How else to describe Eastern Kentucky? On one hand, there is the blight of coal mining and the decades of few protections for the men who did it. (But I must whisper this as we are still in a place where Coal is King and don’t-you-dare-say-a-word-about-it.)
And then on the other hand, there is a rich tradition of music that goes way back to the Scotch Irish who came to the hills of Appalachia and were well hidden from the rest of the world till – well, perhaps till today in some cases. Satellite dishes aside, this is a place that may have easy access now to all the country’s fast-food chains, but seems to still be lacking on the health and education front, as well as the economic.
We drove through these hills in the 70’s and felt like strangers in a strange land. Though the isolation is less marked today, the same appliances seem to be rusting on many sagging front porches, and hideous couches are slowly rotting in the yards. Beautiful children wander the by-ways, and we even had to drive around a dog sleeping in the road.
Today is Election Day, and we saw a very humble voting place in a firehouse in a hamlet that even lacked a general store. But it was inspiring to see cars stopping and people running in to vote. Ignoring the predominant political persuasion of the area – which defies all logic – at least they were exercising their rights and responsibilities.
We were traveling on Route 23, known as the “Country Music Highway,” celebrating the many stars of that world who came out of the hills and hollows along this road. The first stop was the US 23 Museum, which celebrates them all, and which gathers a crowd every Thursday night when the famous and the merely local can come out and “pick” for the evening.
There are many here to honor, but the local girl that all conversations must eventually focus on is Loretta Lynn, known worldwide as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The movie of her life is probably worth revisiting, as her story is emblematic of so many. But she is not the only one who came out of these hills with music to share.
We tried to see the cabin where she grew up. You go the general store and ask for her brother, Herman Webb. That building used to be the company store for the coal mining company, but now Herman owns it. Some justice, I guess. The deal is that for $5 a person, Herman will take you up to the cabin and give you a tour – which some have told us can last for hours. But Herman had just left the store to take his daughter to the doctor, so no tour for us.
But we did – after some trial and error and rough language – find our way to Butcher Hollow, known as a “holler” to the folks around here. A bit down the road is the Webb cabin, where Loretta’s family lived and she grew up till she left with her husband-to-be at age 14. As she says, the outhouse is in the back and the creek is in the front. For her whole story, watch the movie. Sissy Spacek rightfully earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of Loretta, and it’s quite a tale. For now, imagine how hard it was to escape from this life and build a career as a music legend.
And that was our day in Kentucky. You have to appreciate the hardness of the life and the honesty of the songs that make this part of the world beautiful in some ways, and distinct from everywhere else.