US-23 - The Country Music Highway
Hello, Don Milne here, your ROADTRIP-'62 ™ traveler ready to talk again. This is still the first of our journeys, and we are still traveling US-23. As in 1962, it runs from Mackinaw City, MI to Jacksonville, FL, 1444 miles. As we prepare to enter our third state of the trip, Kentucky, I find that it’s time to discuss country music. Why now, you may ask? Because Kentucky, and the counties along US-23 in particular, is home to many of the stars of country music. And that applied in 1962 as well as today. So we’ll be looking at this important part of American music and give those of you who were there a chance to remember, and the rest of you a chance to learn new things. By looking at a variety of topics, by the time we travel to the south end of US-23, we should all have a pretty good idea of just where we've come from since 1962 and before. So pull up a rocker on that front porch, grab a cowboy hat, and let the music play.
As I mentioned, we’re entering a part of the country that’s rich in music heritage. The US-23 Country Music Highway Museum, in Paintsville, Kentucky, is too new for us to see, as it opened in April, 2005. However, the information there is of interest to understand how much good music has come out of the hills of eastern Kentucky. One of the older stars from the area was Johnson County's Frank "Hylo" Brown. Born in River, Kentucky, just off US-23, he began performing on radio station WCMI in Ashland, Kentucky. Hylo was one of the early group of bluegrass performers, often holding down a second job while recording for a major record label. He started performing in 1939 and issued his debut album in 1958 with his band the Timberliners. That album was on Capitol Records and by 1962 he had moved to Starday Records and put out the album "Bluegrass Balladeer." He earned the nickname “Hylo” because of his wide vocal range and has been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.
Another of the older performers from the area was Gary Stewart. Stewart was born in 1945 in Jenkins, Kentucky, also on US-23. His family moved to Florida when he was 12 due to his father’s injury that ended a coal mining career. He was playing in rock and country bands at night by age seventeen and working during the daytime in an airplane factory. In about 1962, he met country singer Mel Tillis, who advised Stewart to go to Nashville to pitch his songs. He recorded a little for Cory records in 1964, but found his stride writing songs for others for many years before his debut album in 1973. He wrote Stonewall Jackson's 1965 hit, "Poor Red Georgia Dirt" and continued writing while recording. But I guess we wouldn’t have heard him along US-23 unless we were in some Florida bars!
Loretta Lynn singing "Success" and "Get Set for a Heartache" on the Porter Wagoner Show, 1962
A much more famous singer from our route is Loretta Lynn. Born in 1934, also from Johnson County, Loretta was married and had four children by age 17. Her husband, Oliver "Mooney" Lynn was inspired by his wife's vocal abilities and bought her a guitar the next year. Loretta began to teach herself to play and was soon writing her own music. Mooney encouraged her to sing with a local band on the weekends. Her performance in a local talent contest attracted a personal invitation from Buck Owens to perform on his television show, where she attracted more attention. In 1960, she recorded one of her own songs, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl." Her husband self-promoted the single, and it ended up at number fourteen on the charts, getting noticed by national promoters and record labels. By 1962, Loretta was offered a record deal with Decca Records, and accepted. Her first single, "Success", a honky-tonk song, reached number six. From there on, she recorded hit after hit, including many songs that she had written. She was later declared the best country music lyricist ever.
