Once you’ve gotten enough birthdays under your belt, it’s not unusual to return to a town or community from your past and experience shock or at least surprise at how much it’s changed. Sometimes it’s not even recognizable as the place you once knew.
In his engrossing book “Homeplace,” John Lingan examines the way a place can lose its character in the battle between culture and commerce in small-town America and how that plays out specifically in Winchester, Va., a town of 27,000.
“Homeplace” is also about honky-tonk owner Jim McCoy, an indelible character who represents a fading way of life in Winchester, and his role helping launch the career of country music legend Patsy Cline, a native of the town.
Cline’s treatment by Winchester is a clear indicator of how shifts in power and priorities can shape a place.
Lingan describes the town as having historically a two-strata social construct: the old guard with old money and everyone else. Cline, who grew up in utter poverty, was squarely among the have-nots. Even at the top of her game, the city barely claimed her as its own. When she played Carnegie Hall in 1961, “the Winchester Star only mentioned it on page 7, a week after the show.”
But today there is a Patsy Cline Boulevard, a Patsy Cline Historic House and Museum and an annual Celebrating Patsy Cline festival. What changed? Says Lingan, “The descendants of Patsy’s people were now in positions of power and influence.” But also, the potential to attract tourism dollars was recognized, and according to one townsperson, “Northerners came in.”
“Homeplace” is most vivid during scenes that take place at Jim McCoy’s Troubadour Bar & Lounge located on a remote ridge in the mountains. Inside, “an unbroken collage of fading 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. … On the wall behind the stage hung a life-size Patsy cutout, a massive framed headshot, and one of her gold records.”
In truth, the Troubadour is more than just a bar, it’s a compound. In one trailer is Troubadour Studio; in the other is where McCoy and his wife Bertha live. Then there’s Troubadour Park, featuring a covered bandstand, some picnic tables and “a 10-foot-long six-shooter, the barrel of which contained a smoker big enough for a whole hog.” When the weather was warm, hundreds of working-class country music fans turned out on weekends to hear live music outdoors and line up for plates of barbecue.
And always holding court, whether it was in the park or the bar or, back in the day, the studio, was Jim McCoy. Once an ambitious country music artist who put in his time touring and recording, he eventually turned his talents toward hosting radio shows that cast a spotlight on other musicians. It was while he was hosting a program where musicians could pay to perform on air that he met Cline. She was 16 at the time, and he was 19. She didn’t have the $2 to pay for a time slot, but after she auditioned a cappella in the hallway of the station, he put her on for free, sealing a friendship that would last until her death in an airplane crash 15 years later.
“Homeplace” juxtaposes scenes from the Troubadour with scenes from events attended by the community’s upper crust. For example, the International Water Tasting competition held at the Parkview Garden Room at the Country Inn in nearby Berkeley Springs, W.Va. The event is the brainchild of transplant Jeanne Mozier, who also established the town’s history museum, chamber of commerce, tourism bureau and arts council.
Invented as a way to “keep the lights on in winter,” the International Water Tasting is an event built on pomp and commerce in which the tourism department collects fees from water bottling companies that compete in hopes that a win will boost consumer sales. The event culminates with local dignitaries, plus Lingan, in formal dress, sniffing and sipping goblets of water as though they are at a fancy wine tasting.
To his credit, Lingan treats his subjects and their doings without judgment, even in their most absurd moments. He saves the rare snarky comment for a doomsday water company wonk described as having “the stiff air and raw-chicken complexion of an early-bird dinner attendee.”
Occasionally Lingan veers off on curious tangents that fail to illuminate his story. A five-page ode to the preparation of breakfast at a diner baffles, as does a long passage about a wrestling match as seen through the eyes of a young boy accompanied by his mother and her twitchy date.
But for the most part, Lingan introduces a colorful array of characters and situations that coalesce into a multifaceted portrait of a small town on the verge of changing into something that barely resembles its former self. Some of those changes are for the better, as illustrated by Oscar Cerrito-Mendoza, a gay, disabled immigrant who’s risen through the ranks of a Winchester nonprofit that finds housing and other essential services for the homeless.
Some of those changes are for the worse, like the unfortunate fate of Jim McCoy and the Troubadour, “a last vestige of all the gone-away highway spots that his generation had known so well … a remnant of that lost epoch where people ‘made their own world with their own hands’ … solely devoted to the only work that’s really worth anything in the world: giving people a place to feel themselves.”
by John Lingan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
272 pages, $27