Arts and Culture in Tennessee
From the Appalachia folk scene to the soulful streets of Memphis, the grand architecture of Nashville to the clogging, fiddling, and square dancing of Celtic traditions, Tennessee represents a mishmash of cultural traditions. Mississippi Delta and Deep South culture inform the blues, gospel, and sharecropper country music traditions of Memphis. Performing and visual arts tend to take a back seat to the live music scene, but the major cities still support several museums and cultural ensembles.
The Memphis Symphony Orchestra, affiliated with the Memphis Chorus, the Youth Symphony, and the Symphony League, stages classical work at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
The Nashville Symphony performs at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a concert hall modeled after shoebox-style concert halls in Berlin and Vienna. As of May 2010, water damage from flooding compromised the center’s architecture, and the symphony’s performances were cancelled or relocated.
At Nashville’s Lipscomb University, the Artist Series includes a cappella, classical, jazz, and chamber music performances. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performs in the historic Tennessee Theatre. The nation’s first combined professional orchestra and opera company, the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, presents classical work, pops concerts, chamber music, and opera.
Performing in Memphis’ grand restored Orpheum Theatre, the Memphis Opera covers the classical canon as well as popular and modern opera. Projected English-language translations accompany the professional productions, which attract famous opera soloists from around the world.
Traditional productions and special events compose the season of the Knoxville Opera, which also hosts the annual Rossini Festival, an open-air, Italian opera event in the downtown area featuring food, wine, exhibits of arts and crafts, and opera performances. University of Tennessee’s Opera Theater often joins in the productions.
Memphis’ major professional dance company, Ballet Memphis, has a four-show season at the Orpheum Theatre. For contemporary dance, Project: Motion boasts a diverse repertoire.
The 2010–11 season marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Nashville Ballet, so the troupe’s season features audience favorites in the realm of classical ballet. Performing in Nashville and the surrounding area, in public spaces, performance art centers, and festivals, the Company Rose troupe shares spirited, risk-taking contemporary work.
Memphis holds many sites and museums dedicated to its history and music scene, but relatively few fine arts museums. One of the top museums to visit is the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Within a Beaux-Arts structure, a complex of 29 galleries showcase masterworks of the Renaissance, English portraiture, French Impressionist painting, Baroque art, 20th-century art, sculpture, textiles, decorative art, and examples of ancient art from the Mediterranean, the Americas, and Africa. Vast landscaping surrounds the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. The museum collection includes impressionist paintings, post-impressionist art, and the Stout Collection of porcelain objects from the 18th century.
The National Civil Rights Museum stands at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum exhibits art and artifacts and sponsors educational programs that illuminate important events in the American civil rights movement. At theBelz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art, ivory carvings, jade sculpture, imperial furniture, cloisonné, and contemporary Judaica are on display. The Center for Southern Folklore, part folk art museum and part late-night cafe, blends art exhibits with nightclub performances showcasing the talent of the Memphis and Delta regions. The nonprofit organization also creates recordings and films, organizes festivals, collects artifacts, and digitizes narratives that represent the culture, music, and people of the area.
Nashville hosts several notable fine art attractions. In Centennial Park, the Parthenon, modeled after its Greek counterpart, holds work by 19th- and 20th-century American artists. Theater groups use the classic facade as a backdrop for open-air productions in the summer. The Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art surveys American art, American decorative art, and British decorative art. A selection of contemporary art features sculpture used along the Woodland Sculpture Trail. Downtown Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts emphasizes contributions by regional artists, but also hosts international exhibits. The Fisk University Galleries exhibit pre-modern and modern art, as well as contemporary painting, sculpture, photography, textiles, and fine prints. The funky Art House Gallery sits within Nashville’s happening 12th South shopping area, showcasing art, craft, and mixed media work by locals.
Five galleries, a sculpture terrace, and two outdoor exhibit areas comprise the Knoxville Museum of Art, which is dedicated to representing emerging national and international artists.
Chattanooga holds three top fine arts attractions. Antique African wood doors mark the entrance to theAfrican American Museum. Amongst the exhibits are historical items, a bushman’s hut, and regional art and artifacts. At the Hunter Museum, the American art collection spans the Colonial era to the contemporary age. The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts features antique glass, antique ceramics, furnishings, music boxes, textiles, and the world’s largest pitcher collection.
In Humboldt, the West Tennessee Regional Art Center contains the Caldwell Collection, a group of paintings, works on paper, silk screens, and sculpture. Highlights include regional folk art, African sculpture, and several pieces by Tennessee native Red Grooms (b. 1937).
