Words & Images: Molly Steele

I needed a taste of that sweet, sticky Southern kind of love. The kind that involves never having to open a door for yourself, and always comes with the smell of bonfires and citronella in the air. Hinged only on tales of its musical lore, my knowledge of Nashville rests like a book I’ve only read the Intro of. I grew up visiting Tennessee, but until now had never visited its famed city. Flying out there for an impromptu weekend romance, I packed a suitcase with my bright red bikini and favorite summer dresses. Rayland Baxter picked me up in a Ford F150 at 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday. We made our way out to a river property where his dad, the legendary Bucky Baxter, is building a compound he calls Moon River. Down a highway and a paved country road, over the Caney Fork River and finally to a bumpy dirt road overlooking a hilly green paradise covered in bales of hay that leads down to the river.

I didn’t know much about Rayland or where we were, but I had the sounds of Tennessee’s lush forests in my ears with crickets and cicadas, and a deep hankering to make out on the river. Largely unconstructed and in the beginning stages of its build, Rayland and I spent the better part of the hot hours cleaning out the top of the structure that would one day be a cabin for him to retreat to. The skeleton was filled with wasps and dust, but this was my redneck vacation dream and I wasn’t going to complain about it being just that. I wanted nothing more than to swim naked in that dam-fed cold river. Out in the field, Rayland taught me how to fly-fish and we did that for a while, practicing, sweating on into the afternoon. He told me about a mist that forms over the river every day, so thick you often can’t see through it. It sits there like a friend or an omen or a cloud resting over the water for hours. We took the canoe down through the thicket and then out onto the Caney Fork to navigate in the dense white fog. The river was quiet with the occasional lonely fly-fisherman or herring every so often. The sun poured golden through the clouds turning the mist into buttercream before dusk filled the scene with blues and purples. I can’t remember a more beautiful canoe trip.

That night under the stars, Bucky and his wife cooked us a feast of scallops, steak, bacon-wrapped dates, and so many other things. They pulled a sheet of plywood from the construction below on which to scatter all the food like a medieval country spread from which we ate. They played guitar and shared songs from their repertoires and I even did some squeaking and squawking along with them. Tennessee nights feel different than those in LA. They’re thicker and a bit slower. You can still smoke inside bars and everyone has a layer of citronella on their sticky skin. What I like most about the South is that there’s more room to live, and a little bit of redneck in everyone. There’s something about sitting on the tailgate of a truck with a belly full of sweet tea that feels like home.