Searching for Secrets on the Country Music Highway
By Tim Leffel
My home of Nashville, Tennessee is the mecca for country music stars and thousands of wannabe songwriters. But where do they all come from?
Nashville is the industry center for country music and bluegrass, but there’s nothing in our swimming-pool-tasting water that turns young girls into ballad-belting country singers.
There are no local family dynasties of Nashville-bred songwriters who can mix hard luck and a few guitar chords to come up with a jukebox masterpiece. Few great mandolin pickers or fiddlers sprung out of the shadows of our replica of the Parthenon.
The gifted people have mostly drifted here from elsewhere. Often that elsewhere is along a rural ribbon of road in Kentucky dubbed the Country Music Highway.
Coal Miners’ Daughters and Musical Storytellers
I recently spent a few days meandering around the eastern edge of Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It's a land where McMansions still look oddly conspicuous and “urban sprawl” would only apply to city folk stretching out for a nap. A land where the nicest building on a road is still liable to be the church. Where people say, “down by the strip mall” and there's only one place that could mean.
The “Country Music Highway” is a National Scenic Byway that runs through a land where country and bluegrass stars have sprung up like mushrooms. Here's a sampling of who came from the area: Dwight Yoakam, The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Ralph Stanley, Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gale. What’s the secret? Why here?
I visited Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle's childhood home, of "Coal Miner's Daughter" fame. It's in an area called Butcher Hollow (pronounced “holler” of course), near the town of Van Lear. As in the Jack White-produced "Van Lear Rose" — an album that even critics who don’t like country put on their 2004 Top 10 lists.
Apart from some memorabilia on the walls, the house is pretty much intact. The ceilings top out at seven feet and the walls are just paper over wood. No multimedia tour, no turnstiles, no souvenir stand. A handwritten, misspelled sign outside lists the $5 admission price.
Loretta's older brother Herman gives the tour, spinning his stories as if he has never told them before. He was the third kid from the top, he says, one of eight. They grew anything they could on the land. “If we didn’t farm, we starved,” he says. “There weren’t many groundhogs or raccoons to get the crops. They were food too.”
He is still sore about the movie company building a house from scratch and filming Loretta’s story (starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones) in another country nearby. “Some government people worked out that deal. They said the other county needed the money worse. Look around here,” he said, pointing to surrounding houses. “We didn’t have nothing ourselves!”
Herman’s daughter Madonna runs Webb’s Grocery nearby. The walls there are lined with more memorabilia, including an Arizona license plate with “Loretta” and an Arkansas one with “Lynn.” A poster from an old Loretta Lynn tour prominently features the sponsor — Crisco.
As I paid for a few Moon Pies at Webb’s, I asked Madonna why there was a picture of Herman on the wall enclosed in a toilet seat. “Well, one time he had to go into the hospital for surgery. When I called him to ask how he was doing, he said, ‘I feel like I've been flushed down the commode.’ So that's where we put him.”
Both Webb’s Grocery and the house see a steady stream of tourists, many making a trip that can only be described as a pilgrimage. Nancy Price, head of the local tourism commission, told me “a big Norwegian woman” once came into her office, crying her eyes out.
The woman and her husband had been saving their money for ten years to make this trip to come visit Loretta Lynn’s childhood home. Now that the woman was here, she was overwhelmed. “She didn’t speak much English and I sure didn’t speak any Norwegian,” says Price, “So I just sent her to Webb’s and then made a call. I said, ‘I just sent a big cryin’ Norwegian woman your way. You’ll know her when you see her!’”
I also swung by the brand new Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville. Apart from being so new it looks like a highway rest stop, it's well done, with lots of items donated by the stars. The displays include a section on Rebecca Lynn Howard, the latest star from the area, and there is room to add the next one who comes along.
More displays are set up in the older Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland. You never know what else you're going to find in these small town museums and the latter didn't disappoint. Unceremoniously tucked away amongst some military artifacts was Hitler's phone. Yes really--Hitler's phone. The one that was in his bunker where he offed himself. Sitting in Ashland, Kentucky!
The Rural Dark Side
When I was a young marketing manager at RCA Records at the end of the 1980s, I worked with two successful acts from this region: Keith Whitley and The Judds. Keith Whitley was a hard-drinking man before he got famous and it didn’t stop once he had some hits. We were constantly frustrated when he would just disappear for days and miss key interviews or store appearances. One day the whole staff was summoned to a conference room to hear some bad news: Keith Whitley had literally drunk himself to death.
Most authentic types of music have a clear dark side. It is hard to separate rap from the violence of the ghetto, or to separate the blues from the true hardships that give the music its name. Country music is no different. Despite the gloss of the corporate pap that dominates the radio, it mostly comes down to what songwriter Harlan Howard defined as “three chords and the truth.”
