Loretta Lynn and Me
creative nonfiction by Betty Miller Conway
The music store was on Main Street but father up the street than the Crest Store and Smithy’s Department Store where my mother usually shopped. It had a bell on the door that jingled when we opened it. The store smelled of oil and lemon wax, and the wood floors creaked as I walked in, holding my mother’s hand, looking eagerly at the bins of records located in the very back.
I remember it clearly although I was only seven or eight years old at the time. I had just received my very first record player. It was a very basic edition—red and white with a cover that hinged and snapped shut. It had very simple controls that were big so that a child’s clumsy hands could operate without much trouble. You just put the record on there, set the rpm button to either 45 or 77, and then gently set the needle down on the record. The sound was slightly scratchy, but that didn’t matter to me. The record player was my gift from Santa, and I was so very proud to have it.
The only problem was that I didn’t have any records to play. My mother had a couple of old Pat Boone records left over from her dating days, ones scratched up and not of much interest to me. It was soon decided that on the next Saturday—when my mother and my Aunt Josephine went to town—they would take me to the record store and let me pick out my very own record.
I was so excited as I stood, staring at the little black discs in paper envelopes. I had no idea what to choose. My mother wasn’t much help either. Since we didn’t have anything but a small black and white television with fuzzy poor reception, I had no idea what shows children usually watched—or the accompanying soundtracks children listened to. At that point, I had never seen a Disney movie—on the television or in the theatre—and didn’t know about A Hundred and One Dalmatians, Jungle Book, or even Mary Poppins. I was at a loss as to what disc to pick. Finally, my Aunt Josephine suggested Loretta Lynn. “I like Loretta Lynn,” she said, and my mother, eager to get along home and put away her groceries, hastily agreed. The saleslady smiled down at me as she handed my purchase and asked, “Do you like Loretta Lynn?” I nodded shyly as I left the store, clutching the brown paper bag that contained my very first record tightly in my hand.
I had no idea who Loretta Lynn was. None. I didn’t come from a family of mountain singers and musicians. I don’t remember any one of my fourteen aunts and uncles ever playing the fiddle, guitar, banjo, or any other kind of musical instrument. They didn’t sing either, except sometimes in the church choir on Sunday mornings; consequently, most of the songs that I sang growing up were the Southern Baptist hymns I learned faithfully at Meat Camp Baptist Church. My mother sometimes hummed along to Johnny Cash when she thought no one was listening to her, but my daddy—who would have been just about Loretta Lynn’s age—preferred NASCAR to any kind of music on the radio. Even though I—and generations of family before me—grew up in the southern Appalachian Mountains, my own childhood landscape was quite different from the coal-scarred hills that cradled Loretta Lynn’s gritty ballads.
I got home and immediately put the record on and set the needle gently down on the whirling disc. The sounds of “One’s on the Way” wailed out. Since I was young and didn’t really understand the nuances of the song—had no idea that it was a baby that was on the way—I quickly turned the record to its other side and heard the twangy upbeat of “Kinfolks Holler.” I played it over and over again, singing the words louder and louder each time I played it. “Way down here in Kinfolks Holler everybody is a kissin' cousin / Yeah the blood runs thicker than water in Kinfolks Holler.”
Now that was something I thought could understand. I too lived in a holler surrounded by family. My forefather had come to the area back in 1785, and many of his descendants, including my own family, still lived in the county. Our branch of the family tree settled in the Meat Camp area of Watauga County. It was not Butcher Holler, where Loretta Lynn grew up, but the name resemblance was eerie. We all lived in a little row up and down Chestnut Grove Road, a dusty graveled lane that was not lined by chestnut trees and instead by cherry trees. A noisy creek kept the road company all the way up the holler. My Aunt Margaret still lived in the house that my great grandfather John Smith Miller, finished in 1899. Her brothers, including my dad and my Uncle Lloyd, lived on either side in little houses amid grassy fields and pasture. Various other relatives and more distant cousins loved farther up the road. Just about everyone on that road was related in some way or another.
I loved my cousins; I loved the fact that everybody knew my name. My cousin Joan came down and got on the bus with me on my first day of school. My cousin Charles taught me to fish shiny brook trout from the creek that ran through our farm. My cousin Jeff and I played hours and hours of badmiton in the yard. And my cousin Pat, who lived further up Chestnut Grove, became a cherished childhood friend. We would ride our bikes up and down the road in the summer and build snow tunnels in the winter when it snowed. I spent hours playing in the creek on warm sunny days with my cousins and chasing lightening bugs in long summer twilights. So when Loretta Lynn sang about us being “all for one and one for all,” I thought I knew exactly what she was singing about.
