The Ken Burns Effect by Ann Levin

I never wanted to go to Nashville before. Truthfully, I rarely want to go anywhere. For one thing, I hate to fly. And also, new experiences tend to fill me with dread. But halfway through Ken Burns’ epic documentary for PBS on country music—I think it was Johnny Cash who did it, around Episode 5, the concert in Folsom Prison, the sheer audacity of “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”—I turned to Stan and said, “Let’s go to Nashville!” 

 If I’d been alone, I’m sure the feeling would have passed. The problem was, he agreed, enthusiastically. He’s always up for an adventure, especially to someplace he’s never been. And once he said yes, I was too embarrassed to back out. 

 That’s how we found ourselves in Nashville on a cold, blustery weekend in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic, walking down a concourse under wires dangling from the ceiling, past shops selling bourbon, toward a big, shiny sign that said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. Welcome to Nashville!” 

 We grabbed our lone suitcase, which was almost empty because we knew that, against our better judgment, and despite our frequent proclamations to stop buying useless stuff, it would be full on the way home. On the short drive downtown, our amiable cab driver told us he couldn’t recommend any barbecue restaurants or clubs to hear music because he was from Ethiopia. His kids were a different story. They loved to listen to rap. 

 He dropped us off at the Union Station Hotel, a gorgeous old train depot that has been restored to all its former glory. You could sit in the lobby for hours, gazing up at the barrel-vaulted stained-glass ceiling, the crystal chandeliers, the twenty golden Angels of Commerce, and never once get bored. But maybe that’s just because we were getting old.

 That weekend, the hotel was hosting a retreat for Women in Plastic Surgery. We noticed them right away, wearing yoga pants in the morning and stiletto heels at night, there to discuss the finer points of body contouring, tummy tucks, nose jobs, and jawline filler. Not a single one looked a day over thirty.

 We decided to spend the first afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame because it didn’t seem right to go straight to the Johnny Cash Museum without getting some sort of proper overview. The six-block walk took us past more grand old stone buildings, toward the stretch of neon-lit honky tonks on Lower Broadway that flashes on the screen anytime Ken Burns wants to introduce yet another segment on another unknown talent who finds their way to Music City and becomes a big country star. 

 As we got closer to our destination, people began to converge from all directions on the giant plaza outside the hall, most of them bundled up, like us, against the late winter cold, but with more cowboy boots and gimme caps than you’d see in the average New York crowd. We also observed something I’d never seen before: pedal taverns, a cross between a bus and a bicycle, powered by packs of drinking, carousing women, who flock to Nashville for bachelorette parties and are terrifyingly hell-bent on fun.

 The Hall of Fame was a hodgepodge of oddly shaped galleries and display cases crammed with all manner of memorabilia and instruments. We saw DeFord Bailey’s harmonica, Jimmie Rodgers’s guitar, Sara Carter’s autoharp, the stuffed armadillo from Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters, and an iconic black cowboy hat that once belonged to Waylon Jennings.

 You could also sit in a dark room and watch TV clips of Loretta Lynn frying chicken in Crisco and the introduction to The Beverly Hillbillies,with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs playing the theme song. But what moved me the most were the bound ledgers and paper tablets filled with lyrics of songs that brought back entire decades of my life. The handwriting was neater than you’d think, often in pencil, the verses marching down the page like the orderly stanzas in my anthologies of English poetry. 

 I saw Everly Brothers tunes beloved by my older cousins: Bye Bye Love,Wake Up Little Susie, All I Have to Do Is Dream. Someone had written those words—turns out, it was Felice and Boudleaux Bryant—and there they were. A couple galleries over, the lyrics to Good Hearted Woman and Bobby McGee recalled the years I lived in Austin, back in the early eighties: a flashing jukebox, dusty bar, old boyfriend, and Lone Star longnecks for breakfast.

 By the time we got to the gift shop, the museum was about to close so we scooped up a handful of refrigerator magnets shaped like tiny banjos, fiddles, and guitars. When it was our turn to pay, the man behind the counter told us a long, rambling story about a little girl who’d come in one day and bought a pink guitar magnet for her Barbie to play. 

 “I still think about her today,” he told us sadly. I smiled and nodded, but when we were out on the plaza, I turned to Stan and said, “Why? Don’t you think that’s weird?” Then it occurred to me that maybe everyone in Nashville had a sad country song, and that was his.  

 The next morning, I got up early and went down to the lobby for a cup of coffee, where I struck up a conversation with the young, tattooed waiter behind the bar. “I bet you’re a musician too,” I said, taking note of the hurt, hungry look in his eyes. Turned out that he was. “I like to hear people sing about epic things,” he said when I asked him about his favorite music. “I’m not religious but I like to hear people sing about God.” 

