Winchester’s Mark On Americana and Its Changing Face

Book review: Homeplace, by John Lingan

Winchester’s residents have always been engaged in the process of defining this place and its character, and those definitions are often forged in living rooms more than state houses or courtrooms. That’s where people learn their values and hear their legends. Homes – the places to gather with your people – were the true currency of a region in perpetual search of itself.

Author John Lingan spent some time kicking around a fading honky-tonk bar in Winchester, Virginia, in the state’s northern Shenandoah Valley region. From this perspective, he takes a look at how American small towns are changing, what it means to their lifelong residents, and the importance of Patsy Cline. Homeplace is a gently paced look at the transformations an American region has been quietly undergoing, and how it’s continuing to change as time marches on.

My big worry was that the author’s opinion might slide too far into the sentimental, but he actually remains even-handed in his look at the past and the future. This was impressive, as it’s easy territory for dangerous nostalgia.

Lingan’s strong suit is his wonderfully descriptive writing. It’s cliche to say that writing makes you feel like you’re there, but his transports you. I loved a side foray he takes into a local diner, becoming smitten with the cook’s breakfast-making skills and describing the food to both amusing and mouthwatering effect:

The glory of an all-American breakfast is its balance of extremes: salty and sweet, formulaic and customizable, as plain as Shaker furniture but as indulgent as a birthday cake.

His breakfast love affair builds into a side story about an African-American diner chef with a wealth of talent for traditional, hearty, greasy-spoon-style-cooking, who’s eventually pushed out of his business by rising rents. I would’ve loved to see more focus on this story, but what’s presented is telling as is.

The central figure of the book is Jim McCoy, proprietor of the Troubadour, that mountaintop honky-tonk at the heart of Lingan’s rural portrait. Jim and his wife Bertha are in their 80s, and in his youth as a music manager, Jim was the first to hear the vocal talent of young Winchester local Patsy Cline. He got her started in the industry, and she would be his most famous connection to the country music world for the rest of his life.

Obviously, Jim outlived Patsy by far, and another story told here is of Patsy’s complicated relationship to her hometown. Described as “the patron saint of people who feel kicked to the curb”, she wasn’t much loved there during her lifetime, but in death achieved legend status, as is wont to happen, and now Winchester enjoys some lucrative tourism opportunities thanks to her legacy.

Down on earth, at the foot of these mountains, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley was open to visitors, charging admission to show locals and tourists just how central Patsy Cline really was to the development and history of the region. Finally the town had caught up with her, finally the local money needed her enough to pay respect. But that money wasn’t anywhere near the Troubadour, and it hadn’t touched Jim McCoy. He was up in the hills as he’d been for the last three decades, putting on a shoestring party and soliciting donations for his and Bertha’s medical bills. Jim hadn’t been granted the chance to be a mere icon; he had to go on with the messy work of living.

Lingan bounces from examining McCoy’s life and role in music industry and region, to painting a detailed portrait of Winchester and some of its citizens currently. In another scene evocative of the region, he observes a local boy and his family watching a wrestling match, and it’s evocative of the generations of Americana his storytelling ties together:

Corey had learned some time-honored lessons in that sweltering gymnasium, ones that previous generations of small-town boys had learned from George Jones records – about the persistence of heartbreak, the challenges of family, the endless threat of men with money and power. In his small town’s only Saturday entertainment, where prayers were offered for soldiers before the crudest urges were satisfied by showmen, Corey had witnessed a twenty-first-century version of a long-running American notion of communal escape: the revival tent, the traveling circus, the barn dance, movie house, or honky-tonk.

The biggest story told here, overtly and underlying, is of the economic damage occurring at the middle class and below in this kind of American small town, damage that creates a longing for another time while those falling further behind economically become more desperate to pay bills and keep their heads above water. The McCoys have to fundraise at their summer barbecue to cover their medical bills.

Jim passes away during the course of Lingan’s reportage, and a reading of James 4:14 at his funeral seems extraordinarily appropriate for the story of the town itself, and its sad and tenuous hold on past and future: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” 

His heroism, and the heroism of all classic country songs, was his persistence. Life can be painful, but it must be embraced. Love can kill us, but there’s nothing better. There are so many forces pushing us into the future whether we like it or not, burying orchards and homesteads under highways and megastores. But the homesteads were still there, they were worth fighting for and singing about. 

There’s something unexpectedly charming about this book. Part of it is thanks to Lingan’s detailed storytelling and the sensitivity with which he handles his subjects. Not to mention his ability to change tack seamlessly and wrap it all together in a work that doesn’t feel disjointed or irrelevant. The drawback for me were sections detailing elements of country music, its history in connection to McCoy and the region, and about the music in general that I couldn’t engage with. I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case for readers more interested in the topic.

A slice of Americana with a view on how that concept’s fundamentally changing, it’s worth reading for the lyrical writing and nuanced portrait of a place, but also isn’t quite there as a deeper sociological or economical study. 3/5

Despoliation, the plunder of once-pure things, is the most American song of all. No city is ever as good as it once was, and every old man can regale you with tales of days gone by.

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

by John Lingan
published July 17, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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