Of course, the real Appalachia was far more complicated than any record player wailing out country songs. In 1964 Lyndon B Johnson had waged his “War on Poverty,” and the spotlight had come to focus unwaveringly on Appalachia and the “pockets of poverty” that appeared to define it. The news media painted a grim and gritty portrait of an area that, as one outlet reported, “time forgot.” Children stared into the camera as they huddled on ramshackle porches on houses that perched precariously on steep hillsides. Old people bemoaned the lack of jobs and ways to make a living and paradoxically waxed sentimental for the old ways. In fact, the entire media portrayal seemed schizophrenic: on one hand mountain culture was sometimes glorified and romanticized; on the other it was often reduced to a simple equation of poverty.
My dad never cared for Lyndon Johnson, and he especially hated the stereotypes that the “war on poverty” intensified. He fretted over the images of coal miners and poverty that appeared on our television daily. Even though he had not been afforded the opportunity to finish seventh grade himself, he fiercely denied any connection between us and the coal miner poverty that Loretta Lynn sang of or the black and white images that permeated our fuzzy television screen as we sat in our “front room” watching Walter Cronkite.
Admittedly this memory seems sentimental and perhaps naïve: my family had its own struggles that no one wanted to talk about and other people in our area—particularly those settled in the steeper, less hospitable areas of the mountains—dealt with abject poverty.
After all, my father had worked hard to create a manageable life for him and his family. Our little row of wooden family houses up and down Chestnut Grove Road might have been plain, but they were respectable. Folks there worked hard during the week, cleaned up on Saturday evening and went to church on Sunday morning. They visited family on Sunday afternoons, and sometimes the men would sit in their cars and listen to the car race if it were on the radio while the women sat and talked on the front porch. Tired of our uncomfortable Sunday shoes, my cousins and I ran barefoot through the yards wearing each other’s clean “hand me downs” while playing tag and Duck, Duck Goose. Admittedly this memory seems sentimental and perhaps naïve: my family had its own struggles that no one wanted to talk about and other people in our area—particularly those settled in the steeper, less hospitable areas of the mountains—dealt with abject poverty. Nevertheless, although some people might have viewed us as living in a pocket of poverty, I didn’t see it that way. In my mind, I simply lived in my own version of Kinfolks Holler.
Like so many notions of childhood, Kinfolks Holler and Loretta Lynn got complicated with age. My own perspective of who I was and where I came from began to change as I got older and read more and more books. My teachers were surprised and delighted to learn that I had a natural aptitude for reading. I loved to read and spent hours every day with my nose in a book. I soon read everything the Green Valley Elementary school library had to offer. By sixth grade, I decided I wanted to become a teacher or a writer, and I was already dreaming of a life beyond the horizons of our little farming community in the mountains. My Loretta Lynn record became more and more scratchy as the months wore on, but the books that I read never grew old or tired, and they opened a whole new world for me—one that stretched far beyond the borders of Chestnut Grove Road and my own naïve pictorial of Kinfolks Holler.
By the time I got to high school, my Loretta Lynn record was completely worn out, and my classmates were listening to 8-track tapes. The high school was huge, and it bussed in students from every corner of the county. For the first time, I realized that I was from “out in the county.” The town kids viewed those of us from the “county” elementary schools as rednecks. Suddenly it mattered that we wore white polished Nikes and Izod t-shirts. It mattered that we had to ride the bus to school. For the first time, I felt embarrassed at my country upbringing. I didn’t want to be from the country. I wanted to become like the heroines of all the books that I had read. I wanted to travel and to visit exotic places. I thought there was no room for adventure in the confines of Kinfolks Holler.
I find it interesting and that my cousins and neighbors didn’t—at least as far as I knew—seem to feel that way. They seemed happy enough to blast country music, which now included Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and others in addition to Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, while using their pick-up trucks as hot rods through the small farming communities. The girls sat close to their boyfriends in the cab of their pickups as they rode the county roads in the moonlight, looking for the right pull-off to stop and linger for a while.
