I know it’s not scientifically proven, but everyone who’s spent a decent chunk of time with an iPod on shuffle knows that the little music robot has some kind of psychic connection with its owner’s mood. It was no surprise, then, that mine decided to spin the Drive-By Truckers’ “TVA” while I was packing to visit my parents over the holidays.
Though my connection to the American South comes mostly through sports (and an abiding love for barbecue), the song’s ode to deep roots rings true for me, especially when getting ready to visit home. Summer days are measured by the lake, and the narrator’s grandfather, like mine, found much-needed help through the Depression thanks to the New Deal. For the song, and its subjects, the power-generating dams of the TVA were a complicated salvation, and the long new lakes a defining fact of life.
The song’s first line puts us on the map: two hours north of Birmingham, on the Tennessee River’s Wilson Dam. A half day’s drive further north, there once lay another Birmingham. That one was in the complicated corner of Kentucky where rivers carve out borders with Missouri and Illinois and Arkansas, just above the Tennessee line. In the 1930s, that Birmingham wound up under Kentucky Lake thanks to a TVA dam. Its families would disperse; one of them, the Fulks’,