When I first moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee from Fayetteville, Arkansas I desperately missed the vibrant music scene I left behind. The row of bars and taverns along Dickson Street had become my second home and there was innovative music to be heard nearly every night. By comparison, Gatlinburg, with its country music reviews and the cheesy square dancers every saturday night, seemed worlds away from the hip lifestyle I led before. I though I had moved to a cultural backwater. My friends from Fayetteville would call me on Friday and Saturday nights and fill me in on the details of the latest shows, making me even more homesick. Would I have to listen to Dolly, Barbara Mandrell, and the theme song to the Dukes of Hazzard for an entire year?
My solution was to use Myspace to sample East Tennessee's musicians. When I found a band that I liked, I would check them out. Most of the time, this meant driving to Knoxville after a long night of work. Sadly, this also meant no beer for me, since I had to drive back somehow. Where other anthropologists may have used novels to escape the rigors of fieldwork, I used music and weekly trips to Knoxville's Old City.
Eventually, one of the bands I kept tabs on had a gig in Gatlinburg. They were called Cutthroat Shamrock. I had written about the ways Irish ethnicity and heritage was constructed for tourism in Gatlinburg so their name piqued my interest. I went and discovered that not only were they enormously fun to listen to live, but they were all just really nice people, endearing even. Moreover, they played a Johnny Cash cover, a fact that is not lost on a homesick Arkansawyer. I vowed that every time they came back to Gatlinburg, I would go see them. It has been over two years since I met these guys and not only did they introduce me to my life partner but they have begun touring near my home in Fayetteville. I have moved back to the University of Arkansas, and now they help to alleviate my homesickness for Gatlinburg. This leads me to think about how fieldwork is so strange; I can be homesick for two places at once: the Ozarks and the Smokies.
When I read The Mountain Press interview with Derrick, Ben, and Guido I laughed at the frankness of their conversation with reporter Gail Crutchfield.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Recently, the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce released a tourism guidebook advertising all of the Chamber members. What is unusual about this recent edition is in the back there is a warning about timeshare representatives. It makes for an interesting read. Presumably this is because both Galtinburg citizens and tourists have lodged numerous complaints about the behaviors of OPCs. Often when an OPC leans in to ask a question of tourists they are flat-out ignored; the tourists walk by, treating OPCs like some ghost of vacations past. Every now and again, tourists respond in fury, cursing and even threatening OPCs. Some OPCs retaliate with equally abusive language.
But at least one OPC has told me that there is a lot of jealousy about timeshare in some tourist towns as they are not subject to the same taxes as overnight venues. While my informants think this is about larger political issues, I have a feeling this backlash against the timeshare industry has something to do with the transient lifestyles led by many OPCs.
My eyes always glaze over when anyone in the Smokies discusses the timeshare industry. This is generally due to two overwhelming perspectives about timeshare: First, it appears to be an overly complicated way of booking a hotel room. Second, it is an industry plagued by negative images, take for example an episode of South Park where unwitting families sit through an endless timeshare presentation ("Asspen," 2002). But timeshare can teach us a lot about the role of sight in the tourism industry, particularly when the tables are turned and those who are usually doing the sightseeing [tourists] become the sight. All I can say is Dean MacCannell and Erving Goffman, hold onto your horses!
The essence of tourism is hypervisuality and no one understand this more than the OPCs or "Off-Project Consultants" who pitch timeshare to tourists. One of the best in the business is my friend Stan, who spends between three and eight hours a day inside a small booth where he is constantly watching tourists. Depending on where he is stationed, the booth's décor might be rustic, with rough, unpolished wooden surfaces and a sign on top that proclaims "Hiking Service" or the booth might be more modern looking with smoother lines and pastel colored walls interrupted by offers for discounts to amusement parks. All of the OPC booths are recessed within a small slot, usually wedged between stores. There are only three walls defining the back and sides of each booth so that the front is completely open to the sidewalk. Stan is always exposed to the elements so that inside the booth there is a constant din of either box fans or space heaters. Glossy brochures for tourist attractions and coupon books proclaiming to save the user hundreds of dollars act as bait for unwitting consumers.
From this booth, Stan has a perfect vantage point of the tourists who walk by, allowing him to assess their social, political, and economic assets on the fly. His head bubbles with the different clues that help him unravel tourists' identities and, in effect, make a quick estimate of their credit score, their willingness to listen to his speech about timeshare, the likelihood they will return to Gatlinburg for yearly vacations, and the amount of money (if any) in their bank accounts. He scans the crowd looking for the ideal consumers: a couple, preferably middle-aged, and well-dressed. Other smaller clues are also important: Do they have a lot of shopping bags? What type of purse is she carrying? Look at his watch—is it expensive? What sort of jewelry does she wear? Is that an authentic, luxury, name-brand seal on her leather purse? Do they have kids? If so, are the kids old enough to manipulate their parents into owning a timeshare so they can have access to a water park? When he spots his prey he positions himself casually erect, half sitting and half standing next to his desk. The couple walks by and Stan leans in, starting an easy conversation, "Are you two going to be in town for a couple of days?"
This is usually how it starts for Stan. Other OPCs have different ways of getting tourists' attention, often referred to as a "pitch." What does this interplay of gazes tell us about power, class, and the ever-changing tourism industry of the Smoky Mountains?
This blog is based on ethnographic fieldwork in the tourism industry of Sevier County, Tennessee. This is a place that has labored under the dual identity of being America's backward, impoverished stepchild and being the honored preservers of lost traditions. But neither of these stereotypes captures the essence of what it is to live there. Tourism changes the dynamics of power and the politics of identity in ways that link together narratives of history and heritage with global flows of goods, services, ideas, and people. In the Smoky Mountains might you find an immigrant from Pakistan selling corncob pipes and hillbilly T-shirts, all of which were made in Asia. It is a very special place, made even more so by its unique past, its vibrant diversity, and the often troubling consequences of commercialized tourism.
The beauty of the mountains, the diversity of people, the influx of seasonal workers, the degradation of the environment, the stores filled with cheap mass-produced souvenirs, the poverty of service workers, and the narratives of heritage perpetuated by the arts and crafts industries all make the Smoky Mountains a place filled with disjuncture. To borrow a phrase from the Marxist thinker Raymond Williams, the Smoky Mountains is a "structure of feeling" a place "at the "edge of semantic availability." In other words, it is the perfect place for an anthropologist.
The photo is of Gatlinburg, one of three neon-festooned towns that line the entryway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.