Arrested Development’s first single, ‘Tennessee,’ is 30 years old this month, and it’s still perfect
OPINION: The revolutionary Black power group came out the gate swinging with a song that still sounds as good as the day it came out.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
It’s amazing how time and distance can impact how you interact with music. For instance, for YEARS, I thought Arrested Development’s sophomore album, Zingalamaduni, was the most criminally slept-on album EVER. I just didn’t understand why everybody else didn’t hear what I heard both musically and foundationally and exalt this group for being the uplifting Black, HBCU-version of hip-hop that I saw them as.
Turns out, most folks probably did hear what I heard (if they listened at all, Arrested Development is—was—definitely an acquired taste), except they actually listened and decided that they, and Speech, in particular, were too preachy and self-righteous. And that’s probably true, even listening to their debut album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of… recently made me realize that I was being judged for the vast majority of the album. In the early ’90s, though? I loved Arrested Development. And, in particular, their best song, “Tennessee,” their chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning song about going home.
“Tennessee,” as a song, is perfect. It’s the perfect marriage of beats, rhymes and life. And it had the most secret sauce of all time: Dionne Farris.
In fact, I think the reason that I think the song is still as good today as it was upon its release in March 1992 is the fact that it gave us all a way to challenge anybody to a game of horseshoes. Dionne Farris’ performance on this song is literally beautiful (put a pin in this). I don’t care where I’m at; if I see somebody playing horseshoes, I’m yelling to them: “I challenge you to a game of horseshoes, A GAME OF HORSESHOES!” Similarly—and I say this to myself—if I drink a cup of something and finish it, and I want more, I always say, “And I am still thirsty,” exactly how Speech says this. My wife may or may not have seen me do this once and may or may not have backed out of the kitchen like Homer Simpson fading into the bushes in that meme you use too much. Real ones know, though.
I was 12 years old in March 1992 when “Tennessee” dropped. At the time, I was a military brat living in Frankfurt, Germany, and that means I watched one channel for American shows and listened to one radio station for American music: The Armed Forces Network, AFN. I remember hearing the song on American Top 40, the syndicated weekly countdown show created by Casey Kasem, though I think during the time “Tennessee” dropped, it was being hosted by Shadoe Stevens. I still remember being in the car with my parents, listening to the Top 40 and hearing “Tennessee.” I LOVED it when I first heard it. At 12, I was already a burgeoning hip-hop head, having jacked all of my older sisters’ tapes and dubbed them, and I had a particular affinity for West Coast rap. But I remember also asking my parents to take me to the Post Exchange, the military version of a mini-mall on base, so I could buy Arrested Development’s CD because I needed to hear “Tennessee” on a loop.
When I finally saw the video? Shooooot. It was over. I already had an African medallion, though I wasn’t QUITE the most Afro-centric kid. In fact, I probably wasn’t at all. While I liked how they dressed, I had no idea how to actually do that, and my allowance wasn’t such that I could make it happen even if I wanted to. Plus, I was in Germany; I had no idea where to go for that aesthetic. But, I liked what I saw, even if I didn’t entirely get how it worked (or who was or wasn’t in the group; there were a lot of damn people in that video—as it turns out, who was [or wasn’t] in the group would be part of what broke them up years later).
“Tennessee” is a perfect ’90s hip-hop beat, but with Speech’s real-life tale of going through life’s issues. It’s relatable content without being as preachy as the rest of the content on their album. Speech is rapping about needing guidance, and basically, a life reset to a time of innocence. And he went…home. As it turns out, the song was written after the deaths of his grandmother and brother (“….my grandma passed, my brother’s gone….”) and him looking for answers, a common occurrence for any of us who have lost a loved one. The nostalgic longing in the lyrics and the hook really struck an everyman tone; who couldn’t relate to the message? That’s all well and good, and it’s a fine song with just the beat and lyrics.
But Dionne Farris.
Dionne Farris levels up the song so much that at this point, I might listen to it JUST to get to her bridge and then to her taking the song to church at the end. And to church she took it. I am absolutely mesmerized by what I hear. She puts so much emotion and love into her vocal performance that I would go on buying any and all things issued by Dionne Farris from that point forward.
At about the 3:10 mark of the song, Dionne gets loose for like a straight minute. And she does it in the “yo, just hit record” sense of getting loose. I can imagine her in the studio with 15 people around her, and she’s giving us her whole soul while people in every color and fabric available are dancing and throwing their hands in the air, sometimes like they just don’t care and other times like they care a lot. Dionne’s soulful vocals are so good on this song that I get emotional listening, and I remember feeling particularly drawn to her as much as a musical novice in 1992 as I am, now, in 2022. Dionne Farris’s singing is why God created music.
“Tennessee” is a song that fills my soul with joy, even if the subject matter has a melancholy tone; my cup runneth over for the past 30 years.
And I am still thirsty.
I’ll see myself out.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!