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Nation & World

A Love Letter To A Changing Nashville, In Photographs

A crowd lines up to enter the Tennessee State Fair, which has come to Nashville for more than 150 years. The fair is usually held in the early fall.
A crowd lines up to enter the Tennessee State Fair, which has come to Nashville for more than 150 years. The fair is usually held in the early fall.

Photography and nostalgia often have gone hand in hand; the scrapbook, the family album, the postcard, the Polaroid, even the Instagram post all reinforce a love for the way something was. In Nashville: Scenes from the New American South,novelist Ann Patchett and photographer Heidi Ross — both longtime Nashvillians — instead set out to show, in all its varied forms, how Nashville is.

"As emotions go, nostalgia is both cheap and unrealistic," Patchett writes. "Sometimes we're not even nostalgic for things we liked ,it was just that we were used to seeing a particular thing in a particular place."

One of acclaimed Nashville street artist Adrien Saporiti's <em>I Believe In Nashville </em>murals is among the murals of all kinds that can be found throughout the city.
/ Heidi Ross
One of acclaimed Nashville street artist Adrien Saporiti's <em>I Believe In Nashville </em>murals is among the murals of all kinds that can be found throughout the city.

The book, consisting of photos mostly taken in 2017, is about Nashville's multiple identities: how the city is home to both the Grand Ole Opry and The Gulch — one a legendary mainstay of Nashville arts, the other a neighborhood that many longtime residents call made-up.

A young street performer shows that if you're old enough to play a fiddle, you're old enough to busk. For those who prefer their music mostly indoors, they can get a piano repaired on Second Avenue.
/ Heidi Ross
A young street performer shows that if you're old enough to play a fiddle, you're old enough to busk. For those who prefer their music mostly indoors, they can get a piano repaired on Second Avenue.

It is expressly notintended to immortalize Nashville. Nashville, both the movie and the television show, already have done that. It's a project born of and meant for this moment, a love letter to Nashville's charms and quirks as it evolves further.

NPR's Cameron Pollack spoke with Ann Patchett and Heidi Ross about chronicling Music City's metamorphosis.

How did you choose which people and places would be documented for the book?

Heidi Ross:There were some premeditated shoots, things we knew we had to get, but most of the book ended up being found moments around Nashville, just me going around with my camera in different neighborhoods.

A member of the Blackbirds, one of Nashville's resurgent motorcycle clubs, stops outside Dino's, Nashville's oldest dive bar. The bar is family-friendly until 8 p.m.; it's just plain friendly after that.
/ Heidi Ross
A member of the Blackbirds, one of Nashville's resurgent motorcycle clubs, stops outside Dino's, Nashville's oldest dive bar. The bar is family-friendly until 8 p.m.; it's just plain friendly after that.

Music is a big part of the book, obviously. It's hard to find anything, any corner or scene here that doesn't somehow have music involved. I'm pretty sure I'm the only person in Nashville that doesn't sing, play or write music, or aspire to. It's everywhere.

I was also shocked at how many people were open to being part of the project. You don't really expect that to happen, even in Nashville, anymore. Being in people's lives that way is always special to me.

The cast of <em>Tosca</em> prepares to perform with the Nashville Opera at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
/ Heidi Ross
The cast of <em>Tosca</em> prepares to perform with the Nashville Opera at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Donald Holmes is backstage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. He's on the board of directors for the Nashville Opera and is an occasional extra in its performances.
/ Heidi Ross
Donald Holmes is backstage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. He's on the board of directors for the Nashville Opera and is an occasional extra in its performances.

What was your favorite photograph from the book?

Ross:My image of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is my favorite; it was the most meaningful experience I had shooting the book, though I don't think the image does it justice. I don't know if I could do it justice, frankly. They've performed for kings and queens, but when I photographed them, they had no choral robes and were sitting in desks, with a forest of music stands crammed into the back of the room.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a choral group at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. Formed in 1871 to raise money for the school, they originally sang along the path of the Underground Railroad. They have been making beautiful music continuously ever since.
/ Heidi Ross
The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a choral group at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. Formed in 1871 to raise money for the school, they originally sang along the path of the Underground Railroad. They have been making beautiful music continuously ever since.

As soon as they started singing, I started crying. I was so glad I had a camera in front of my face. I shot a few seconds of video on my phone and posted it to Instagram, and I still go back and listen to it at least once a week. That said, they aren't less or more Nashville than those crazy pedal taverns that are all over the place now.

A pedal tavern is a multiseated bicycle you ride with a group, while drinking. Nashville visitors cannot get enough of them.
/ Heidi Ross
A pedal tavern is a multiseated bicycle you ride with a group, while drinking. Nashville visitors cannot get enough of them.

What's one thing you learned as you were photographing the book?

Ross: I learned to be braver. There are shots I didn't take that I regretted later, and the reason I didn't take them was because I was afraid of being intrusive. I improved at this over the course of the book, but it's still something I work on. I'm very mindful of people's space, and finding the right balance of reaching out and being respectful is always challenging.

Editor, stylist and connoisseur of vintage clothing Libby Callaway was one of the founding members of the Nashville Fashion Alliance. This is her closet.
/ Heidi Ross
Editor, stylist and connoisseur of vintage clothing Libby Callaway was one of the founding members of the Nashville Fashion Alliance. This is her closet.

What about the book do you hope resonates with people?

Ross:I'd love for people to stop and just look at the pictures for little longer than they otherwise would have, maybe interpreting some of these places in Nashville in new ways that they haven't before. To me, the book is a collection of postcards from the many different Nashvilles that coexist right now. It's a place that goes forward and backward in time, based on where in town you are, and I hope people glean that from reading it.

Even as Nashville has grown into a flourishing urban center, horses and residents' love for them still define the city. Whether it's the thriving equestrian scene, weekend polo matches, the workhorse who helps round up the cattle or the pet horse ridden in the yard, the city cannot do without them.
/ Heidi Ross
Even as Nashville has grown into a flourishing urban center, horses and residents' love for them still define the city. Whether it's the thriving equestrian scene, weekend polo matches, the workhorse who helps round up the cattle or the pet horse ridden in the yard, the city cannot do without them.

Ann Patchett: I hope they glean the fact that it is a consistent vision, right of this moment. If you read travel pieces about Nashville, you're taken to the same places, over and over again, but we're not just the Grand Ole Opry and Vanderbilt.

Ultimately, living here is like living in a Mixmaster. I am forever turning down the street that I've driven down my whole life, and the whole street has been taken up, and they've just put another neighborhood down on top of it. And you can get very wistful and sentimental, and say "Oh," you know, "the past." Everybody loves the past. But in fact, to grow is to be alive.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Archer's adoptive mother takes him to the library to see a portrait of John Lewis, a famed civil rights leader and congressman from Georgia. When asked about the role Nashville played in his development as a civil rights leader, Lewis replied, "Nashville prepared me."
/ Heidi Ross
Archer's adoptive mother takes him to the library to see a portrait of John Lewis, a famed civil rights leader and congressman from Georgia. When asked about the role Nashville played in his development as a civil rights leader, Lewis replied, "Nashville prepared me."

Kelsey Montague painted these 20-foot tall wings on the side of a building in The Gulch. All day long, people stand in front of them to have their pictures taken. It's called <em>What Lifts You</em>, and it does.
/ Heidi Ross
Kelsey Montague painted these 20-foot tall wings on the side of a building in The Gulch. All day long, people stand in front of them to have their pictures taken. It's called <em>What Lifts You</em>, and it does.