flames.