The Blue Ridge Country King

No one would have thought that Highland Ridge, Virginia was the center of anything. Then Jim McCoy’s honky-tonk came along.

John Lingan | Homeplace: A Southern Town, A Country Legend, and The Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk| Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | July 2018 | 21 minutes (5,796 words)

Sure, there’s a quick way to the Troubadour Bar & Lounge: starting from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, population 624, you simply turn onto Route 38/3, Johnson’s Mill Road, and head up into the Blue Ridge. Swing along pendulous mountain curves that ease past wide grass fields, up through dense tunnels of pin oak and pine. Take it slow at the one-lane wooden bridge and again at the hairpin turn by the vaunting power-line interchange. Past the cemetery, with its green-tinted graves so old that the names and dates are just half-disappeared scars. Then on through the final hypnotic stretch of forest, still on a roller-coaster incline that demands another inch down on the gas just as you might be compelled to slow up and address your lord.

Again, that’s the quick way, only 20 or so minutes of alert mountain driving. But if you aren’t coming from Berkeley Springs — if you’re coming from Capon Bridge, Gerrardstown, Hedgesville, Paw Paw, or any of the dozens of other panhandle towns too small for maps — then it’s even longer. Then it’s all woods, up and down hills with no visible end, past spray-painted houses made of plywood and exposed Tyvek. Look out for smeared snakes and exploded deer, and prepare for shaky trips across metal bridges high above the Potomac’s minor branches. Down below, to the boys swimming in T-shirts and waterproof shoes, your car’s faraway rumble might as well be distant thunder.

No matter if you take the back roads or the back-of-back roads, eventually the tree line splits and the road delivers you to Highland Ridge, a stretch of sloping, sunny prairie in Morgan County. When I first arrived, it was relatively populous, after more than a decade of steady development to make room for Baltimore and D.C. retirees. To the east, the state long ago shaved a wide and hideous strip down the mountainside to make way for the electrical towers. But to the west, the Blue Ridge peaks still rolled on for ages, unblemished. Above them stretched miles of epic Shenandoah Valley meteorological scenery, whole weather systems forming and dying above the mountains’ dark folds. In his mid-80s, when his family would rest easier if he had a hospital or even a doctor nearby, Jim McCoy still lived on Highland Ridge. This was by choice, by ornery insistence. He still watched the sky like a farmer: constantly, with a mixture of awe and submission. He still grew tomatoes like prior generations of upland West Virginians who lived too remotely for grocery stores. Jim ran the Troubadour and managed its grounds, but this wasn’t only his place of business. Back before those power lines were even a dream in some developer’s mind, Jim McCoy was born here, and his intention was to end his life where it started. This, as he called it, was his homeplace.

When I pulled into the parking lot and turned off my car, the daytime quiet was overwhelming. It was a Friday in early June, the opening weekend of the outdoor season. A cracking noise echoed softly in the distance — maybe a gunshot, maybe a splitting log. I could hear every minor breath of wind, every gravel pebble crunching under my feet. I heard soft voices as I pushed open the white picket gate, and saw Jim sitting at one of the white plastic picnic tables out back, smoking a Marlboro Red. His much younger brother and niece were sitting on either side of him, elbows on their knees. They were clearly frustrated by a sudden visitor. Jim was approaching 84 at the time, and looked a few hard years beyond that. His attenuated, faintly tattooed forearms stretched out from his faded collared work shirt. He flicked his cigarette and the ashes fell past his blue pants and gray Velcroed shoes, lost in the thick grass. He raised his head and I caught my first up-close glimpse of his strained face underneath a dark trucker’s hat. From his eyes alone I could tell that his body had betrayed him. He longed to move and couldn’t, at least not easily, not painlessly. So instead he smiled, and instantly came to life.

“They want me to quit working,” Jim said, rising from his chair and gesturing to his visitors. Knowing they were beaten, brother and niece helped him up. They were only thinking of his health: Jim was due for gallbladder surgery within a fortnight. Standing wobbly, he straightened his hat brim, and scuttled over to greet me while his relatives traded exasperated glances.

