Mike Wolfe grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, trash picking his way through his early years. Bikes in bad shape were his passion, pulling his
two-wheeled loves from his neighbors’ trash to breathe them back to life to sell to other neighborhood kids. Wolfe’s been covered in the
dust and rust of Americana ever since, mining for buried treasures in backroad barns and leaning sheds across the country.
His discoveries of all the bits and pieces of American history that have survived the ages in the hands of amateur collectors and serious hoarders end up in one of Wolfe’s Antique Archaeology stores in Le Claire, Iowa, or Nashville, Tenn.
Wolfe lived a simple life on the road in obscurity, driving from one small town to the next in a non-descript cargo van. That all changed in 2010 when he hit gold.
In January of that year, the History Channel debuted the first episode of “American Pickers,” a television show created by Wolfe that drew in 5.4 million viewers each
week. As the show’s star, Wolfe suddenly lost his anonymity. Heading into its 11th season, “American Pickers” is still a hit and shows no sign of going away anytime soon.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Wolfe. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had never done television before; had never been on camera. It’s a non-scripted show. I try to find different ways to say the same thing. What saves us is the people that we’re picking and the process – us rummaging through a barn or an old chicken coop. It’s very voyeuristic. It allows you to get into a world that maybe you never knew existed.”
The wildly popular television show has since been syndicated in 63 other countries. There is “Italian Pickers,” “Australian Pickers” and “Irish Pickers,” all featuring their own versions of America’s stars Mike Wolfe, Frank Fritz and Danielle Colby searching for remnants of their own country’s history.
Considering Wolfe’s passion for all things small-town America, it should come as no surprise that he has joined up with leaders from 13 rural middle Tennessee and northwest Alabama communities to launch a new regional movement known as “Nashville’s Big Back Yard.”
Anchored by 100 miles of the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway, the movement is designed to highlight communities with populations less than 5,000 –from Leiper’s Fork, Tenn. (Wolfe’s home), down to The Shoals of Alabama.
Said Wolfe, “Everybody’s always looking for an authentic experience. We were just creating an outline for others to do the same. That’s what we want. ‘Nashville’s Big Back Yard’ can serve as a model for building tourism in small towns across the country. These are also places to live affordably and with a new sense of purpose.”
Wolfe is quick to point out that the main character behind this movement is philanthropist Aubrey Preston, founder of the Americana Music Triangle, which connects Nashville, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans. Preston and his team began researching the two-lane-road towns that have survived between these major tourist cities.
“He connected it all together,” said Wolfe. “The research that has been done is amazing.”
Asked why he felt so compelled to take on the role of frontman for this movement, Wolfe said, “I always try to lose myself in the landscape. Get off your travel apps and just drive. Visit small town America and do it now because it’s fading fast. It’s a national pandemic. I don’t want all of these places to disappear on our watch. This is our time. This is our chance to make a difference.”
Asked about the appeal of Leiper’s Fork, the northernmost town on the trail, Wolfe described it as once being very bohemian. It has since come to be home to soap opera stars, world-class musicians, and pro athletes and coaches. “It’s become something different, but the core of it is the same,” he said.
As for the other “Nashville’s Big Back Yard” towns, Wolfe provided a few highlights:
Santa Fe – Just outside of Santa Fe, in the small community of Bethel, is Nett’s Country Store. In addition to selling gasoline and a few groceries, Nett, the owner, serves some of the best Southern food in the region – fried chicken, fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn and homemade pies for dessert.
Centerville – This is the home of Minnie Pearl, arguably one of the most popular Grand Ole Opry stars in its 95-year history. Minnie’s famed and fictionalized “Grinders Switch” is memorialized with The Grinders Switch Hour, a 90-minute live radio show broadcast every Saturday morning from downtown Centerville and the Grinders Switch Museum, housed in the Hickman County Chamber of Commerce offices in Centerville.
Linden – Situated on the beautiful Buffalo River, Linden is home to the historic Commodore Hotel and Music Café, which was named one of the six great places to stay in Tennessee. Linden has a robust community of artisans who showcase and sell their works at Buffalo River Artisan Cooperative and Main Street Market.
Hampshire – Hampshire is arguably the wine capital of Middle Tennessee with Amber Falls, Keg Springs and Natchez Hills wineries all located in this quaint community.
Hohenwald – Hohenwald is best known for The Elephant Sanctuary. Yes, there are elephants in Tennessee. The sanctuary provides captive elephants with individualized care and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven. While the sanctuary is not open to the public, guests who are interested may have a sanctuary experience at the Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald.
Mount Pleasant – Mount Pleasant Grille is one of the best places in all of Nashville’s Big Back Yard to experience Southern American cuisine. It’s one of those places to get really good food and have a wonderful dining experience over and over again.
Summertown – The most unique thing in Summertown is The Farm, an intentional community founded in 1971 and home to 200 residents. For those who would like to experience The Farm for a few days, cabins are available to rent.
Clifton – The beautiful town of Clifton is right on the Tennessee River, which makes the local marina one of the most popular spots in town. Clifton also is home to 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.S. Stribling whose Clifton home is now a museum.
Waynesboro – Home to the Natural Bridge and Tennessee Fitness Spa. The bridge is one of the only known double-span natural bridges in the world and is a perfect setting for an outdoor spa experience.
Collinwood – Collinwood is Tennessee’s point of access to the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. One of the oldest roads in America, the parkway is the perfect stretch of road for motorcycling, bicycling and a leisurely drive. Collinwood has markets, restaurants, grocery stores and lodging for the trace traveler.
Loretto – The must-do in Loretto is Lo-Town Brew. Great coffee, good food and live music all situated on a two-lane road. What else do you need?
The Alabama Shoals – It’s all about the music, where artists including The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Cher, The Allman Brothers, Chris Stapleton and more recorded some of their biggest hits. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Fame Studios are still creating musical magic.
For details about Nashville’s Big Back Yard and more information about what to see and do, visitwww.nashvillesbigbackyard.org.
For your trip planning needs, call your local AAA Travel agent or visit AAA.com/Travel.
William J. Purpura is editor of AAA Magazine.