Image: Kyle Dean Reinford for The New York Times

The Real Aliens in Our Backyard
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 11 March 2019

Our yard is separated from our backdoor neighbors’ yard by a small city easement. For the first two decades we lived in this house, our elderly backdoor neighbors kept a deep border of trees on their side of the easement, a shelter for wildlife — deer and opossums and rat snakes and box turtles and red foxes and great horned owls, among many others. (more….)

Image: Damon Winter for The New York Times

The Eagles of Reelfoot Lake
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 28 February 2019

In the far northwest corner of Tennessee, just this side of the Mississippi River, lies a landscape like no other. Reelfoot Lake is less a lake than a system of bayous, creeks and swampland connected by areas of shallow open water. It was created in the winter of 1811-1812 when a series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks caused 15,000 acres of cypress forest to sink. The waters of the Mississippi River rushed into the depression. (more….)

Image: Kyle Dean Reinford

The Day the Music Died
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 21 January 2019

I am not a musician, or even an aspiring musician, but I moved to Nashville in 1987 because of music. One of my college roommates was in graduate school at Vanderbilt and invited me to visit, and my grad school boyfriend tagged along. Haywood is a picker himself, and he expected to fall in love with Music City; he even packed his résumé. (more….)

Image: William DeShazer for The New York Times

John Prine: American Oracle
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 22 October 2018

Nine songs into his sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium here on Oct. 5, John Prine stopped singing long enough to give some context for a song he wrote 50 years ago, during the height of the Vietnam War. “I wrote this next one as a protest song,” he said. “It was 1968, and at the time we had a real jerk in the White House.” He paused before voicing what I was already thinking: “What a coincidence.” (more….)

Image: William DeShazer for The New York Times

More Trees, Happier People
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 7 October 2018

The scene in a tiny pocket park outside Plaza Mariachi here on Nolensville Pike last Wednesday was like a tableau from a Norman Rockwell painting, 21st-century style. Surrounded by signs advertising the Hispanic Family Foundation, Dubai Jewelry, the Dominican Barber Shop and restaurants offering Peruvian, Chinese, Mediterranean and Indian food — as well as a Game Stop franchise and H&R Block — was a small sign that read, “Today: Free trees.” (more….)

Image: Bill Preston for The Tennessean

Looking Our Racist History in the Eye
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 10 September 2018

In 1960, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in this city, which was emerging as a training center for nonviolent protest. “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration,” he said, “but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” (more….)

Image: John Tynes

Keep America’s Roadside Weird
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 25 August 2018

My husband and I were driving down I-65, still in Tennessee but near the Alabama border, when the statue of a giant chicken caught my eye. It was standing in front of a truck stop near Elkton. I am grateful to be married to a man who will instantly pull off the highway when someone says, “Hey, let’s take a selfie with that chicken!” (more….)

Image: Damon Winter

The Call of the American Lotus
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 9 July 2018

From the middle of its namesake delta, the city of Mobile, Ala., looks like a mythical place: shiny skyscrapers framed by cattails and marsh grass, a city that reaches into a sky so vast it holds all the weather there is — bright sun and cottony clouds and pregnant thunderheads and torrential rain — and all at one time. From the middle of that magnificent delta, Mobile could be Atlantis rising from the sea or the Emerald City of Oz. (more….)

Image: Associate Press

What’s a Southern Writer Anyway?
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 9 July 2018

From time to time, a debate resurfaces in Southern literary circles about whether there can still be a recognizable literature of the South in an age of mass media and Walmart. The 21st-century South would be unrecognizable to the Agrarian poets, whose 1930 manifesto, “I’ll Take My Stand,” set out many of the principles that still cling like ticks to the term “Southern writer.” (more….)

Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Going to Church With Jimmy Carter
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 16 April 2018

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I pulled into the parking lot of the Quality Inn in Americus, Ga., last Saturday night. It was long past dark but I could see well enough to note the out-of-state license plates — New Mexico, Pennsylvania, California, Alaska — places far from this peanut-farming land. (more….)

