John Lingan on Patsy Cline, Her Hometown, and the Groundbreaking Generation of Country Music Entrepreneurs
When John Lingan was sent to Winchester, Virginia, to write an article about Patsy Cline’s hometown, a quick visit turned into multiple return trips. The resulting book, Homeplace, is an exhaustively researched and compassionate account of Winchester and the nearby resort town, Berkeley Spring, West Virginia. The reader’s tour guide through the area is Jim McCoy, a former radio DJ famous for discovering Patsy Cline when she was a teenager, who later owned and operated a local honkytonk, The Troubador, that serves as a place for the community to drink, listen to music, and have a good time. Critics have enthusiastically lauded Lingan’s deep dive into the area’s music, history, and culture. The New York Times Book Review stated, “You end Homeplace thinking that every American town could use a book like this one written about it; every town could afford to be this lovingly but critically seen.” Lingan spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on July 12th. Photo courtesy of Pat Jarrett.
Our guide throughout Homeplace is Jim McCoy. What drew you to his story?
I came out to Winchester in 2013 for Patsy stuff. The material that’s in the second chapter was actually the first trip I took out there. It was surprising—I suspected that it would be a quick local color article to write: “Hey, look at this small town! They’ve got some Patsy stuff going on.” When I got out there, I discovered that her legacy is contested, or at least somewhat controversial, historically. I was just so surprised by that that I thought I would come back and learn a little bit more about her whole life and legacy there. When I started doing that, anyone who knew anything about him said, “If you’re interested in Patsy, you have to go see Jim McCoy.” So the first trip I took to see him specifically was the scene that opens the book up in chapter one, where I arrive in the summer, meet him at the gate, and get the whole tour of the place. At that point I didn’t have plans really to do anything more than just push on this one storyline a little bit farther.
I just thought this place was extraordinary. It made me want to spend more time there and learn more about him. Once I had done enough of these articles that I felt there was a way to collect them into one book, his seemed to be the story that really underlined some of the bigger, broader points I was trying to make about Winchester. It seemed his life story was a great frame through which to take people through these last fifty odd years of history, change, and turmoil that have taken place in the upper Shenandoah.
And what were those broader, bigger points you wanted to make?
To my mind, I think this is a music book. I think of this as a book about country music and a non-famous country musician as well. Bigger than that, I’d say Winchester has changed so much in the last fifty years. It has become “small d” democratic, in the sense that more people have more control. It’s not just an old boys club in the sense that it used to be, where it was just ruled by these well-to-do families. Instead, lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds are participating in the democratic process and in the society of the town in general. I think there lives experiences kind of an interesting microcosm for the whole country, because I think in general lots of strides have been made in terms of whose voice gets to count in our society, whose relationships and whose lives are recognized as worthy. At the same time, they’re still struggling with a lot of stuff that the rest of the country is too, which is to say the fragmentation of communal bonds and the slow erosion of a local or regional character. It’s a more open society and a more open culture now. People come from all over the country and from other countries to live there, but it’s still the kind of place that’s trying to help everybody live together and be successful. I think that’s a sort of universal experience a lot of places have had.
What was Patsy Cline’s relationship with Winchester while she was alive?
When Patsy was born it was 1932, the height of the first part of the Great Depression. She was essentially poor white trash. That’s not my term—I wouldn’t use that term on somebody—but that’s how a lot of people identified. It’s also how she and people like her were perceived by the local leaders.
Winchester has some of the oldest money outside of New England living in it. It was founded in the mid 18th century, so to say that it’s set in its ways is a bit of an understatement. Even up through the time when Patsy was singing in the 1950s, Winchester was very much a place where the rich folks lived in one spot and controlled everything, and the poorer folks lived in another spot and worked for the richer folks. And that was it. There wasn’t another option for people other than to either be born with a lot of money or to work in the orchards or one of the other local businesses. Patsy achieved an incredible amount during her life and was not given the time of day or any respect from the ruling class of the city.