Certainly, my parents didn’t mind being from a place like Kinfolks Holler. Although my dad deplored the stereotypes and media portrayal of the mountains in the 1960’s, he still knew who he was. He was at ease with mountain life. After he finished his day job, first as a factory worker, later as a postal worker, he took care of his barn and farm chores and sometimes went hunting at night. He didn’t care for the radio, but he did occasionally watch a bit of television on our black and white television after it got too dark for him to be outside. He and my mother both liked Hee Haw—a show that regularly featured county singers—sometimes even Loretta Lynn—on Saturday night. I remember them giggling over some of the silly “cornfield “jokes that were featured on the show. My mother loved the Hee Haw gospel quartet. My parents had the comfort of knowing exactly what they liked and who they were.
I didn’t seem to fit into anywhere. My reading ability and love of learning had cast me into high school classes with the children of the university professors and teachers. These students were serious about school and planned to go to college. Their parents didn’t listen to country music or watch Hee Haw; instead, The Lawrence Welk Show populated their color television screens when I visited their houses on Saturday evenings. I had never seen The Lawrence Welk Show before and personally thought that the music and the dancing were kind of silly and affected. The big hair and elaborate dresses seemed to me to be over the top. And I never did think that all that gracious language and mannerisms seemed genuine or real. Of course, I never said so; instead, I watched and made polite small talk with the parents until it was okay to leave. Glad to be freed of parental constraints, my friends and I would blast Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin on the radio as soon as we got out of hearing range.
I finished high school and made my way through college with the help of scholarships and a part-time job. I tried to distance myself from the smallness of the place that I had grown up in. I travelled far away from Meat Camp, Watauga County, and all the kinfolks that lived and worked in these places. I got married, then divorced. Life seemed to be happening awfully fast, suddenly. I began to worry about my children growing up among strangers. Pretty soon I began to yearn for the very nooks and crannies of the mountains that I had so desperately wanted to leave behind. Eventually I found my way back home with my daughters and enrolled them at my old elementary school.
Times had changed. I had changed. Fences, developments, and No Trespassing signs crisscrossed many of the places I had played as a kid. My grandparents had died. Many of my cousins had moved away; others were so busy making a living that I rarely saw them. The local elementary school boasted a roster of teacher and student names that were unfamiliar. As I took my children to school in the mornings my little green station wagon would twist and turn as it headed down the mountain toward school. I passed brick ranchers, old frame houses, and an increasing number of trailers. It obviously wasn’t coal miner territory, but it was not a landscape that I was familiar with anymore either. And when I turned my car radio to the local country station, there wasn’t a single Loretta Lynn song to be heard.
Nevertheless, I stayed. How could I not? My parents beamed when they saw my Subaru—with its precious cargo of their granddaughters—pull into their driveway. My mother kept my girls so that I could go to work each day and then provided dinners of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and homegrown vegetables when I returned in the evenings to pick them up. My father taught my daughters how to ride horseback, milk a goat, and shoot a shotgun. They played for hours in the creek that splashed and gurgled through the farm where I grew up. In the evenings we would sit on the porch and watch the fireflies light up the sky. I was happy. I wanted my girls to know the mountains, to know where they came from. The blue shadowy peaks pulled me into them, reminding me of who I was. felt safe and more than happy to try be a mountain woman again.
The problem was that I wasn’t sure who that mountain woman was. Although Loretta Lynn and her early ballads about growing up in Kinsfolks Holler didn’t exactly apply anymore, I wasn’t sure what did. I found a farm a few miles away from the area I grew up and started putting down my own roots. I often found it hard to navigate between my professional life at the university where I worked in town and the farm and family I loved so much in the country. Most everyone in my department was from somewhere else—and very trendy about it. They worried about the millennial student, globalization, and feminist pedagogy. Even though there was an entire center for Appalachian Studies that attempted to define (among other things) what it means to be from Appalachia, for a while, I was the only “local” teaching in my department. Folks seemed surprised to hear that I came from a traditional mountain family since I had an advanced college degree and apparently lived an ordinary, middle-class life. To their surprise, I didn’t play the dulcimer, banjo, or fiddle. I certainly didn’t know how to dance a jig. And although my kids still enjoyed nature while spending time with their grandparents, they attended public school and participated in dance, piano, and other after-school activities. Their experience in Kinfolks Holler was very different from the one I had growing up.
