NASHVILLE -- That high, lonesome sound of sorrow coming out of the South these days is no bluegrass song. It is the sound of an auto industry pining for its one true love -- who has run off to Mexico.
Automaker after automaker -- Mazda, Honda, Audi, Toyota, Nissan -- have invested $3.5 billion in Mexican assembly plants since 2007. Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti might be the next to go. Industry agents of the South believe those are plants that should have landed in the southeastern United States.
And, of course, the Detroit auto industry establishment still believes that everything in the South should have been built in and around Detroit in the first place.
Detroit has been doing its own pining for the past three decades as North American automaking shifted inch by inch to places like Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. Now it's the South's turn to fret.
The question is: Which region of the North American auto industry is really losing out to the Mexican boom?
The Brookings Institute recently weighed in on that question. The Washington think tank just presented a study to the state of Tennessee, analyzing what it considers Tennessee's strengths and weaknesses to attract future auto industry projects.
But deep inside the 126-page study, Brookings comes to this conclusion about Mexico: "A historical analysis of the shifting geography of jobs within the North American industry suggests that Mexico's increasing significance in the auto sector through 2012 has come at the expense of the Midwest."
It might feel to Southern states that Mexico is cutting into their future, the report concludes. But in fact, it is once again Detroit that is taking it on the chin.
As Mexico hires thousands of new auto workers, the Midwest's share of North American automotive employment has continued to contract, from 42.8 percent in 1996 to a new low of 29.7 percent last year, the report finds.
Yet at the same time, Southern states "have so far managed the competitive threat from Mexico without ceding relative position in the industry."
In other words, the southeastern U.S. industry is holding steady, even as non-Detroit automakers like Nissan and Honda build new plants outside the South.
Does any of this really matter?
Where cars are manufactured means nothing to consumers, car dealers often assert. And that might be true.
But where the auto industry is growing, shrinking, shifting, spending or remaking itself does matter to automakers, suppliers and strategic planners whose livelihoods rely on creating, pricing and delivering cars consumers want.