'Patsy Cline Was a Serious Boundary-Pusher': A Conversation With John Lingan - Pacific Standard

'Patsy Cline Was a Serious Boundary-Pusher': A Conversation With John Lingan

The writer discusses his new book about a mountaintop honky-tonk in Virginia, and the shifting socioeconomic divides of Patsy Cline's hometown.
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A sign outside the Troubador, a honky-tonk in Winchester, Virginia.

A sign outside the Troubadour, a honky-tonk in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

Deep in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, you can find a honky-tonk both timeless and antiquated, "the only twang-and-sawdust roadhouse left in the Virginias," nestled high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, accessible by a single winding road. The Troubadour Bar & Lounge serves as the centerpiece for John Lingan's Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk, a careful, thorough exploration into the makings of a Southern town, its wealth and class divisions, and the local country legends it has historically shunned.

At the heart of the book is Jim McCoy, a country music tastemaker in his eighties at the time of Lingan's story, whose radio broadcasts during the 1950s and '60s enabled him to rub shoulders with country giants and to launch the career of local talent Patsy Cline—although his own singing career never left the ground, and the "music industry he loved outgrew his style and never returned his devotion," as Lingan puts it. Through conversations with the folks of Winchester, Virginia, and detailed tours through the historic sites of Cline's life, Lingan pieces together a picture of a hard-working, gritty woman from the wrong side of the tracks who, despite her rising stardom, was never accepted into the wealthier, primmer echelons of her hometown that "chose to see itself as a New World Camelot or Rome" and "still talk[s] about [local hero] George Washington like he just ran out to grab a beer." Cline broke barriers and changed the sound of country music forever, even as she faced astounding sexism and classism, but, as Lingan reports, it was not until this past decade or two, when "finally the local money needed her enough to pay respect," that her memory has been honored in Winchester.

Through the stories of McCoy and Cline, Lingan brings into focus the towns of Winchester and nearby Berkeley Springs, West Virginia—towns in the midst of identity crises, floundering between the colonial foundations of old and a more progressive modern era. Lingan digs into the past of each town and the histories of the founding families to uncover deep-seated racism and segregation, a penchant for gay conversion therapies, an "influx of outsiders [in the 1960s and '70s that] represented a true cataclysm," and legislation that fattened corporations—alongside the oft-overlooked stories of the immigrants, migrant workers, artists, and historians who've shaped the Shenandoah for the better, pushing back against a haughtily exclusive past.

The attention to detail in Homeplace makes it clear that Lingan—who returned to the area over a span of nearly five years to write a book he had not intended to write, saying "being there felt like a gift"—was smitten with the location and the people, slipping easily into the regional vernacular and diving comfortably into their Southern fare of "bacon and egg sandwich[es that are] half butter." It's also evident that there's a good deal of symptomatic hypocrisy and exclusion he finds troublesome, and his competing sympathies battle often and articulately on the pages to create the necessary nuance that many stories of "Donald Trump's America" leave out: that the people here are complicated and multidimensional, that they are more than a single vote, more than a culmination of their imperfect collective histories.

Lingan spoke with Pacific Standard to discuss those nuances, the importance and difficulty of preserving the past, and how, for him, a small-town honky-tonk came to symbolize the American story.

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What is your connection to the setting of this book?

I had no previous connection to Winchester or Berkeley Springs other than a latent interest in Patsy Cline. Once I got to know people there and to learn the history of the region, I found it all so compelling that I came back constantly for almost five years. The whole northern Shenandoah was formed in the 1740s, and the very restrictive class system that began back then was still in effect into the 1950s or '60s, after which time outside development really threw those old ways out the window. It was a place where I could observe civic change up close, seeing a town with lots of history reconcile that with modern needs around tourism, employment, diversity, and much more. Plus, the Patsy connection ensured a terrific soundtrack to the whole thing.

How important was it to get the descriptions of the location and people just right, and did you feel like you were documenting a fleeting thing that depends on you to be remembered?

Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk.

Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk.

I certainly wanted my descriptions of people and of places to feel immediate to readers, but "just right" wasn't really the bar. The book's written from my point of view. It's not a memoir, but it's clear that every moment is being seen through my eyes, and I just wanted to convey what I found compelling about the place. For me, it's all the overlapping battles for ownership and naming rights to a relatively small patch of land. All these personalities and interests in collision. That's been true of the northern Shenandoah for hundreds of years, so I don't think of it as a "fleeting thing." Hopefully the end of the book shows that, in my view, life goes on no matter how much changes. People's continuation past big cataclysms: That's ultimately what interests me most.