Since her death, as the people who associate more with her background have been granted more of a seat at the table and joined the ranks of leaders and the middle class in Winchester, her example has been held up. Now she’s more represented in that ruling class mentality.
Where now her childhood home is a museum.
Exactly. The mayor of Winchester has been effusive in her praise of and identification with Patsy. The Celebrating Patsy Cline Group began as an initiative of the Winchester-Frederick Chamber of Commerce. People who were children and looked up to Patsy as the most famous representative of their local hierarchy are now in positions of power, influence, and comfort in Winchester in a way that I don’t think they would have been fifty or sixty years ago. They carry her ideas and notions of bucking the tide. It has changed how the town looks at itself, for sure.
So what role does Jim’s honkytonk, The Troubador, play in Winchester?
One thing that I think is important to note is that he didn’t move up there with the expectation that he would open a bar. Jim had a number of careers in and around Winchester for decades. Since the forties, he worked as a band leader, a DJ, and a songwriter. He had a number of retail stores around Winchester. He was a known entity around the city. When he returned to Highland Ridge, he did so more or less to retire. He said he was tired—he’d been working on this stuff for forty years, and at that point was into his fifties and just looking to change it up a little bit. It’s important to realize that the bar only started because the many people from the Winchester area who knew Jim and Bertha and the parties they would throw and the hospitality they would show to people—those folks kind of demanded that they continue hosting music up there. That became the reason Jim and Bertha kept doing it.
Once the place really got established, for Winchester people it was a place to occasionally check in and reconnect with what Jim stood for, which is to say that earlier time, that connection to Patsy, that groundbreaking, path-breaking generation of country music entrepreneurs. He came from a time, the late forties and early fifties, where country music was in great transition itself just as a genre. He started his career after the post war country music boom. Throughout his whole life, he carried this great showbiz flair and excitement for the whole thing. Regardless of how low the budget was, he could always turn a real party on.
That kind of old fashioned and very personalized hospitality approach to parties is something that’s hard to find these days. As more time went on, The Troubadour came to symbolize that for people in Winchester. It was a sign of the past a little bit, sort of a “way things used to be and should be” kind of place. But it was also just a really good time. It’s not the kind of thing that new money or capital investment necessarily brings, but a good time that could only come from a place where the owner grew up and built it from his own vision, strength, and sense of community.
From Winchester you also go to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Why is that town the perfect counterpoint to Winchester?
They’re definitely in the same orbit. People who are in Winchester know about Berkeley Springs as a getaway, and people who are in Berkeley Springs know Winchester as the city. Berkeley Springs is where The Troubador is—you have to go there to get to The Troubador, which is up in the mountains, sort of looming over Berkeley Springs. Spending time at the bar meant that I was spending time in the town. The town itself seemed to have gone through a smaller scale transition that Winchester had.
There is now a lot of outside influence in a way that there hasn’t been for many years. There’s a lot of outside investment, plus more private businesses and tourism happening now. Comparing those two towns showed me that the processes and the changes that I was curious about were universal, or at least common. Both of them had gone through this process of reckoning with a long history that included famous and non-famous characters, wars, and a proximity to Washington, D.C. Both of them were trying to find a way to capitalize on that history and own that history in a way that felt authentic and real. In the meantime, they’re doing that at a time when the populations are really in flux. Lots of people are coming from out of town, and these are not communities where that happened thirty or forty years earlier.
You talk about some of the people who are integral to these communities, including Oscar Cerrito-Mendoza, a social worker; Jeanne Mozier, a community leader; and Joe Bageant, a popular author and essayist. Apart from the fact they’re all from the area, what ties these three people together?
