Homeplace by John Lingan

Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk BY John Lingan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 272 pages. $27.
The cover of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the word “honky-tonk” dates to 1899, in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette. “A petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main Street be reopened,” read the Texas newspaper. From its first appearance in print, the honky-tonk was already under threat of closure. It’s possible that the theater on Main Street was a different kind of establishment, but the term is now universally used to describe a roadside bar where country music can be heard, either played by musicians or on a jukebox.

These dives sprung up all across America in the wake of the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill, when widespread migration from the country to the city and the city to the suburbs produced new networks of highways and new ways of living. Working-class life was no longer defined by farm labor, nor leisure limited to a domestic setting. “My new home has a flashing neon sign,” sang Merle Haggard on “Swinging Doors,” telling the story of a man for whom honky-tonk has replaced hearthstone.

Among the many real people who lived versions of this story was Joltin’ Jim McCoy, of Winchester, Virginia, a country singer, songwriter, and DJ. In the mid-1980s, after a divorce and a remarriage and multiple career changes, McCoy built a ramshackle bar where his Blue Ridge mountaintop birthplace once stood and christened it the Troubadour. The Troubadour quickly became the region’s most esteemed cultural institution. Its doors remain open, and today it hosts not just bar bands and country karaoke, but a local heavy metal festival.

McCoy and his bar are the subject of John Lingan’s remarkable new book. Homeplace is an account of the author’s travels to Winchester over the course of four years. The book is also a celebration of country music, as it is lived outside of the industry’s epicenter in Nashville. Lingan describes McCoy as “a perfect emblem for all the unheralded working people who made that music what it was.” His book lives up to its subject, neither indulging in celebrity hagiography, nor romanticizing some idealized noble savage of the American south. By rooting his narrative in the region, he is able to trace its culture to its origins in a social order marked by class disparity and cultural exchange.

Jim McCoy was born in Winchester on April 11, 1929, growing up in a house with a windup Victrola and a battery-powered radio. In these early days, before the neon electricity of honky-tonks, country music meant something cosmopolitan and urbane, not rural and provincial. “The voices and melodies that floated out from those primeval machines were the first proof that Jim McCoy ever had of life beyond hilltop manual labor,” Lingan says. McCoy’s father bought his son a guitar from a Montgomery Ward catalogue, and the young man began traveling out of town to hear country music played. A backstage conversation in 1943 led to his becoming pen pals with Ernest Tubb, the first country star who truly seemed to belong to the 20th century. After forming his own band, Joltin’ Jim and the Melody Playboys, McCoy began a long tenure at the periphery of country music stardom.

The biggest part McCoy played in country music history took place in 1948. While he was a DJ at WINC radio, he let a local girl, Virginia Patterson Hensley, audition as a singer. The young woman eventually adopted the surname of her first husband, Gerald Cline, and a nickname given to her by Bill Peer, a local bandleader she’d had an on-and-off affair with: Patsy. As a local working-class girl, Cline began her career modestly. After McCoy discovered her, she went on to perform in local variety shows and on the radio, until a TV appearance in 1957 led her to national recognition. Her recording career lasted just over five years, but holds a place of far greater magnitude in the history of country music. In 1962, her rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” became one of the best-loved performances in American popular music. The next year, her career was cut short by a plane crash, when she was just 30 years old.

Winchester sits at the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, the area between Virginia’s western perimeter and West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. Though it has a name—which it shares with a traditional folk song about an interracial romance—the region is not as easily parsed a signifier as Appalachia or the Deep South. It is defined largely by what it is not. “Whatever you think it is,” Lingan points out, “it’s the edge of that: the northernmost point in the South, the westernmost point in the East, not at all urban but nothing like Appalachia.”