Most of the book is centered around Jim McCoy, who is in his eighties. What can we learn from listening to elderly people's stories before those stories are gone?

In a word: perspective. It's always helpful to be reminded that "history" is so close to us. Patsy Cline sounds like such a different era, and we tend to see her in black and white. But there are dozens of people in Winchester alone who knew her personally. Broaden that to bigger concerns and you can see that these huge changes in Winchester happened so quickly that they could be experienced in a single lifetime. That's so fast, considering how stable things were for hundreds of years beforehand. We do undervalue elderly people in our culture, and I think that leads us to believe that things were always this way, or always will be. Talk to an 85-year-old, and you'll lose that naïveté immediately.

Part of the book revolves around the renovation of the house where Patsy Cline lived. How does seeing a person's living quarters bring us closer to that person, and what is the significance in recreating the historic past with physical spaces?

In Patsy's case, the Historic House makes sense because so much of her appeal, especially locally, is based on her backstory, all the hard work and big dreams that she was known for. I think historic houses and other reenacted settings can really help the past feel three-dimensional. You can imagine what people felt in a certain space, or think about where they might go for a moment of privacy or intimacy.

I took my kids to Colonial Williamsburg last summer and was expecting something more touristy or superficial, but it was impressive how well the historical story is told as you move throughout the place. They really cling to this idea that immersing you, with the accents and the costumes and all the rest, can bring you closer to the lived reality, and I think that's true. In a blacksmith's shop, just like in Patsy's old kitchen, you can get a sense of the past and what your physical perspective would be there. At the very least, that seems to compel folks to want to learn more.

Do you think it is damaging for towns to cling to their legacies, to worship "Wealth, Washington, [and] War," as you say Winchester does? Why do some people fear widening their identity to include all races and cultures, to the point that Winchester "decided it would rather close all of its public schools [than] accommodate [1950s] desegregation"? At what point is it better to separate the past that belonged to our ancestors from the past that belongs to us as modern individuals?

John Lingan.

John Lingan.

Pride in a collective past is a good thing. It can help sustain people in difficult times; it can bind people through shared purpose. But there has to be a continual willingness to open that history up for discussion and complication. In Winchester's case, "Wealth, Washington, War" isn't inaccurate, but it's reductive. You can tell the stories of native people living there, women living there, Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants who have arrived. I'll never understand why some people fear that kind of complication. Someone tells you, "I have another chapter we can add to the history book!" and you mock them for special pleading? It's so antithetical to how I see the world.

Patsy Cline was ridiculed for not wanting to stay home and have kids, instead putting her career first. Why was it so much harder for women to make it in the music industry, to be taken seriously, and to be expected to balance the home life and road life? Did traditional country music have an inherent sexism built into it, and have we overcome it?

Certainly country music has a paternalistic bent. I mention in one chapter that George Jones literally drank himself to the point of homelessness and institutionalization in the late 1970s, and then got his act together and made his biggest-selling records. I very much doubt any woman, especially one with a family, would be allowed such leniency and support. I mean, country is folk music. It's going to have a certain conservatism built in, but people have found ways to make progressive or at least forward-thinking statements within that context. That's true of certain artists now, just as it was 50 years ago.

Patsy Cline was a serious boundary-pusher for her time and community. That needs to be stated again and again. She was profane and hardheaded and unintimidated by men in some pretty hairy situations. She subjected herself to real drunken leering and worse nearly every night when she played these old back-road bars in the 1950s. Her career and success didn't arise out of nowhere; she absolutely grinded and suffered like crazy to make it happen. She was also a dedicated mother and wife, even though there were certainly people who claimed women couldn't do that and be seriously career-minded. It's always been hard for women to have this kind of autonomy, not only in country music and not only in the past.

You talk about the town residents' strong opinions about the "from heres" versus the "come heres"—the interlopers versus the authentic residents. Do you think this opposition is unique to the area, or is this the American story of every city that experienced white flight, segregation, and a deep divide between classes and wealth?

I recently wrote for the Washington Post about a unifying component of many different communities in the United States: inequality. I do think every town changes, and wealthy people usually dictate the terms of those changes, and so every place grows inevitably less amenable to working people. That is definitely one major aspect to the American Story, especially recently. I can only hope that my book shows what a complex process it can be, and what are the benefits and drawbacks for different people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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