(CMT debuts the one-hour special, Devoted, which takes a look at extremely enthusiastic country fans, on July 30 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)
Those who work in the music business — journalists especially — are not supposed to admit that they’re fans of any particular country star. The goal is to play it cool, to pretend like the artists who keep us all in business are just regular folks.
But I’m gonna say it anyway: I’m a fan of Loretta Lynn.
It’s true. I think she’s so terrific that I drove clear across Kentucky just to visit Butcher Holler. That’s where she grew up, in a wooden house with a green sloping front yard that bottoms out in a tiny muddy creek. It’s not the actual house from the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, but you’d never know. And it is, without a doubt, the ultimate pilgrimage for fans of the famous singer.
My friend Lisa and I embarked on the trip to Butcher Holler at the end of April, taking a huge detour on our way to Charlotte, N.C. We left at a reasonable hour and got to Paintsville, Ky., very close to 5 p.m. Lisa had read an online article about Butcher Holler and remembered to stop at the Ramada Inn to ask for directions.
Smart move. The desk clerk offered a detailed map to the Butcher Holler general store, with its phone number on the bottom. Racing the clock, we called immediately, and a man named Herman said he’d be happy to give us the tour if we could get there quickly. We assured him we’d be there as soon as possible.
Creeping past the trailer homes and wide-eyed kids on bicycles, we navigated the narrow roads until entering the town of Van Lear. Lyrics from the famous song popped into my head: “My Daddy worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines.” We were almost there.
Finally, we arrived at the general store — a tall white building that looks exactly like you’d expect a general store to look. A sign out front bragged about Loretta and also her sister, Crystal Gayle. Inside, the walls were decorated with Loretta T-shirts, photos and various memorabilia. We politely inquired about getting a tour of the house.
“I think Dad’s up there right now,” said Madonna. “Let me see if I can find him.” She called her dad’s home phone and left a message that we were on the way.
“Just go on up,” she said. “If Dad passes you on the way down, he’ll turn around and go back up.”
Then, being a tourist, I had to ask a stupid question: “Is this the same store where Loretta’s dad bought stuff for the family?”
“Yeah. That was my granddad,” she said. “My dad is Herman Webb. Loretta’s brother.”
Too cool! I couldn’t believe it! Being hundreds of miles from Nashville, I revealed my secret — that I was a fan and had driven all day to get here.
“Where did you drive in from?”
“Nashville,” I said.
“Oh, I have lots of family in Nashville,” she said.
We chatted about family a little bit, like good Southerners do. Then she gave us quick directions. Drive up past the old school house and you’ll see a big rock, and then fork to the left and you’ll see the house. Easy enough. Lisa and I thanked her, snapped a few pictures of the store and dashed back to the car.
The anticipation was killing me. When I first discovered Loretta’s music, I read the book Coal Miner’s Daughter in one day and watched the movie, um, let’s say more than once. I had already been to Loretta’s ranch in Hurricane Mills quite a few times. Last time I was there, I read every descriptive card in her museum and even rummaged through tables at her garage sale.
But this was different. This was Butcher Holler! We spotted the boulder with an arrow and the words “Butcher Holler” scratched in white. Turning left, we followed the path. Within minutes, we saw the gate and drove up the hill.
The modest brown house stopped me in my tracks. See, this is where the legend of Loretta Lynn begins. This is the home she left, at age 13, to marry Mooney Lynn, and this was where she saw her father for the last time. It must have been a terribly difficult decision to leave, but if she hadn’t done it, country music would have lost one of its most charming and vital performers ever.
We strolled to the porch and met Herman. He could not have had a more welcoming smile or been a more gracious host. We had our $5 ready and stepped inside. He told us that he spent hundreds of hours fixing up the house after moving back to Kentucky in his later years. Today, he lives in a house on the bumpy road to this old cabin. He said the last time Crystal came up, she brought the old kitchen table which is now in the house. In fact, the place is packed with stuff from the old days. Even without a connection to Loretta, it would be a fascinating look at the region’s past.
In the first-floor bedroom, Herman showed off a number of photographs of himself with other famous singers who had visited the area. He was a country fan too! Dozens of pictures were sprinkled throughout the room and Herman relaxed in his rocking chair, telling stories. We devoured them.
Although he wouldn’t let us go upstairs to see where the kids slept, he let us take a ton of pictures and he took some snapshots of us, just to prove that we were there. You should see our big grins.
For more information about Butcher Holler, call Webb’s Grocery at (606) 789-3397. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday, noon-6 p.m. ET.