“We’ll get going,” his brother said, and shook my hand without introducing himself. Jim had entertained his share of curious hangers-on up here, and someone with his best interests at heart might think that another out-of-town Patsy completist would only rile the old man. The wooden gate slapped gently behind his relatives, and Jim put a hand around my upper arm as their car passed over the gravel onto Highland Ridge Road and down into the woods.

We walked out from under the trees, past the picnic tables, playground, and covered bar. Jim stopped at the edge of the hill, taking in the wide sky.

“How you like that?” he asked, pointing at the view. I was taken aback, and said so.

“In the morning I come out here and have my coffee while the sun comes up. In the evening I have my Jim Beam and watch it go down.” He laughed hard: a deep, decayed growl. Later on, when I read some of the innumerable articles that have been written about the Troubadour in every small-town paper within a five-hour drive, I saw Jim had repeated this same line to every writer who’d ever stood on the property.

At the bottom of the hill, right at the tree line, sat Troubadour Studios, a musty double-wide where regional bands still came to record, as they had since he opened the facility almost 30 years earlier. (He operated various home studios before that, going back to the 1950s.) The trailer sat next to a covered bandstand that hosted weekend festivals between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. And right where we were standing, looming above us like a naval cannon, was Jim’s most photographed piece of property: a 10-foot-long six-shooter, the barrel of which contained a smoker big enough for a whole hog. During outdoor season, hickory-scented smoke poured out of the gun barrel all weekend long and Troubadour Park filled with neighbors, old friends, and outsiders who wanted to see the last honky-tonk standing.

Jim held on to me for balance as we shuffled down the hill. When we reached the trailer he led me into his windowless shrine. CDs and press photos lined the walls, images going back a half-century to the era when he led Joltin’ Jim and the Melody Playboys. Jim’s stage outfit was a custom-made red suit embroidered with white musical notes, topped with a white Stetson; the Playboys, his five-piece band, backed him in matching black Stetsons and bow-tie suits. In the old photos he was forever grinning crookedly underneath a little pomade twist. He looked muscular, farm-raised. His neck was thick, though his eyes looked tired even then. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jim and his men prowled the state highways of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Virginias, playing every dank beer hall and Moose Lodge that would hold them. Poetically, unbelievably, they traveled in a disused hearse. Jim earned the honorific “Joltin’” from putting on so many miles, rushing from recording sessions to radio gigs to late-night shows and back to the farm. But he also knew alliteration would help him build his name, as it had for the Kountry Krackers, his friends and recording clients who served as one of Patsy’s earliest local bands.

The recording booths in the studio were made of plywood and soundproofed with decaying eggshell foam. The drums, set apart in one corner room, had tiny divots in the heads, and the bell of the ride cymbal was cracked. As if to apologize and make up for the accommodations, a centerfold featuring a teased blonde with pendulous naked breasts had been pinned to the sagging fabric walls. The hallways and other rooms were crammed floor to ceiling with yellowed newspaper clips, pushpin-damaged photos, and junk-shop grails such as a poster-size “Map to Heaven.” Down the narrow hallway, every room was a makeshift museum: binders full of old ads and record deals in four massive file cabinets, old tape reels stacked in crushed boxes in every nook and corridor, including the space on either side of the toilet. If the Troubadour grounds felt endless, as wide as the sky, the studio was its inverse. There was a whole world in there, but it was subterranean, a tunnel made of old mail.

“There’s a fella coming by from the Library of Congress,” Jim told me as he puttered around the maze. “Wants to gather some of this stuff up and decide what to keep. I told him good luck. John set that up,” meaning local newspaper editor John Douglas, who published a slim, tabloid-size biography, Joltin’ Jim: Jim McCoy’s Life in Country Music, in 2007, right after the old man was inducted into the National Traditional Country Music Hall of Fame. Soon after that honor, Jim was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, where he shares space with Kathy Mattea and Bill Withers. In a framed photo at the top of an overloaded bookshelf, Jim was standing under bright blue stage lights, wearing a tuxedo that seemed as ill-suited as a bullfighter’s costume. It was a rare undamaged artifact amid the clutter. Most everything else seemed to hearken back to Jim’s childhood, the era of typewriters, homemade shelving, and hand-lettered signage, when hoarding was the only way to protect personal effects from oblivion.

