They are tributes to both American creativity and excess. They’re capitalism on steroids and a primer on the entrepreneurial spirit. One is a wholesome family resort and the other an eardrum piercing bacchanalia. They’re principalities of hucksterism. Places where wannabe Disney World attractions are slotted between strip malls filled with knife and gun shops and tee shirt stores.

They lie in the stolen land of the Cherokees; two nestled among the blue and serene Smoky Mountains. They are the Promised Land for country music lovers — hallowed shrines to Dolly, June and Johnny. They’re a nutritionist’s nightmare.


They are Nashville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I mean no offense to those who regularly visit this region of the country or hope to someday. While there, I saw throngs of happy families enveloped in the entertainments of the state that plausibly claims to be the “Music Capital of the World.” We ourselves had a wonderful time. And you can't beat the prices for food and attractions. Any negatives are just the observations of a 74 year-old more comfortable with the sights and cadences of Carroll County than these gaudy exemplars of pop culture.

Some background: Every year my wife and I get together with two other couples for three to four days. We alternate locations, traveling to each other's home states. Last year we went to Long Island and explored Manhattan. Next year we all gather in Maryland and my wife and I get to plan the activities. What we have in common is that the guys all went to grad school at the University of Maryland 50 years ago.

One of the couples owns cabins in Pigeon Forge that are regularly rented to visitors from all over the world. My wife and I began and ended our visit to Tennessee in Nashville because we wanted to see the city. I’d been there in the 1990s on a business trip and remembered it as quaint and oozing southern charm. Today it ranks as the nation’s seventh fastest-growing city and boasts an impressive skyline to prove it. It may also be the nation’s loudest city. We visited the area known as the District which features endless rows of neon-signed honky tonk bars pumping live music into the streets at tinnitus-inflicting levels.

We then drove with one of the other couples to Pigeon Forge — the home of Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s brainchild. We spent a fun day there, enjoying some amusements and lots of music performed in theaters and on the street. I enjoy all kinds of music, from doo -op to jazz to classical, and am constantly amazed and a bit envious at the talent some folks have. The only thing I know how to play is iTunes.

There are some other images and thoughts that have stuck with me.

In Gatlinburg, we saw a 20-something dad pushing a baby stroller. He wore a holstered pistol, permissible in a state that has open and concealed carry laws. Talk about arrested development! I just don’t see how that kind of thing can end well.

I was surprised at how many businesses have “hillbilly” in their names. If I branded someone with that term here at home, I’d be accused of stereotyping, name-calling, and bullying. There? It’s a folksy badge of honor.

Refreshingly, we encountered fewer Confederate flags than I see driving around my neighborhood and just a smattering of T-shirts advocating a political stance or favorite president.

Lastly, and this is a vast generalization: the places we visited appear to be ground zero for the obesity epidemic. We saw whole families that were grossly overweight, aided and abetted by the many fast-food outlets, restaurants specializing in down-home cooking that’s high in fried foods and starches, and all-you-can-eat venues. I am not being unkind. I simply worry about these fellow citizens and how they’ll cope with our already challenged health care system. They represent a huge population that suffers or will suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and over-taxed knees.

I am trying to avoid politics this week, but can’t help but be reminded of how certain media pundits skewered Michelle Obama for her “Let’s Move!” initiative that fought childhood obesity and championed good nutrition. She even established a kitchen garden on the South lawn of the White House to show how easy it is to grow fresh vegetables. To her credit, first lady Melania Trump has continued that legacy but needs to overcome her apparent shyness and pick up the fight against an epidemic that threatens our national welfare. I guarantee the usual critics will take a vow of silence.

Our trip to Middle America was a real learning experience and underscored what a fascinating, complex, and vibrant country we live in. That’s something to remember today as we display the stars and stripes to honor Flag Day. Whether honky tonk habitués or Old Bay addicts, we are all Americans and wish only the best for our land of the free and home of the brave.