Loretta Lynn. Patty Loveless. The Judds. Billy Ray Cyrus. Miley Cyrus. Aside from illustrious music careers, what do they all have in common?
They were all born, or at some time lived, in an eight-county stretch of Kentucky split down the middle by US 23. I think Loretta Lynn (shown above with Conway Twitty) was probably pretty surprised when Kentucky came to her 10 years ago or so and said they were going to designate that stretch of road the “Country Music Highway” and line it with huge kitschy truck stops, tiny museums and shops selling guitar-shaped rearview mirror air fresheners.
I’m not sure what I expected from the Country Music Highway, but it wasn’t this. Not to say that I was disappointed! Not at all, just that the highway defies easy categorization. Let’s take it from the top.
Following a sleepless night in a dirty, disturbing Charleston, WV hotel with a misleading name, I loaded up on free coffee at sunrise and rolled west towards the Kentucky border and the start of my country music odyssey: Ashland.
As I approached the Ohio River, the landscape along the side of the road began changing. Where West Virginia was all rolling hills and plush greenery generously sprinkled with velvety wildflowers, Kentucky was all thick, jaggedly cut layers of reddish-gray rock topped with straw-like flower bushes towering over short scrappy grass. The Kentucky countryside clearly did not take to road building without a fight.
When I finally crossed the border I was in sleepy high spirits, so I sped eagerly through one of the Technicolor bridges over the river and pulled right into the Starbucks across the street. With an overstuffed bag hanging from one elbow, a change-spewing broken wallet in one hand and sunglasses clutched sweatily in the other, I stumbled up to the counter and, in the interest of speed and caffeine content, ordered a double shot of espresso.
The barista smiled and shouted over his shoulder, “Sean. Doppio.” He looked down as he rung me up. “So. Youuuu are not from around here, are you.”
“No….” I smiled nervously. “Why, is it obvious?”
“Believe it or not, double espresso is not a very common order around here.”
I apologized for no reason and probably blushed, feeling like a snob from the Northeast before another barista came over and shoved the one talking to me, saying, “Shut up Steve, whatever, I love espresso, don’t listen to him.”
“No! No, I’m not making fun, it’s just- right? Sean? Not many people order a doppio from around here right?” he said, jumping back to avoid another shove. “Angela’s attacking me- but right?”
“YEAH. BUT THAT’S GOOD,” Sean shouted from the drive thru window.
“Espresso?” I asked, no longer really a part of the conversation.
“No,” said the first barista. “He means it’s good to not be from around here.”
I downed the coffee and hit the road, first passing the Paramount Arts Center on my right.
Originally built as a silent movie theater in 1931, it’s since served as a famous country music venue, and had a starring role in the video for Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart:
From here I headed further south on US 23 and passed some huge coal fields on the way. The eastern area of Kentucky is home to some of the most productive coal fields in the country. West Virginia actually mines even more coal, but I passed through West Virginian coal country at night, so I mostly missed it. Here’s the thing though: according to some statistics from 2000 or so, West Virginia has almost 19,000 coal miners to Kentucky’s 13,000 and pays out $1.2 billion in annual wages to Kentucky’s $720 million. BUT. Coal mining in West Virginia’s coal-producing counties only accounts for 6% of total employment and 10% of total earnings. Coal mining in Kentucky’s coal-producing counties, on the other hand, accounts for almost 14% of total employment and almost 19% of total earnings. These numbers don’t even take into account jobs and businesses that are highly dependent on coal mining or miners. Kentucky Coal Education argues that three jobs are created for every one coal miner job.
As time has gone by, mining has gotten more and more aggressive and environmentally destructive. Even Southern Republicans are horrified. Apparently at this point some companies are just, you know, blowing up the Appalachian mountains to scoop out what’s inside. Nobody is pleased by this.
My understanding of coal mining comes mostly from terrifying cave-in stories and, of course, Coal Miner’s Daughter. Which brings us to my major interest in this strip of black and dusty Appalachia:
Loretta Lynn is one tough lady. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go watch it now. Remember that part when she makes pie with salt instead of sugar? Hilarious!
My quest for Butcher Hollow took me first to the “entrance” to the Country Music Highway, a huge truck stop elaborately decorated on the outside and infused with historical items, like famous outfits once worn by Patty Loveless, glittery cowboy hats and colorful country-music-themed merchandise.
From here I drove down the road blasting local country radio until I hit the Country Music Highway Museum, where I skipped the expensive museum admission and instead enjoyed the gift shop (an entire wall dedicated to Hannah Montana!) and the ballroom (hand painted portraits of the area’s biggest stars hanging near the ceiling like high school basketball championship banners!).
After signing the guest book, I laid out a map and figured out my ultimate destination: Van Lear, KY. I wound around a lot of empty two-lane highways and narrow backroads and several times missed the small blue signs pointing me to “Loretta Lynn Birthplace.”
The roads in Van Lear were only JUST wide enough for one car at a time, the grades were steep, and the buildings were small.
I parked in front of the Post Office and wandered up the hill to the Van Lear Historical Society, where there were supposed to be tours of Butcher Hollow.
The Historical Society appeared to be closed, potentially abandoned, but when I peeked into the window I saw a sign saying tours could be arranged through Icky’s.
I wondered what Icky’s could be, so I circled the building looking for any clues. In the southeastern corner of the building I found Icky’s:
But it was also closed. Discouraged, I wandered the dirt paths throughout town and didn’t see a single person – or a single clue that Loretta Lynn had ever been there – the entire afternoon. I suspect I got lost.
But really, what could I have expected. Butcher Hollow isn’t Dollywood, and it never will be. Wandering Van Lear was actually a perfect conclusion to the Country Music Highway experience. The area wants to provide an authentic journey to the past, but it can’t quite deliver. Aware of this, it instead, or simultaneously, tries to entertain travelers with ridiculousness, but its kitsch factor never quite hits the necessary sillyness levels. So the whole drive you’re caught somewhere between Graceland and Colonial Williamsburg. Or between Area 51 and Las Vegas. Something. I’m just mad I didn’t get a chance to see any performances.
Even though I didn’t get to meet Loretta or see the dance hall where she met her husband, I still think the trip was worthwhile. I got a button with her picture on it and a new appreciation for the remoteness of Butcher Hollow, so really my major Country Music Highway goals were all met.