We ambled back up the hill. Jim walked me into the Troubadour Bar & Lounge, which at midafternoon was completely empty but still seemed to breathe. An unbroken collage of fading celebratory Polaroids covered every wall — hundreds of bleary, joyful faces mugging and hugging, a walk-in scrapbook. The only light came from strings of mini holiday bulbs running along the ceiling. They soaked everything in warm red and blue and green, like an LED womb. As if reading my mind, Jim said, “That’s how you can tell a redneck: we never take the Christmas lights down.” He growled and jabbed my ribs.

A handful of Formica tables were arranged between two sets of maroon vinyl booths, with a small stage up front. On the wall behind the stage hung a life-size Patsy cutout, a massive framed headshot, and one of her gold records, a gift from her widower, Charlie Dick. At the opposite end of the room were the bar and kitchen. Right by the entrance, next to a couple older wooden shelves that held Patsy shirts, Troubadour Studios CDs, and some spare peppers and tomatoes from Jim’s garden, was a yellowed Coca-Cola bar sign with a grave warning:

ATTENTION
ALL TROUBLE MAKERS WILL
BE TRAMPLED, BEATEN, AND
STABBED. ALL SURVIVORS
WILL BE PROSECUTED.
NO PROFANITY.

“Got you a booth,” Jim said, leading me up to a table. He wasn’t one for sitting down, so I took a seat and watched as the folks arrived. It started slow, a couple regulars who went right up to the bar to give Bertha, Jim’s wife of nearly 40 years, a hug before the door even had a chance to squeak shut behind them. Bertha had small eyes and a flat mouth that curled into a subtle smile. She hugged with her whole body, eyes closed, her chin resting on her friends’ shoulders and her hands firm against their backs, like she was trying to absorb them. When they separated she kept hold of their arms, looking her friends over one more time, then her smile finally opened up all the way. The visitors turned and came over to their booth, easing down like the cushions were their own living-room sofa after a double shift.

Two more couples came in and repeated the same scene before a young waitress walked over to my table and announced it was steak night. Three minutes later I had a frosted mug of beer. Five minutes after that, a plastic plate with a medium-rare slab of beef, fat still dancing from the grill fire. Jim was everywhere, greeting everybody and catching them up on his health problems. Right as he walked past the door, a young blond guy in farm boots and a black T-shirt bounded in, seized Jim’s right shoulder, and cried out lovingly, “How ya doin’, badass?” then strode right over to a bar stool, all in one unbroken motion. Bertha put a Bud Light in front of him and he drained half of it in one go.

The music was on, classic stuff: George Jones, Kitty Wells, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Tammy Wynette. Fridays are karaoke night, so a loud and twangy-sounding man named Donny, Jim’s partner in Troubadour Radio, was busy setting up his DJ rig. The place was beginning to buzz. A crowd of seven middle-aged women from Westminster, Maryland, not far from where I grew up, came in giggling.

“We’re having a girls’ retreat in Berkeley Springs,” one of them told me. “Hotel told us about this place.”

“We’re here to drink!” shouted one of her friends, and the whole table erupted. The waitress delivered them two pitchers and a tray of frosted mugs.

Donny’s wife, a silver-haired woman in a tie-dyed T-shirt with a huge wolf’s head across the front, kicked off karaoke. She had an unmade-up moon face and worn, white sneakers, but she absolutely owned Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” wagging a finger and throwing a hand on her hip whenever she landed the chorus. For her final note, she threw her head back, eyes closed, and took it all home with a flip of her hair. Then she came off the stage and smiled bashfully while the room went nuts.

No one could match her, though there was no shortage of musical passion in the Troubadour that night. One older man, sitting in the front row all night with only his wife, wobbled up onstage and draped his massive body over a chair by the monitor. Then he started into a version of “Ring of Fire” so tuneless and heaving that I wondered if he’d even heard the original song. He sat motionless on the chair, staring deadpan into the monitor, delivering his lines like a police chief naming casualties at a press conference. In the middle of the song, Jim came over and sat down at my table.