Image: William DeShazer for The New York Times

The Alt-Weekly Crisis Hits Nashville. And Democracy.
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 5 February 2018

No one was shocked last week when SouthComm Inc., a Nashville-based media company, announced it was selling The Nashville Scene, its flagship alternative newsweekly. SouthComm had already sold or was in the process of selling its newspapers in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Tampa and Washington. And alt-weeklies around the country have been declining for years. (more….)

Image: Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

A Monument the Old South Would Like to Ignore
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 29 January 2018

In 1978, the city of Nashville leased 18 acres of a Civil War monument to a local businessman who wanted to start a new baseball franchise — the Nashville Sounds, then a Double A expansion team for the Southern League — and needed a place for his team to play. It was a ludicrous arrangement from the start: a privately owned ball field built on public land. And not just any public land. Greer Stadium was built at the base of St. Cloud Hill, where the Union Army erected a stronghold after taking control of the city in 1862. (more….)

Image: Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

In Nashville’s Sky, A Ring of Fire
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 21 August 2017

My sister and nephew drove up from Birmingham on Sunday, the day before the eclipse, and out of pure curiosity we went downtown. The place was crawling with tourists. The Great American Eclipse website had estimated that as many as 7.4 million Americans would be traveling somewhere to witness the event, and this is the largest city in the path of totality. It seemed like a lot of them were already here. (more...)

Image: Yann Kebbi

What Is America to Me?
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 23 July 2017

In 2015, just as refugees were pouring out of Syria and pictures of terrified children filled every newscast and front page in the world, a small notice appeared in my church bulletin: “Are you looking for a way to help our city’s newest refugees?” It was a call for volunteers to assist in an English-language classroom at a local public school. (more….)

How the Federal Government Saved Literature in Tennessee
By Margaret Renkl
Literary Hub, 4 May 2017

In 2009, on New Year’s Day, I got fired from my job as the book-page editor of the Nashville Scene. I was standing in line at Target when the paper’s editor-in-chief called my cell and got right to the point: “We’re canceling the book section,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I have to let you go.” (more….)

John Lewis: ‘Read Everything. Be Kind. Be Bold.’
By Margaret Renkl
Literary Hub, 28 November 2016

On November 16, John Lewis—along with his collaborators, co-author Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell—won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with March: Book Three, the third installment of a memoir rendered as an extended-length comic book. But long before he accepted that honor, Lewis had already been named the 2016 recipient of the Nashville Public Library Literary Award, a prize that last week brought him back to Nashville, where he first began his long career as a civil-rights activist.


John Egerton Loved the South as Fiercely as He Fought Its Injustices
By Margaret Renkl
Chapter16.org, 26 November 2013

My friendship with John Egerton began the day his dog Hitch tried to kill my dog Scout in the street. We were passing the Egertons’ house, which is a few doors down from my own, and the normally mild-mannered Hitch objected to Scout’s incursion into his territory. Neither dog was leashed, and John and I agreed we were idiots for taking a chance like that, even in our quiet neighborhood. But it’s impossible not to love the glory of a dog in full squirrel-harassing run, and the fact that we both kept taking the same chance again and again made us regard each other as co-conspirators, I think, long before Humanities Tennessee launched Chapter 16 and installed me as its editor and John as a member of the editorial board.

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Loretta Lynn: Still Proud To Be a Coal Miner’s Daughter
By Margaret Renkl
Chapter16.org, 24 November 2010

Loretta Lynn was born in an Appalachian coal-mining community so far from the rhinestones of Nashville that there wasn’t so much as a dirt road for getting down the mountain. People entered Butcher Holler, Kentucky, by way of a footpath, and they almost never left.

Loretta did, of course—an exit she credits to her late husband, Oliver Lynn (known to the world as “Doolittle” or “Doo”), whom she married at 13. Loretta was still a teenager when Doolittle bought her a guitar because he liked the way she sang to their babies.