And the truth is, Eastern Kentucky is a tough place to grow up and live. When songwriters pen songs about losing a job, getting lost in the liquor, or having trouble paying the bills, they don’t have to look much past their neighbor’s house for inspiration. To an outsider driving through it seems that the square footage of houses has an inverse relationship to the number of junk cars up on blocks. Literacy is surely below the national average: the bookstore in Van Lear is called “Words ‘N Stuff.”
As with many areas that were built on coal mining, health problems are rampant. Without a trace of irony, my guide at the Highlands Museum cheerfully explained, “Our primary employers in the past were coal and oil companies. But now our city’s largest employer is the hospital.”
Things were even tougher before the coal companies came along though. In the open-air museum, The Mountain Home Place recreates the life of a pioneer town in the 19th century, with cramped log homes and an uninsulated church with a wood stove.
A dressed up pioneer woman showed that the beds back then were made of logs held together by rope, plus rope on the bottom to sleep on. (They had to be tightened periodically, thus the phrase “sleep tight.”) In nearby Saylersville, a park brings together a variety of other log structures from the 19th century, including a one-room schoolhouse and a post office/general store.
Three Generations of Judds
I spent a fair amount of time working with Wynonna Judd when I was at RCA, while her and her mom were still touring as The Judds and young Ashley was just heading off to college. Wynonna was buying her first house at the time and mentioned the trouble she was having with her realtor. The agent kept taking her to houses that had paneling on the wall in the den. “I walk straight back out the door,” she said. “It always reminds me of growing up poor.”
In Ashland, Kentucky, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Wynonna’s grandmother Polly Judd Rideout, a spunky woman who looks far too young to now be a great-grandmother. (The yellow BMW C3 convertible she drives complicates the picture even more.)
We were eating at the Frame Up Gallery, a whimsical coffee shop and restaurant that provides a break from the hearty, rib-sticking food I’d been gobbling up the prior day. Around here, everyone is kin to someone famous or has some other connection to someone famous. So of course I wasn’t surprised to hear that the owner’s son plays in Billy Ray Cyrus’ band.
Polly talked a bit about the old days, and about how much had changed after seeing a daughter and two granddaughters turn into international celebrities. “I see Ashley [Judd] up there on the movie screen and I still can’t believe it,” she says. “I used to wipe her butt!”
Ashland contains the beautifully restored Paramount Arts Center, one of those amazingly ornate theaters that you can’t believe was built in a small town in 1931. Big music concerts and touring theater shows are staged regularly.
After seeing a lot of the area, I still wondered, where do the locals get their talent? How does a rural area with no major city and not much of a “club scene” manage to crank out gifted singer/songwriters like Whitley and Tom T. Hall, bluegrass legends like Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs, and powerful singers like Patty Loveless and Rebecca Lynn Howard?
Most locals say the church life has something to do with it. You can’t help noticing that religion is all-pervasive here.
As hard as it is for this religiously indifferent city-dweller to imagine, not going to church in this region is akin to not brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t even think about skipping it more than once. And of course every church has at least one choir or amplified music group, some having three or four who rotate. This probably explains the musical output of the area better than any coincidence, magic water, or depth of material.
Everyone grows up singing in the choir or playing in the accompanying band. They’re used to performing in front of hundreds. Plus every town with a gazebo or town square has local performances going on much of the summer. When kids and teenagers hit the stage at the Kentucky Opry, a musical show at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonburg, they’re already close to being seasoned pros. Few of them will actually hit the big time, but the area’s record of cranking out future stars makes the odds slightly better.
Down Home Prices
Touring Country Music Highway region is easy on the wallet. “This is the cheapest cheeseburger I’ve even seen,” I heard one woman say who was looking at a restaurant menu in one town. The fanciest place I had lunch was under $10. Tickets to shows at the Paramount top out at $30 and the theater’s director, Tyson Compton says, “This is not an elitist venue. We always have some seats at $10, no matter what’s playing.” Admission fees to most of the attractions in the area are $5 or less.
Some US states have unimpressive and under-funded park facilities, but Kentucky's State Parks are some of the best in the country. Seventeen of them are resort parks, meaning they have a full lodge. I spent my nights at Jenny Wiley State Park, in a lodge room that was nicer than a whole lot of hotels I've been in.
But in this room I could wander outside and see an owl, a woodpecker, herons, raccoons, or even a bobcat. It runs $80 a night double, or you can rent a well-equipped cabin that sleeps up to 8 for only $130. In the park you can fish on the lake, hike the trails, mountain bike, or go elk watching.
For more information on Eastern Kentucky’s attractions, visit TourSEKy.com.
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