East Tennessee's Big Secret

East Tennessee's a big phony, I say.

Recently I saw a 20-minute promotional film produced by an Atlanta firm, obviously at some expense. It purported to be an introduction to East Tennessee. It showed lots of pretty scenes of mountains and river valleys. It showed deer and bears. It showed fishermen and farmers. It didn't mention Knoxville. From watching the film, you wouldn't guess this great green region called East Tennessee contained any towns or cities at all.

Most depictions of our area are to some degree like that. All emphasize land over human settlement, country over city. When you talk about East Tennessee, you're talking about rivers and mountains, maybe farms and log cabins, maybe mining or timber—but not accountants or lawyers, not factories or warehouses, not substantial towns and cities which are, in comparison, negligible.

Most of the postcards in Knoxville convenience stores show country scenes. Some show pristine hollers with grazing deer, or rolling farmland, or a bear in a forest. Some show cartoons of outhouses and ramshackle cabins.

The intersection of Market Street and Cumberland Avenue has been developed with streets and brick buildings for two centuries. It's a busy spot on a one-way street with a bus stop and a sign instructing you to get off your bicycle before riding through the courtyard. Hundreds of lawyers and their clients walk back and forth through the courtyard every day. In a $20 million neo-Georgian building protected by metal detectors and video monitors, probably the highest-security building in East Tennessee, is a convenience store.

It's called, of course, the Little Country Store.

A couple blocks down Market street, on the side of the 1872 Custom House, big banners advertise the Museum of East Tennessee History: one image is of a kid with overalls, one of a woman sitting in tall grass with a banjo. One celebrates the pioneers in buckskin who brought civilization to the wilderness.

Our pioneers did their pioneering longer ago than the pioneers of most American communities: There was a time when there were more people in East Tennessee than there were in California. You'd think civilization would have had a longer time to set in.

We exalt our settlers as heroes, and we celebrate our right to stay unsettled. One might conclude that we'd prefer they hadn't tried.

Consider , if you will, a song called "Rocky Top": "Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top," we insist. "Ain't no telephone bills." We relish this description of us; we sing it with boozy gusto every fall Saturday. The 100,000 people who sing along do so in one of the largest stadiums in America. Neyland accommodates more people in one place than any single building in, say, New York or Los Angeles. All hollering in unison about the joy of being in the sparse and quiet countryside.

No smoggy smoke? Never mind our air-quality rankings, consistently worse than, say, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. And as for telephone bills, the average East Tennessean has both a cell phone and a land line, if not a laptop or a Blackberry or iPhone. No telephone bills? Even if you adjust it for inflation, the average Knoxvillian may pay more for telephone bills than Zsa Zsa Gabor did between husbands in 1950s Hollywood.

Still, dagnabbit, we like to think of ourselves as "country." For Knoxville, it's been kind of a mission. Few cities stick up so stoutly for people who prefer not to live in a city.

Demographers tend to assess "rural" in terms of population density; the lower the density, the more rural a place is.

The shocking truth is that East Tennessee, as defined by its 34 counties, is one of the more densely populated regions in America. Despite the regional dominance of cities like Nashville and Memphis, East Tennessee is the most crowded part of this state. East Tennessee is more densely populated than the entire state of Georgia, Atlanta included. East Tennessee's more than twice as densely populated as, say, Minnesota. Five times more densely populated than Oregon. (Any discussion of Oregon will likely include some scenes of natural beauty, to be sure, but might also give at least a passing nod to a town called Portland.) According to census data, East Tennessee is more densely populated than most states.

We celebrate the rural, even though East Tennessee is arguably less rural than most of America. East Tennessee's population per square mile is almost twice that of the United States as a whole. We even vote country, at least on the county level, as the influence of Mr. Lambert attests. Naive demographers are likely to assess a county with a population of 400,000 as "urban." But there aren't many urban counties that would deliberately invite its citizens to bring their guns into public parks. I'm not sure I understand the motivation. No survey of Knoxville history is very useful to the argument that people are more peaceful when lots of other people are armed. Maybe all the fuss was just to prove that in spite of the misleading population figures, we're still rip-snortin' countryfied.

Maybe seeming "country" makes it easier to impress visitors, and ourselves. Whether fairly or not, the standards of what people expect of a community, in terms of performing arts, or culinary diversity, or educational opportunities, or architecture, is different in the country than in the city. Thinking of ourselves as Country maybe lowers the bar, and gives us a chance to relax and be content that we're already the community we need to be.

"Can you believe all this stuff is going on right here in East Tennessee?" we say.

Even when it's not that incredible: By the last census, more than 2.1 million people live in East Tennessee. If it were a city, East Tennessee would be the fourth or fifth largest city in America. This many people, you'd think, could accomplish something astonishing.