On Lingan’s first visits to the Shenandoah, the region seems long set in its ways. There is a fierce sense of belonging, with locals delineating between long-settled “from-heres” and newer “come-heres” from the outside world. But that appearance of unchanging sameness is a deceptive one, and Lingan shows us what lies behind it. While some writers on the the American South, such as Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, look for a pure Southern culture, organic and monolithic, Lingan recognizes motion, with conflict and reconciliation taking place in perpetuity. At one point, he walks by two cemeteries, one Union and one Confederate, facing each other on opposite sides of the road—during the Civil War, Winchester switched sides more than seventy times. Among Winchester’s twentieth-century elite, he finds a gay couple living together in one of its most ostentatious houses, even while officially remaining in the closet.

Time marches on, and many of the places Lingan visits close their doors during the years he spends exploring Winchester. An indoor smoking ban sounds a death knell for the honky-tonk, a setting invariably described (as it is in “Swinging Doors”) as “smoke-filled.” But the social stratification Lingan traces in his historical sketches persists in the contemporary Shenandoah Valley. He meets a man who, in his childhood, crossed the Mexican border with his mother to pick apples, and now works in a nonprofit advocating for the town’s homeless population. In one vignette, Lingan stumbles into a local wrestling match, and watches a fable of class antagonism playing out in the ring. Wrestlers called John Boy Justice, Big John Greene, and Crazii Shea go up against heels called Charles Everett Osgood, Aken Pembrooke, and Louis B. Rich. If working-class residents can’t overthrow the rich in civil society, they can watch their archetypal stand-ins do so for a $15 ticket.

There is no part of Winchester’s story that is not affected by inequality, including the music. The city, long divided along class lines, still holds a strained relationship with its most famous daughter. Patsy Cline would never have been able to set foot in its wealthier enclaves during her life, even as a national star. After her death, and her subsequent canonization in the pantheon of country music, the city still showed little interest in claiming her. Public commemoration of her life and work did not take place until the 1980s, mostly with private backing. The house she grew up in is now a monument and museum, but that memorial was hard-won.

By the time Cline became a star, working with producer Owen Bradley in Nashville, she was performing in a style entirely new for what was once called “hillbilly music.” Her pristine voice was, as Lingan puts it, “the perfect vehicle to advance the gentrification of the genre that started with honky-tonk.” The new style was sometimes referred to with the paradoxical portmanteau “countrypolitan,” a neat summary of the upwardly mobile sensibility of the early 1960’s that it represented. Fiddles gave way to orchestras, aiming for a musical sensibility that could find an audience in the suburbs of the north. Later, the nostalgia of “Americana,” and the fantasy of some preindustrial purity in the American cultural past separated Cline from her time. “Her songs of lost love now signify a lost era,” as Lingan puts it, “and so they find a new audience every year—ironically, an audience in search of ‘real’ country, or a dose of postwar American optimism and innocence.”

Lingan’s prose is empathetic and evocative, clearly written by a close listener. At one point, Cline’s voice is perfectly described as “firm as copper.” He writes of a local performance he sees as “part schmaltz and part white-knuckle conviction, held together by sheer gumption and the local hardware store.” If his New Journalist sensibility sometimes leads him to insert himself into the narrative unexpectedly, he tends to justify his presence. A trip to a local diner in search of bacon and eggs leads to a meditation on the symbolism of the All-American Breakfast. What might have been, in a smaller-minded writer’s hands, a myopic tribute to an ideal, turns into an investigation of the concrete: the diner’s African-American owner, the culinary traditions he inherited from his grandmother, the cultural exchanges that produced American cuisine, the effect of urban sprawl on the emergence of new traditions.

In Homeplace, Lingan writes about country music the way country music is written. It’s to his credit that, even as an outsider, he is able to both identify and describe country music with sympathy but without illusions. Homeplace does something that is almost never done in writing about music: it considers not just the songs and the singers, but the listeners too. People didn’t just write, sing, and play country music; they lived, loved, drank, and died to it. This book is about them.

Shuja Haider is an editor at Viewpoint and Popula. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, the New Republic, and BuzzFeed.