Tennessee and music just go together, and one of the sites that captures the relationship best is theBeale Street Historic District. Downtown Memphis’ prime attraction stretches nearly two miles along the Mississippi River and holds blues clubs, bars, and restaurants. The area also serves as a festival and outdoor concert site. Memphis is also home to the Sun Studio and Stax Records, both of which were responsible for popularizing, recording, and promoting African-American and local music. Situated in a neighborhood nicknamed Soulsville USA, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music pays tribute to Memphis’ musical legacy.
Country music is alive and well in Tennessee, and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry provides the proof. The Opry presents a weekly concert that combines the best of country with bluegrass, gospel, folk music, and comedy. The Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree invites audiences to sit in on its live radio broadcast of country and folk music. Nashville is home to both the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Other notable musical landmarks include Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Alliance Museum, Johnson City’s The Down Home, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, and Knoxville’s downtown area, which hosts the Cradle of Country Music walking tour.
The mountain sound of bluegrass music shows up in nightclub shows, festivals, museum programs, and jam sessions. In Chattanooga, the Traditional Music Trail of Southeast Tennessee highlights regional contributions to the genre. Signal Mountain’s Mountain Opry hosts live bluegrass and old-time acoustic musicians. The Gibson Bluegrass Showcase Museum exhibits instruments and a musicians’ Walk of Fame.
Soul-stirring, roof-raising gospel music is the sound of choice for many Tennessee natives. Famous singing pastor Al Green presides at Memphis’ Full Gospel Tabernacle, at least between his tour dates. Dollywood is home to the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which also hosts theNational Gospel and Harvest Celebration.
Tennessee music history was made when, at the age of 13, a boy named Elvis Presley moved to Memphis. There he met Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, who helped him integrate African-American music into his rockabilly, country, and rhythm-and-blues music. Memphis celebrates the legacy of The King at the Graceland mansion, which was Presley’s home.
Tennessee native and Dollywood owner Dolly Parton has been dubbed The Queen of Country Music. She has scored 25 number-one hits, including Joshua, Jolene, I Will Always Love You, 9 to 5, Islands in the Stream, and Yellow Roses.
Other famous musicians associated with Tennessee include rock and blues singer Gregg Allman, who founded the Allman Brothers Band with his brother, guitarist Duane Allman. Tennessee also boasts Nashville sound guitarist Chet Atkins, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, blues singer Bessie Smith, jazz trumpeter and singer Doc Cheatham, country artist Billy Ray Cyrus, his daughter and pop iconMiley Cyrus, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, gospel and soul singer Al Green, Stax Record songwriter and soul musician Isaac Hayes, legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker, award-winning country singer Tim McGraw, bluegrass and Americana singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, jump blues artist Memphis Slim, rockabilly musician Carl Perkins, blues powerhouse vocalist Koko Taylor, pop artist Justin Timberlake, rock diva Tina Turner, neo-traditional country artist Hank Williams III, and country singer-songwriter Tammy Wynette.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
Large scale theaters such as the Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Memphis’Orpheum Theatre and Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center (at St. Mary’s Episcopal School), and Germantown Performing Arts Centrehost touring Broadway shows, visiting ensembles, and nationally-touring musical acts.
Memphis offers several regional, community, and professional theater options. Playhouse on the Square consists of professional actors performing commercial comedies, musicals, and dramas.Hattiloo Theatre typically stages theater incorporating African-American themes. The Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe strives to engage people in conversation about mental heath issues. Theatre Memphis, the region’s oldest community theater in operation, produces mainstream musicals on its main stage, and smaller and alternative productions in its Next Stage theater. TheatreWorks hosts work by several area ensembles, including Playwright’s Forum, Voices of the South, and Emerald Theatre Troupe.
Founded in 1985, the Tennessee Repertory Theatre has produced professional regional theater in Nashville and the surrounding area. The season of commercial musicals and dramas culminates withThe Ingram New Works Festival, a celebration of new plays by Tennessee playwrights in residence.
Rural Tennessee’s largest professional theater, Crossville’s Cumberland County Playhouseshowcases work relevant to the community. Tennessee and southern history and culture often figure into the productions, as do Appalachian themes.