“Got a big boy up there, don’t we?” he asked over the din. I said he was certainly putting in the effort.

“Some people just need to get it out,” Jim said.

“Ring of Fire” ended, and our colossal singer’s wife applauded loudest of all as he exited the stage stone-faced and returned to their table like he’d just completed an honorable, ugly job that only he could do. Another huge man, this one just tall, got up from an otherwise empty booth near the back of the room and sang a more contemporary song I didn’t recognize. It was a ballad, and he gave it everything. Eyes closed, two hands on the mic, he lent his unpracticed but orotund baritone to an overwrought tune about Jesus. He died on the cross, I’m worthless without him — that kind of thing. It was genuinely touching, but the people had come for beer and a party. We clapped, but we wanted something to scream about.

Donny obliged. Up next, he sang a song about farts, to which he’d added a few appropriate sound effects and choreographed a whole routine where he’d point the microphone at his own ass and let it finish every other line. He had the faces — pained, surprised, relieved, overjoyed — to match the panoply of squeals, wet blasts, and foghorns that he’d programmed in. Later in the night, he sang a solemn, reverent version of “That Ragged Old Flag.”

At one point, I scanned the room and couldn’t see Jim. He wasn’t at the bar, near the door, or being toasted at one of the booths. Feeling a little beer-weary, I stepped outside to see if he’d gone out to have his customary evening bourbon. But it was too dark for that. The parking lot was pitch black but for the floodlight above the Troubadour entrance and the red neon coming out of the game room out back. The air had picked up a slight mountain chill. I wondered if he’d actually gone home, to bed; his front door was barely a hundred feet away. But there were only two burly guys out there smoking cigarettes and talking about their motorcycles. Beyond them, nothing but black sky and a thin ribbon of Christmas lights on the roadside fence.

But the lights — they moved. Something unseen, on the other side of the gravel lot, shook them loose and a strand fell suddenly to the ground. I walked past the cars, out of reach of the floodlight and the neon, until he finally came into focus. I saw the blue baseball hat in the dim holiday glow.

“Jim?”

“I’m all right,” he croaked. “Fixing these lights.”

I walked over and saw he was standing in a shallow notch in the grass by the roadside, on the parking-lot side of the fence near the welcome sign. His knees were locked and he was checking on a bulb that had gone out.

“You have to get back in there,” I said, the only thing I was sure of.

“I ain’t been gone long. One of these bulbs here. See it?” He slipped a little — his Velcro shoe slid down the grass, and he grabbed the fence before anything else happened. Out of nowhere, a pickup truck came over the ridge and roared past us. The air shook as it flew by. Jim didn’t look at me. A muffled burst of laughter drifted over from the bar.

“What are you out here for? Why does this need to be done?” I thought of his brother, who’d already seemed annoyed by my showing up in the afternoon. How would he react if Jim dropped dead in my presence by the side of the road, tending to a single expired bulb in the darkness?

“I’m just piddlin’. That’s all I do now. Can’t do any real work. Fell down in my garden last week and had to wait an hour till the boy came by. He was in Afghanistan, now he helps me with things around here a few days a week. But I can’t sit still. I got to keep doing my little chores, my little fixes. You know: piddlin’.”

“Well I can’t leave you out here. Can’t do that to Bertha.” After a few seconds he silently draped the rope of lights back over the fencepost and reached out for my arm.

When we got back inside, Donny was at the mic, announcing the winner of a raffle. He pulled a ticket from a hat, read the numbers slowly, and when he finished, the young man at the bar, Mr. How-Ya-Doin’-Badass, slapped the counter and held his latest beer up high.

“Ten pounds of bacon!” Donny said. “Breakfast at your place tomorrow.” As our winner walked up through the main room to claim his prize from a cooler onstage, Donny called up another singer. The night wore on. Song after song about pride, loss, God’s might, revenge, survival, and love. Each one was a celebration, even the sad ones. Especially the sad ones. In my booth between performances, I read a few of the newspaper clippings that lined the wall, most of which were paeans to the Troubadour by small-town newspaper reporters who’d driven in from three states away and marveled at the throwback charm of it all. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, they all marveled at the “last of the breed.” The Troubadour, they all exclaimed, was the kind of place your grandparents would have loved. But this seemed off to me now. Even though past relics and memories filled every visible corner of the place, there was nothing backward-looking about the scene that night. This wasn’t a reenactment or the last of anything. People there had come because it was a good time, not because it was a connection to their older relatives. The Troubadour still lived, still performed its role in the present tense. Being there felt like a gift.