 When Stan arrived, we ordered breakfast. He wanted oatmeal, and I got the biscuits, which I try anytime I’m in a place that serves even vaguely Southern food. When his order came right away but mine was taking forever, the waiter walked over to our table. “I’m sorry, but the cook forgot to make the biscuits,” he said in such a melancholy voice that once again, I felt like I was in the middle of a sad country song.  

That day we bought $281.15 worth of merch at the Johnny Cash Museum, including a set of coasters; two baseball caps; three T-shirts, four CDs; and a onesie that said, “Crawl the Line.” But that was only after spending a couple hours in the crowded galleries, jostling for position. I studied his birth certificate, his report card, even his Air Force discharge papers, trying to figure out why the gospel-loving son of a cotton farmer in Arkansas meant so much to the bourgeois granddaughter of an immigrant Jew. The sense of justice, for sure. But also, the thrill of putting on a pair of earphones and listening to covers of Ring of Fire by punk, new wave, even reggae bands. Everyone knew what it meant to fall into a burnin’ ring of fire. 

 I caught up with Stan in front of a wall-size poster of the Man in Black and snapped a photo. Then I heard the voice of a man behind me ask if we wanted one of us together. Stan said sure and handed him his camera. I turned around and saw he had on a Trump 2020 hat, something else I rarely saw in New York. I was so surprised that I just stood there, speechless, while Stan smiled and graciously thanked him for taking our picture. 

 The next morning, we went to the Ryman Auditorium, the high church of country music. It was Sunday morning, the only day it wasn’t overcast or raining. We climbed the stairs to the balcony, watched the sunlight pour through the simple, stained glass windows, looked down on gleaming rows of wooden pews, and posed for a souvenir photo behind the famous stage mic where all the country legends performed. We were tourists being tourists, boomers being boomers, just two of the millions of loyal PBS viewers who have ever been in thrall to a Ken Burns documentary and then become obsessed—with baseball or the Civil War or jazz. 

 That afternoon we went to Ann Patchett’s bookstore Parnassus, a homey space with wooden furniture and a sign in the bathroom that says, “Employees must read books before returning to work.” The book titles were familiar, but I also saw wondrous things I’d never seen before. A pair of socks that said “My favorite salad is wine.” A Garden & Gun magazine. 

 Later that evening, when the Oscars were being handed out on the other side of the continent, we walked through the dark, windswept streets of the Gulch in search of a hipster ramen bar. Eventually, we found it. It was a lively place, with communal tables and an open kitchen sending up clouds of steam. We sat at the counter near a man with gray hair who looked like he was taking his daughter or even his granddaughter out to dinner, and between the three of us, we managed to push the median age up to thirty-five. My bowl of ramen, called Tennessee Tonkatsu, tasted like it was made with vermicelli, but I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, all ramen was good ramen, even the kind I used to buy in cellophane packages, three for a dollar. 

 The last day, we went to the Patsy Cline Museum, which is on the second floor of the Johnny Cash Museum but requires a separate admission fee. Strangely, we were the only people there. The pristine exhibits were so evocative of the fifties: a metal porch glider, paneled rec room, teak dining room set, and salt and pepper shaker collection. But everything stopped in 1963, the year she was killed in a plane crash. I listened to A Church, a Courtroom and Then Goodbye, marveling at how she was able to distill a lifetime of heartache and happiness into a 3-minute song.

 We bought a Patsy Cline umbrella, a Patsy Cline dish towel, and a 10-inch Patsy Cline melamine plate, then walked down Lower Broadway to the Cumberland River. It was running fast and muddy brown, washing up over the concrete steps at the foot of the embankment. After days spent peering into glass cases and binge-shopping in museum gift shops, it was a stark reminder of the power of nature—the deadly tornadoes that would sweep through central Tennessee three weeks after we got home, then a novel coronavirus that would have people talking about the plague.

After lunch, it started raining so hard we jumped into the first cab we saw for the short ride back to the hotel. Overcome with gratitude, I asked the driver in the friendliest voice I could muster if he’d lived in Nashville all his life. “Not yet,” he told me tersely.  

The plane ride back to New York was so bumpy the pilot suspended drink service. But when the flight attendant came by, I asked her if I could get a glass of wine. “I’m afraid to fly,” I said by way of explanation, but somehow, she already knew. Her next time down the aisle, she brought me a tiny bottle and a plastic cup and didn’t charge me a thing.

Two sips later, I screwed up the courage to look out the window. The sky was the color of dirty bathwater, and the plane was bouncing like crazy, but I didn’t care. Twenty minutes after takeoff, I was sorry to be leaving Nashville but glad to be going home. It sounded like a line from my own sad country song.

Ann Levin is a writer and book reviewer who worked for many years at The Associated Press. Her essays and memoir have appeared or are forthcoming in Sensitive Skin, Southeast Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Potato Soup Journal, Main Street Rag, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, and the Read650 anthologies. You can read her work at and follow her on Twitter @annlevinnyc.