Numerous famous films feature Tennessee as a setting, including the drama The Blind Side (2009), for which Sandra Bullock won the Oscar Award for Best Actress. Others include the legal thriller The Client(1994), the sweet Nashville story The Thing Called Love (1993), the more cynical country and gospel musical Nashville (1975), romantic drama My Blueberry Nights (2007), Jim Jarmusch’s indie anthology film and cult classic Mystery Train (1989), Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005), the film adaptation of Inherit the Wind (1960), horror film The Evil Dead (1981), and the short filmPeople of the Cumberland (1937), shot in rural Tennessee and chronicling the work of the U.S. labor union movement.
Among the actors associated with Tennessee are Annie Potts, movie and Broadway stage actressCherry Jones, television personality Dinah Shore, Elise Neal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kathy Bates,Megan Fox, Morgan Freeman, Patricia Neal, Samuel Jackson, and Sondra Locke.
One of the key locales in Tennessee’s literary scene is in the town of Jonesborough. The International Storytelling Center hosts performances, workshops, and presentations of storytelling, folklore, and oral history, culminating in the world’s premier storytelling festival. The center also supports a teller-in-residence.
Well-known writers from Tennessee include Mary Noailles Murfree (1850–1922), who wrote under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933); poet and critic John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974); journalist and film critic James Agee (1909–1955); poet and National Book Award-winner Randall Jarrell (1914–1965); Roots author Alex Haley (1921–1992), honored with a bronze statue of his likeness in downtown Knoxville; and novelist Wilma Dykeman (b.1920).
Several Tennessee artists have earned national and international notoriety. John Paul Daniel, who goes by the nickname of BEBO—a name bequeathed to him in a dream—works in folk sculpture. His materials include scrap lumber and found objects, to which he may apply a jigsaw or an axe, resulting in assemblages and sculptures resembling reptiles, alligators, flowers, squid, and insects.
Red Grooms (b. 1937) works in multimedia, usually building pop art constructions with urban themes. Although he left Tennessee for New York, Grooms returned to Nashville in the 1990s to create a series of figures based on local historic personalities for the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel.
Other artists who were born or who worked in Tennessee include painter Robert Ryman (b. 1930) andWilliam Eggleston (b. 1939), an innovator in the medium of color photography.
Tennessee holds several arts districts, notably Nashville’s Fifth Avenue and the eight-mile mountain loop of galleries and studios in Gatlinburg’s Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community. In Memphis, the South Main Arts District holds several galleries and cafes. On the last Friday of the month, an Art Trolley Tour takes people down the thoroughfare, stopping at art openings and restaurants.
The Victorian Village neighborhood of Memphis features several grand homes in Victorian, neoclassical, and late Gothic revival styles. Highlights include the Woodruff-Fontaine House (1870) and renovated the Harsson-Goyer-Lee House (1871).
Nashville’s own Parthenon, replicating the famous Greek structure, was inspired by Nashville’s nickname "The Athens of the South." It was built to scale in 1897 as a showcase during the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.
The Belle Meade Plantation, six miles west of Nashville, stands on 30 acres (12 hectares). The 1853 structure, built in the Federal style, had extensive renovations in the late 1980s to restore it to its 19th-century appearance.
In Murfreesoboro, Rutherford County Courthouse (1859) has classic revival architecture. The National Historic Place is one of six courthouses in the state that dates back to the Civil War era.
The 1887 Briceville Community Church represents rural Gothic Revival architecture.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
Events such as Rugby’s Festival of British and Appalachian Culture, Mountain Music and Stories at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, and Smithville’s Fiddler’s Jamboree represent Tennessee folk traditions such as square dancing, fiddling, clogging, storytelling, buck dancing, bluegrass, tall tales, and folk music.
Craftmakers such as doll artists, potters, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, quilters, basket weavers, and goose pluckers showcase their skills and projects at Knoxville’s Dogwood Arts Festival.
Pottery has a longstanding tradition in Tennessee. In 1917, in the town of Erwin, Southern Potteries, Inc. started producing dinnerware composed of local materials. The dinnerware went under the name Blue Ridge. To this day, Blue Ridge Pottery attracts collectors who seek out the signature raised, hand-painted patterns, delicate details, bright floral designs, and creamy white background.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
In the streets of Memphis, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, a simple but powerful artistic form lives on. Hand-painted signs, typically advertising local businesses, stand on street corners and on building exteriors. Hand-stenciled designs, murals, and imagery by neighborhood artists make this Memphis artistic movement a collaborative, highly local phenomenon. From 2005 through 2008, photographer Amie Vanderford traveled through Memphis neighborhoods, recording some of these signs, which she calls examples of "imperfect beauty."
-World Trade Press