For her next song, Donny’s wife gave her husband a nod and he cued up that familiar twinkling piano line: “Crazy.” People leapt to their feet. One of the Westminster women literally howled. We all mouthed the words but let Donny’s wife — I would learn later, while drunkenly thanking her for this performance, that her name was Gay — do her thing. This was deep, mountain-bred soul singing, honed by years of joyful practice. Gay must have been in her early 50s; assuming she’d been singing “Crazy” for about as a long as she could talk, that meant she’d been feeling this song and growing with it for quite a bit longer than Patsy walked the earth. She sang like “Crazy” was in her DNA. For three minutes she was the greatest performer alive. I watched with gratitude, certain that the Troubadour was the center of the world.

***

Eighty years earlier, no one would have thought that Highland Ridge was the center of anything. It was just a sparsely populated hill with a few families, plenty of sunlight, and spectacularly fertile dirt. The flatter land around Winchester was the biggest apple territory in the United States, possibly the world, and every mountaintop family had a few fruiting trees on their property for cider. But the real ridge crop was tomatoes, which sprang from the soil in a rainbow of colors, growing heavy and firm enough to bend vines and overtake gardens. Jim was the oldest of six children born to Peter Wesley McCoy and his wife, Carrie Virginia Henry McCoy, and he helped his parents deliver the summer crop to the canning facilities that dotted the mountains. As a young man he washed cans for Highland Tomatoes, his grandfather’s business. Then the blight arrived. The McCoys and their neighbors moved on to a steadier crop: timber.

The trees came down to fill out the railway lines, the nearest of which went south into downtown Winchester. Working for Guy Spriggs, a former Morgan County sheriff, Jim helped saw, sand, and transport the logs, then held the spikes as his father hammered the tracks into the countryside. It was a small life, demanding and scarcely profitable, but it had its luxuries: fresh vegetables, endless cider, and friends to share them with. The McCoy home was a broad two-story wood box with a long porch and plenty of windows. It was filled at all times with the screech and rumble of six children and frequent visitors, and with the tinny, otherworldly warble of a windup Victrola and a battery-powered radio in the parlor — the electric towers hadn’t yet reached Highland Ridge.

The voices and melodies that floated out from those primeval machines were the first proof that Jim McCoy ever had of life beyond hilltop manual labor. He heard mostly hillbilly music, the string-band harmony songs that sounded immemorial: “Wildwood Flower,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “You Are My Sunshine.” Somehow, he knew he was going to play them himself.

There was only one person in the McCoy family orbit who actually knew what to do with a guitar: a neighbor named Pete Kelly who made his living cutting stone and building walls. If you entered Winchester from the north on Route 522, as all Berkeley Springs residents did, you passed by a long, waist-high barrier wall that Pete constructed around a commercial apple facility. It still stands. But Pete also liked the McCoys’ cider, and during one of his regular visits he taught Jim how to tune a guitar and pluck out a few chords. He gave the boy a week to master “You Are My Sunshine,” and came back to find the boy had done just that. Peter McCoy soon bought his son a guitar from the Montgomery Ward catalog, an uncommon expense for mountain families, and Jim now had a vision of life beyond a crosscut saw.

He played his first gig at the Berkeley Springs Castle, a private mansion downtown, a few years after World War II. He was paid all of $2, which he gave back to his family in full. But despite the humble debut, the mid-1940s was an auspicious time to enter country music. The war had forced hundreds of thousands of young men from all corners of the United States to live together in close quarters. Naturally, they shared music, and many of them were exposed to real country for the first time in barracks throughout Europe. They returned home with broadened musical tastes, then the GI Bill and urban employment beckoned rural men into cities. This sudden growth and shuffling of the country fan base affected the very sound of the music as well. Before the Depression, there was hillbilly music and there was Western, for the mountain man and the cowboy respectively; Hill & Range, the publisher for Elvis’s early repertoire, was named for this dichotomy. After the war it all began blending together, traveling along America’s growing network of radio stations and highways, colliding in cities that were filling with victorious soldiers whose roots were in the hills, plains, and deserts. This new strain required a new name.

