Opey and Christi (these are their real names) are driving down the road in Johnson City, Tennessee, one brilliant day, going who knows where, when they drive past a garden center with a sign out by the side of the street that says "Shrubberies for Sale." A look of confusion passes across Christi's face as she turns to Opey and says, "Opey, what's a shrew-berry?"
I hear this tale for the first time as our boat approaches a large, gray 280-hp Baja, engine cranking, music roaring (I'm betting country, although I can't really hear all that well above the engine), party en route. Any doubt about the validity of the story is quickly erased after I learn that the boat belongs to the large gentleman with the rotund stomach and side-arm arsenal of canned beer - Opey - and the lovely bottle-blond chick at his side - Shrewberry (as I would come to know her).
This is my first impression of Tennessee.
Now, don't get me wrong. I've met plenty of people from Tennessee before and besides the soft drawl that makes everyone in the state sound, hmmmm, a little slow, they were all nice, intelligent folk. But something lingers in your subconscious when you hear the word "Tennessee" - usually visions of dark woods, brown dirt, small Little House on the Prairie-esque log cabins, moonshine by the door in a worn chestnut jug, a haggard woman stumbling after seven soiled rapscallion children, an even more hollow-eyed man swaying in a homemade rocking chair, drinking said moonshine out of what appears to be a coffee cup and stoking the fire, which happens to be the only source of light. (If this descriptive voyage isn't detailed enough, please rent the movie Deliverance for full effect.)
Fortunately, electricity was brought to the state by 1909.
Now, I cannot tell a lie. There are rednecks in Tennessee. You see them everywhere - well, chances are you'll actually hear them first - but the point is that the stereotype can be true. But not everyone is a redneck. If everyone was, I wouldn't be cruising along in a 1988 MasterCraft ProStar stacked to the Ten Foot Pole with 1997-model wakeboards, scrunched among nine Tennesseans who are distinctly not rednecks (not a mud flap in sight). Whew!
So, why Tennessee, you may ask, which I did when I found out about this assignment. Believe it or not, Tennessee is a viable wakeboarding mecca. (Go ahead, scoff.) There are plenty of boats - MasterCraft's factory is in Vonore, Malibu's factory is in Louden, Aztec's factory is in Friendsville, and Supra's factory is in Maryville. There is plenty of water (over a thousand miles of ridable shoreline). NWZ Board Shop (formerly No Wake Zone) services all 95 counties in state, and you can find Bart's and Overton's in virtually every mailbox. But are there riders? Absolutely.
Leading this renegade backwoods patrol is Chris Brown, who happens to be neither renegade nor backwoods. Sporting a tennis-ball-green hair color (courtesy of Manic Panic) that may just become the state's alternative to the hunting vest, Chris nails a solid arsenal of inverted tricks mixed with a slew of grabs and spins. "Home" is Piney-Flats, TN, where he lives in a kickin' house that he shares with fellow boarder Ray Bozwell right on Boone Lake. Neither one of them owns a country CD, drives a jacked-up truck or can be classified as a redneck, so it only made sense to make their digs our first stop on this Tennessee adventure.
We - Chris, Ray, myself, Mike Rowell, Clark Carter, Sean Mahoney, Scott Wade, Scottie Cairns and a little "friend" that we picked up at Boardstock - made the drive from Atlanta to Tennessee in just under five hours, jusin time to drop the boat in, catch a couple sets before dark and get the opportunity to meet the best no-fear rider I've ever encountered - Clark "Superman" Carter. Jeez! Off the water, this guy is the nicest, most laid-back, no-worries, soft-spoken 35-year-old person I know. But once he strapped on that Liquid Force Squirt and hit the water, he was shouting expletives Gator-style in seconds. Now, no offense, but this guy isn't the best rider in the world. He can clear both wakes, do some 180s and catch some air, but what's so unreal is that you can talk him into trying anything. The guy's railing at Raleys like a pro, face planting with such force it could launch the space shuttle and getting up and trying again! And you can't convince him to stop! In fact, Chris and Mahoney are in the back of the boat encouraging him to try S-bends - and Clark was actually thinking about it! Fortunately, he stuck with Raleys and back rolls, and when he finally nailed one, you would've thought he'd won the lottery.
Now, you might think that just makes him a crazy redneck, and if you choose to think that, then let me tell you this - Clark owns most of the property in Sullivan County, he's got a house on the water, and he's buying a new boat. From what I could tell he also doesn't listen to country, he doesn't chew cud, and he doesn't drive a four-wheel big rig. But if y'all still think he's a redneck, then I'd like to be one too.