John Lingan’s book, Homeplace: A Southern Town, A Country Legend, And The Last Days Of A Mountaintop Honky-Tonk, is part travel diary, part regional history, part sociological/cultural analysis, and part Patsy Cline biography. That Lingan can juggle all these elements with ease and craft such an engaging tale is a testament to his writing. My only gripe (and it is a minor one) is that he doesn’t include a map of the region of which he writes – the Shenandoah Valley which includes Berkeley Springs, West Virginia and Winchester, Virginia.
There are times when Lingan comes across as a gonzo journalist – being part of the story while serving as a judge at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. In the world of drinking water…this contest is it. Samples from all over the world make their way to this small West Virginia hamlet to compete for the prestigious gold medal award. While the event is a very serious affair, Lingan’s humor while describing all the aspects of the water tasting contest is worth the price of the book itself. Another example finds him at a local wrestling arena marveling at the grip that a motley crew of regional wrestlers has on a young adolescent boy. It would be easy for Lingan to mock the “sport”, but he sees it for what it is – “communal escape”.
The centerpiece of the book however is Jim McCoy and his revered honky-tonk bar called the Troubadour. But in order to understand McCoy’s story, one must immerse oneself in all things Patsy Cline – country music legend from Winchester who lived fast, died young, and left behind beautiful memories. McCoy was an early mentor to Cline and they remained friends until her untimely death due to a plane crash. However, McCoy never quite made the big time himself. But it wasn’t for lack of effort, talent, connections, or tenacity. He had all of those in spades. Things just never quite came together for him. But McCoy remained influential in country music circles, mentoring many would be country stars. His acolytes would make continued pilgrimages to the Troubadour where he held court into his 80’s.
Other residents who figure prominently in the book are:
Dr. Matt Hahn - A doctor who left the big city for a quieter, more idyllic lifestyle. He became devoted to Jim McCoy while treating him for various ailments.
Jeanne Mozier – A graduate of Columbia University with a degree in communist studies and work experience at the C.I.A., involves herself with the civic affairs of Berkeley Springs.
Joe Bageant – A Winchester native who came back to his hometown later in life and found literary success with the books Eat Pray Love and Deer Hunting with Jesus.
Perry Davis – A young African American entrepreneur experiencing difficulties in establishing his own restaurant.
Oscar Cerrito-Mendoza – Representative of the changing demographics that Hispanic immigration has brought to the region. What is unrepresentative is that Oscar also happens to be gay and disabled. He works at an AIDS clinic that is constantly in need of funding.
While there is an undertow of politics throughout, Lingan to his credit doesn’t turn the book into a political screed. It would be a lesser work if he had. In fact, we don’t find out his personal political preferences until the end of the book. He is indeed a liberal but finds common ground with Fox News watcher and conservative Jim McCoy. What Lingan does make clear however, is the rigid social class system that has prevailed for centuries. It is the same class system that looked down on an impoverished Patsy Cline as a youngster and barely acknowledged her accomplishments as an adult. Monied interests and family dynasties still control development despite changing demographics. There is also a schism between those that are “from here” and those that “come here”.
The book ends on the sad news of Jim McCoy’s passing and the uncertain fate of the Troubadour. What is also uncertain is Mr. Lingan’s next destination. All I know is wherever it is, count me in. I’ll be there if only vicariously.