I’m just going to say right up-front that I don’t like the word “branding.” Worse yet: “rebranding.” I know they are trendy words on the marketing front. Maybe that’s why they dismay me. Trendy is temporary, although “temporary” can be relative.
The only brands that really matter to me are food-related (Duke’s mayonaise, White Lily flour, SPAM, Philadelphia cream cheese, Duncan Hines cake mix, and Coca-Cola, to name a few) or hotel-related (I am a Marriott loyalist).
I’ve never thought of where I live as a brand. Maybe that’s a problem. After all, if I don’t know where I’m from, how could potential new recruits to our region?
When traveling and asked where I’m from, my first reply is a generic “Tennessee.”
This usually garners one of two responses from my new acquaintance: Oh, they’ve been to or always wanted to go to Memphis or Nashville; or they simply say, Which part?”
The first response I counter with “I live closer to Canada than I do to Memphis, at least as the crow flies, but Nashville is just a few hours away.” I then hold my hands up and extend my thumbs and index fingers at acute angles, hand-toward-hand, and say, “You know how Tennessee is shaped sorta like this? I’m in the upper right corner, near Virginia and North Carolina. Memphis is in the lower left corner. And Nashville is pretty much in the middle.”
If I still have their attention, and usually I do, I go on as if I were simply answering “Which part?”
“I’m from Kingsport,” I say. “Have you heard of it?”
Often they respond in the affirmative, although it is often by the association “That’s near Johnson City, right?”
If they haven’t heard of Kingsport, I do my hands-as-Tennessee thing and explain it’s part of the Tri-Cities, along with Johnson City and Bristol. Up in the northeast corner. I say Kingsport is the baby of the trio at just over 100 years old and home to the world headquarters of Eastman Chemical Company (sometimes that registers a connection for them to Kodak, and I have to explain the company split years ago). I ask if they’re NASCAR fan if the mention of Bristol didn’t already spark that lightbulb moment for them, and talk about Bristol Motor Speedway. And I mention East Tennessee State University is in Johnson City.
I explain I work a couple of miles from Virginia, and mile or so from the “western” terminus of Interstate 26. The other end, I say, is in Charleston, S.C., but if I get on I-26 at its end in Kingsport, I will be at the North Carolina state line in 57 miles and Asheville is about 26 miles past that.
By this point, they’re either very interested or suddenly remember they need to be someplace else.
Back to my initial generic “Tennessee” answer when first asked where I’m from while traveling. That would disappoint my mother and my late father ... and his parents, too. For as far back as I can remember, anytime we were on the road together and someone asked my parents where we were from, their reply always, always was “Tennessee, but we’re originally from Virginia.”
As children, my siblings and I didn’t understand why they had to add that “originally ...” on there. But now we do. Our roots are all over Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. And as soon as I was 16 and had a car, Kingsport, Bristol, Johnson City, Church Hill, Mount Carmel, Surgoinsville, Rogersville, Weber City, Gate City — and beyond all the way to Blackwater just ran together in my mind.
I think it did in other’s minds as well, especially for people in or near Kingsport and points immediately north and west. When we’d be at Myrtle Beach in the 1970s, it was common to run into people from Kingsport ... and people who’d answer “Kingsport,” but ended up being from somewhere outside but near the Model City. We learned to ask “Where do you go to school?” to get a more definitive answer.
Whenever I have visitors from out of town (my most far-flung to date was from Australia), I have a standard list of sights and sites they must see and visit. It’s a long list and the length of their stay dictates what gets experienced. It includes: Bays Mountain Park; a drive by Allandale and Rotherwood, with mention of the importance of BAE; a look at Eastman’s corporate offices and the plant itself; a drive across Chestnut Ridge to Blountville to show them where I spend much of my work time and the Deery Inn and its Smithsonian Gates; Ridgewood Barbecue; Roan Mountain; Watauga Lake; Biltmore Estate in Asheville; the Blue Ridge Parkway; Barter Theatre; The Bristol Tennessee/Virginia sign; the Birthplace of Country Music Museum; a drive by and maybe stop at BMS; President Andrew Johnson’s gravesite in Greeneville; Dollywood; the Great Smoky Mountains; Douglas Dam (and a talk about TVA’s impact on and transformation of the region); lunch or dinner at the Hob-Nob; an evening at the Carter Fold; Natural Tunnel; and if it’s in season, a performance of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in Big Stone Gap.
That, all that, that’s where I live.
So those Nashville-based folks being paid to recommend a new name for the collective Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region (Tri-Cities is passe, apparently), perhaps we can go about this like gerrymandering: Just draw a map around all those points (OK, leave off Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and maybe everything south and west of Greeneville), and let’s see what the shape calls to mind. I haven’t done it yet on paper, but in my mind I’m afraid it’s going to look like a fried egg or roadkill.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]