The term “honky-tonk” stretches back to the late 19th century, though it became most commonly associated with highway-set beer joints in post-Prohibition Texas. On the outskirts of oil towns, often near a county line to accommodate changing liquor laws, all manner of little venues sprung up around the state: dance halls, working-class bars, nightclubs, social dens. They proliferated even faster as the military men came home. Their unifying elements were neon lights and music, whether by jukebox or live band. This was a louder setting than country music was used to (Glen Campbell would later refer to these venues as “fighting and dancin’ clubs”), and the musicians needed to be heard above breaking bottles, bawdy talk, and brawls. They plugged in and hired drummers, but the move indoors also meant that the tried and true lyrical themes — the family Bible, outdoor work — were replaced by the tribulations of the nightlife: romance, heartbreak, alcoholism, and financial woes. Honky-tonk was the first de-regionalized country music. It was born on the nation’s nascent highways, and animated by the struggles of displaced rural people. Hank Williams was the patron saint of this era, and he naturally wrote a song called “Honky Tonkin’,” a celebration of aimless club-hopping and drinking that had no wildwood flowers or sweet hills of Virginia in sight: “We’re goin’ to the city, to the city fair/ If you go to the city, you will find me there.”

Besides Hank, nobody embodied this relative cosmopolitanism better than Ernest Tubb, “the Texas Troubadour.” Tubb started out in the 1930s as a disciple of the great hillbilly yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, but emerged as the quintessential road-warrior bandleader through years on the Lone Star circuit and beyond. His string of hits began with “Walking the Floor Over You” in 1941, and his touring band had drums, electric guitars, and a rollicking sense of swing. They dressed in sharp matching suits and big cowboy hats and boots, the perfect mix of regional affectation and citified flair. Tubb himself never sang beautifully, but over the years he employed some of the most virtuoso musicians to ever play country, including guitarist Leon Rhodes and pedal steel visionary Buddy Emmons, who literally built new gears and components into his instrument in order to make it more amenable to harmonically complex genres, including jazz. Tubb found unprecedented commercial success: radio dominance, a sponsorship by Gold Chain flour, even a headlining spot on a country show at Carnegie Hall in 1947.

By that point, Jim McCoy had already met Ernest Tubb and become completely enthralled. Jim bought Tubb’s records, like the guitar, from Montgomery Ward, and then at age 14, he hitchhiked to Conococheague Park in Hagerstown, Maryland, to see the Texan play. Once they met, Jim started sending letters. By the time he finished high school, Jim was pen pals with one of the biggest stars in country. His insider knowledge and professional connections made him a natural, authoritative DJ, first in Hagerstown and then at WINC, the still-operational Winchester radio station that started broadcasting in 1946. WINC was only the second FM signal in Virginia, broadcasted with a 3-kilowatt transmitter and a 148-foot cloverleaf antenna set up on a hill. On Saturday mornings, Jim hitchhiked down the mountain to host the station’s sole country show from 4:30 to 9 a.m.

It was in that capacity, in 1948, that he first met Patsy. He was 19 and she was three years younger. Jim offered local and touring acts the chance to play on-air for $2, but Patsy didn’t even have that. She auditioned for him in the hallway, an a cappella take on “San Antonio Rose,” and Jim immediately let her sing to the live mic, free of charge. This episode has since become a key component of Patsy lore — her creation myth in a sense. But more important, it inaugurated 15 years of intense friendship and musical affinity. Jim played guitar for Patsy on many early occasions, became lifelong friends with her second and final husband, Charlie Dick, and eventually served as a pallbearer at her funeral. Jim will tell you how sexy she was, but they were never romantically involved. His love for her was a deeper and purer thing.

