It's the stuff of William Faulkner.
Just southeast of Nashville in Bell Buckle, Tenn., (pop. 300 or so), a political fight of epic proportions is underway. The mayor is pushing a plan to annex 210 acres of nearby land for a housing development. To get her way, according to town residents, she fired the chairperson of the planning commission and replaced her with an ally. Then the townfolk mobilized to oppose her plan and in the process elected an anti-annexation candidate to the village's board of aldermen. The mayor's plan, and the identity of a tiny Tennessee village, hang in the balance.
Behind the scenes of this pitched battle, though, is where the interesting stuff happens. Take the Village Witch, a scrawled cartoon character who first appeared on local doorsteps a while back when the town was abuzz about a tattle-tale village resident. A homemade comic strip was distributed late one night featuring the witch who snitched on other villagers. According to one Bell Buckle resident, the mayor got angry and inspected surveillance tapes from the town's only outdoor ATM to see if she could identify the culprit. But alas, she failed.
Thus was born the Bell Buckle Patriot-Commentator, the town's three-issue-old alternative newsletter of sorts. Back then the Patriot-Commentator's raison d'etre was to oppose the mayor's inappropriate video tape seizure. After a hiatus, the P-C is again up in arms, this time about the annexation plot. A middle and high school teacher by day, P-C editor and publisher John Anderson circulates gossip, pokes fun at opponents, interviews the "bad guys" and generally rouses rabble in his yellow journalistic endeavor. These days he's describing the mayor as "politically impotent."
And then there's Tennessee Poet Laureate Maggie Vaughn, who has provided quite a bit of local color herself. As the story goes, Vaughn was among an agitated crowd in attendance for the July board of aldermen meeting when she turned to a friend and muttered, "This is chickenshit!" Lots of folks heard the exasperated exclamation, including an agitated town attorney who threatened to sue whoever said it.
"It carried, I guess," a chagrined Vaughn told the Scene. But anti-annexation villagers quickly proclaimed it Vaughn's shortest poem ever, poking fun at the town lawyer, and have laughed about it ever since. As for the attorney's threat to sue, Vaughn says she's known him for years and immediately took credit for the poetic exclamation and apologized for any misunderstandings. They had a good laugh about it too.
But such is life in the small Southern town, a community, says Anderson, where people have strong opinions but maintain their strong connections with each other. "At the end of the day, everyone will get their tractor and pull your car out of the ditch, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you're on," he says, "with maybe one or two exceptions."
As the development debate reaches fever pitch in the coming weeks, expect things to get even crazier around Bell Buckle. And no, it's not a normal place. "In every small town you have characters," says Anderson, who admits he is one at times. "But I'm telling you man, our characters stepped out of Lewis Carroll. The Wizard of Oz. I mean we have some real lulus."