One thing that I noticed is that a number of people, including all three of these folks, left and made a very conscious decision to return. Oscar was obviously brought to Winchester as a child, but then decided he wanted to leave and go to college. He spent some time in New York City and after a little time there realized he wanted to be a social worker. If he was going to be a social worker, he wanted to do it in the town that he had been helped by, so he returned. Joe ran screaming from the place, only to return in later years to have his own political and personal reckoning that was obviously a lot different and more complicated than Oscar’s. Jeanne had traveled and seen a lot of things professionally when she decided to come here.
So they all made a very conscious decision to put all their chips in this one place, to really get back there and insert themselves in the community. I think that is true in a number of people here. People trying very hard to square their lives with the reality of Winchester. For many of them that involved this line in the sand: “I’m coming home and I’m fighting for others,” or “I’m coming home, but it’s really difficult.”
For all of them too, I would say family is very important. They all also have this connection to music and community that colors their relationship to Winchester. Oscar has this very tight relationship with his Mexican family. He refers constantly to the traditions, the food, and the celebrations they have and what it means to his life. Jeanne obviously has a great connection to her husband and to building a community within Berkeley Springs. Joe felt an incredible connection to the life he had on Highland Ridge as a child, which was pretty much subsistence farming. I think the loss of that really colored his entire life. I noticed all the time these little similarities from one story to another. It really helped me understand what this place means to people and what folks are fighting for.
You got to be a judge in the Berkelely Springs Water Festival, which is the self-described Oscars of water competitions. What was that experience like?
It was super fun; I was happy to be there. As I hope it’s clear, I have an incredible amount of respect for the level of effort and the good faith with which Jeanne and her colleagues have gone about the resurgence of Berkeley Springs. The water tasting event was splendid. It was very fun. My fellow judges were all interesting people. We were treated very well there. It seemed to be a good, well run, and helpful community event. So I give them credit and respect for that. At the end of the day, I’m sitting in a suit drinking water on a dais.
It was very funny. But a lot of little small town events are silly, that’s what makes them useful, that they’re just kind of fun. It was not a pretentious event. They weren’t putting on airs and pretending that Berkeley Springs was more elegant than it is. It was just funny. I would probably feel the same if I was judging a small town pie-eating contest or beauty pageant. Those kind of funny community things are really reveal a lot about how a town thinks of itself, and that was definitely trues of the water tasting. It was great, it was a little bit kitschy, and funny in ways that I hope I conveyed in that chapter. There are more laughs per page in that chapter than anywhere else in the book. I hope my complicated attitude comes through.
Have you gotten any feedback about the book from people in Winchester?
I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback from that region specifically, I’m going to be doing a reading there on July 21st, right in the downtown walking mall. I hope folks come to that and I can get a little face time with people. It’s a funny thing, people really want to talk about their local history. They really want to talk about their beliefs and experiences, but they can also be a little guarded about those experiences. They have a belief in what happened and the meaning of it, and I may have a different one. Again, I don’t think this book is polemical. I did not intend for anyone to come off as the villain or the hero of how this thing is.
For me, I wanted to show a town that is in a transition that I think a lot of towns are in. I wanted to show it from the ground floor over years, so that people can hopefully understand the competing interests and visions that are always at play when these types of decisions and changes are taking place.
One thing that certainly guided my reporting and writing is that I always wanted people to have the chance to explain themselves on their own terms. That was an important part of how I came to understand my role in Winchester, Berkeley Springs, and The Troubador. It’s my book, my name is on the cover, and I will get a chance to editorialize as much as I want and say my piece about this thing. In the meantime, I think it’s only fair considering how hospitable and open a lot of these people were, regardless of how I feel about somebody in this book, every person should get the chance to speak the way they want to speak, and everyone is quoted accurately. So they might disagree with the interpretation that I had or certain asides that I might make or broad understanding of how Winchester has changed and according to whose ideas and dreams, but at the end of the day I stand not just by the quality of the reporting, but just in the stage I gave to people. Everybody is there telling me how they feel and I hope that’s represented accurately for everybody throughout the book.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tags: John Lingan