I figured out quickly that although Loretta Lynn’s songs weren’t on the radio anymore, the stereotypes associated with mountain woman of her generation persisted, even in the millennial age. I kept stumbling over them in the oddest places and at the most unexpected times: Like when a coworker found out I was from Meat Camp and immediately assumed that I didn’t have running water growing up. When the nice lady from the Presbyterian Church wondered if I had ever eaten squirrel and possum when I was young. Or when a well-meaning former teacher ran into me at a university banquet and immediately assumed that I was there as a waitress, not as a member of the faculty. (When corrected, she simply smiled and said that she would always remember me as that sweet “mountain girl” from elementary school.) And then there were the friendly young students I taught who questioned me about mountain moonshine, outhouses, and killing hogs—assuming that because I grew up here, I was somehow an expert on old mountain culture. I always squirmed in these situations. On one hand I was proud of my mountain heritage and wanted to embrace it; on the other, I was uncomfortable with the attempts to reduce my mountain experience into one simple equation.
It was a strange and sometimes lonely terrain to traverse. With time, I settled in, and slowly the landscape started to feel familiar again. I learned to appreciate the intersection of time and place that had allowed me to come back home in the first place. And slowly my daughters and I carved out our own niche in the mountain community. It was not the version of Kinfolks Holler that I experienced growing up, but it was real and uniquely ours. I think that Loretta Lynn would have understood.
The years continued their procession. I kind of forgot about Loretta Lynn as I juggled the responsibilities of a farm, a full-time job, and caring for aging parents. My daughters grew up and moved away. The only real exposure they had to Loretta Lynn was in a country music class the middle daughter took took—just for fun—her senior year in college.
Just recently, we all happened to watch a documentary on Loretta Lynn that aired on PBS. It was called Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl. My father wouldn’t have cared for the show. He would have railed against the portrayal of mountain poverty and backwardness. I was happy to see the show and to again think about Loretta Lynn. I learned some things too—like the fact that even though I had often viewed her as traditional and outdated, Loretta Lynn was ahead of her time in both the subject matter of her songs and her frank discussion of women’s issues like birth control and child rearing. Although I didn’t understand it as a child as I sang glibly along to “Kinfolks Holler,” the other side of my record, “One’s on the Way” was a groundbreaking song! And when my mother and my Aunt Josephine took me into that old record store and bought me that Loretta Lynn record, they were helping me in years to come to define what I was—and what I wasn’t. Although I would never be a coal miner’s daughter like Loretta Lynn, I could still be a “mountain girl.”
Chestnut Grove Road no longer has any resemblance to the Kinfolks Holler I once knew. My dad and mom have passed on. Many of the kinfolks are gone too—their farms divided and sold off in lots to folks eager to leave the cities and suburbs and experience some version of country life. Their plain but respectable homes have been remodeled into homes suitable for young professional couples just starting jobs in nearby Boone. These young people have probably never heard of The Lawrence Welk Show, or Hee Haw. Their exposure to coal mining is limited to news about fracking and ash spills in West Virginia. Their perceptions of the area are colored by media coverage of the opioid crisis as once again the Appalachian area is making headlines with negative portrayals. Books such as Hillbilly Elegy and Ramp Hollow reframe Appalachia in both political and economic terms. This new spotlight on Appalachia is, in some ways, reminiscent of the 1960’s when the media tried to boil the area down into one pure, unequivocal truth. The reality is that Appalachia has always been, and probably always will be, a diverse and unique landscape that defies any single attempt to define it.
Occasionally I have reason to drive up Chestnut Grove Road. It is paved now, and sometimes the sounds of the cars driving by muffle the sound of the creek that I played in as a child. If I stop and turn off the car engine, I imagine that I can still hear Loretta Lynn’s country songs wailing across the mountains—along with the wind—and I remember the days of Kinfolks Holler.
Betty Miller Conway received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Appalachian State University in 1985 and her MA from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1992. Conway then returned to the mountains where she taught literature and writing classes at Appalachian State University for twenty-three years. In addition to teaching, Conway served as Business Manager for ASU’s Visiting Writers Series and as Managing Editor of Cold Mountain Review—a literary journal housed in the English department of ASU. She has been published in Appalachian Journal, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and Still: The Journal, among others. Now retired, she and her family live on their family farm in Todd, North Carolina.