Imagine you were a teenage country obsessive from the Depression-era sticks who thumbed rides from subsistence farmers in the weekend predawn just to play records for fruit pickers. Imagine loving country music that much, and then being tracked down by this disarming, ruby-cheeked, 16-year-old spark plug without even two spare dollars to her name. And when she pleads for 30 seconds of your time you step out into an empty tile hallway and she lets forth with that voice, bell-clear and sorrowful even as a child. In a few years this voice will sing “Crazy” and the world will fall in love — indeed, the world will have a new musical shorthand for love itself. In that hallway, you hear more than just a singer. You hear the future, the shape of your world to come. And as her legend grew after death, you could say with well-earned pride that you were the first person to get behind a radio microphone and fill the airwaves with this stunning voice, the greatest to ever sing country. Imagine all that, and it might make a little more sense why Patsy’s face was plastered so persistently all over the Troubadour grounds — on the welcome sign, behind the cash register, and side by side with a picture of Bertha on a shrine-like mantel in the studio.

Jim spent the 1950s rushing from daybreak radio shows to recording sessions and honky-tonk gigs, and he had plenty of fellow travelers. In 1949, the year after Patsy Cline first sang on Jim’s Saturday morning show, WINC was one of nearly seven hundred American radio stations that played country. Grand Ole Opry–aping regional radio revues sprung up everywhere from Los Angeles to West Virginia’s northern panhandle, where Jim played the Wheeling Jamboree concert and radio show for decades. More than 60 full-scale country-themed entertainment parks opened for business during the boom as well. Singers like Gene Autry and Roy Acuff became well-known, diversified businessmen in addition to performers, opening music publishing operations and radio stations. In cities, country TV shows were huge draws and major stops for touring talent. The Jimmy Dean Show originated in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and for musicians in the greater orbit of Maryland and the Virginias, that became the grail. Postwar country music was an entrepreneur’s playground — the first nationwide American independent music scene. And Jim McCoy tried his hand at every possible opportunity: establishing Troubadour Records and Studios, DJ-ing his radio show, playing gigs whenever possible with the Melody Playboys and as a sideman. There were enough amateur Acuffs like him to scare the mainstream industry into action: in July 1950, Columbia Records became the first label to open a Nashville office and country subsidiary. From that day forward, all those state-highway honky-tonk circuits and regional rodeos slowly drained like open veins until the genre’s talent and money pooled in central Tennessee.

As a teenager, Jim looked up and made eyes with the daughter of a man whose timber he was sawing. She was Marjie, a sweet country girl, and like a finger-snap, they were soon married with three children. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Jim would rise to host a WINC show at 4:30, then head to the southeastern corner of town to manage the Montgomery Ward till 5 p.m. He made $40 a week at that job: “Big money.”

But he kept up the grueling music schedule on top of it all, making that half-day drive to Nashville often. His archives are filled with hundreds of showbiz photos: Jim in a suit and ten-gallon hat, mugging, exhausted-looking but boundless; in a cornpone costume with a one-off redneck comedy gang called the Skillet Lickers; posed behind a radio microphone in a press shot; with his bandmates or promoters outside a seemingly infinite number of local fairs, fund-raisers, radio-station promotional gigs, barbecues. And there are smiling photos alongside big stars like Ray Price and Dottie West, too. These people were his friends, his admirers even. He finally made it to the Opry stage in the late 1980s, when he was invited to perform at the memorial for Ernest Tubb. But Jim never left for good. He stayed in the upland Shenandoah and held on as a regional radio star and record producer for decades. The Troubadour, especially for a first-time visitor, feels purely valedictory, a monument to a life lived in noble service to music. But the music Jim lived for is the genre of heartaches, setbacks, and lonely, regret-filled nights. Honky-tonk country is the sound of rural-rooted people taking their first difficult, stumbling steps toward the city, and it is not often the music of triumph. The songs are short, direct, and comfortingly formulaic, but the words, like the backstories of many of the music’s stars, continually remind us: life is not a song.

***

From Homeplace: A Southern Town, A Country Legend, and The Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk, by John Lingan. Copyright © 2018 by John Lingan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.