Loretta’s younger sister also went on to become a star, as Crystal Gayle. Born in 1951 as Brenda Gayle Webb, her older sister suggested recording under the name “Crystal” because there was already a very successful Brenda in the music industry, Brenda Lee. Crystal’s success came too far after 1962 for us to hear her. Her debut single, “I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out Of My Eyes,” was written by her sister Loretta and made it to the Top 20 on the country music charts. In the late 1970s she so captivated audiences that she became one of the early “crossover” artists, opening mainstream music to other country artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
Ricky Skaggs is another artist who hit the big time in the 1970s, but we could have just heard his beginnings in 1962. Born in 1954 and raised in Blaine, about 12 miles west of US-23 in Lawrence County, Ricky began playing mandolin at the age of five! When he just six, crowd demands prompted the legendary Bill Monroe to call Ricky up to the stage when he was in Martha, Kentucky for a performance. By 1962, he had made his Grand Ole Opry debut and performed with bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs on their popular syndicated television show. He earned his first paycheck for a musical performance for that show. Ricky continued working in bluegrass music until the late 1970s, when he turned his attention to mainstream country music. In recent years, he has returned to his bluegrass roots. Ricky paid tribute in 2008 to the both the man he has referred to as his "musical father", Bill Monroe, and the original lineup of the Bluegrass Boys (Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts). To do so, he released of “Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947”. The album earned his 14th career Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
Now we come to some other country stars who did not start performing until well after 1962. The Judds comprises two country artists, both stars in their own right. Naomi Judd was born Diana Ellen Judd in 1946 in Ashland, Kentucky. She played piano at her local church. She married young and had a daughter named Christina Ciminella, who would later be renamed Wynonna Judd. By 1968, they had moved to California and in 1976 a now-divorced Diana and her daughter moved to Tennessee. Diana took the name Naomi and began playing with her daughter, who sang and played guitar. It was not until the early 1980s that they rose to stardom. Despite Naomi being diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1991 and quitting the recording and touring life, and some personal disagreements between mother and daughter, they have reunited and are now preparing for their first tour together in 10 years. In the meantime, Wynonna has had a wildly successful solo career. By a stroke of luck, Wynonna performed right on a US-23 town in 2011, in Saginaw, Michigan at the FREE WKCQ Music Fest, on June 18th!
Singer Dwight Yoakam plays on his US-23 heritage, calling his official fan club the “Route 23 Club!” Though a Kentucky native, he came to music out of the Los Angeles club scene in 1986. He was just barely alive in our favorite year, being born in 1956. Another youngster is Patty Loveless, who was born in Pikeville, Kentucky in 1957 and grew up near the Virginia border. She was another coal miner’s daughter, and unfortunately the family was forced to leave the area to seek medical treatment for her father’s black lung disease. Being a bit out of place in the big town of Louisville, Kentucky, she spent time with records and a guitar that her father gave her, trying to figure out how to play songs by Loretta Lynn and others. She also hit the country music scene in 1986.
Finally, we have the two youngest folks on the Country Music Highway. William “Billy” Ray Cyrus was born in 1961 in Flatwoods, Kentucky, near Ashland. When still a boy, he formed a country duo with his brother. He was playing guitar and performing locally with a band named Sly Dog across the Ohio River in Ironton, at age 19. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984, when the bar they played in burned down with their equipment. It didn’t work out for him and he returned home, became part of the house band at The Ragtime Lounge in nearby Huntington, West Virginia, and began traveling to Nashville when he could to knock on doors. In 1990, he was opening for a Reba McEntire concert and shortly thereafter his career took off. His daughter, Miley Ray Cyrus, has also made her mark, in both pop music and as an actress. She was born Destiny Hope Cyrus in 1992, but is best known as Hannah Montana from the television series of the same name on the Disney Channel since 2006. Her first album that does not involve the Hannah Montana character debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, two years later.
Now that we know the people of the Country Music Highway, what else can we see along it? In Johnson County, up in Butcher Hollow, you can visit Loretta Lynn's childhood home. Her brother gives tours so you can see how the "coal miner's daughter" spent her years. The cabin is about 7½ miles off US-23, at Webb's General Store. There’s also the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum, which was only opened in 2005. It’s too new for us but the music and performers it honors are not, and since it’s located right on US-23 at Pikesville, you might as well stop. And, you might catch a star of tomorrow if you’re there on a Thursday for their “Front Porch Pickin’” concerts! The Mountain Arts Center down the road in Prestonburg, Kentucky is one of the few places on the Country Music Highway where you can regularly find country music performed live. The Kentucky Opry, local performers, appear on Saturdays and well-known country music acts also appear regularly. Their 2nd Annual Country & Bluegrass Music Celebration will be held September 8th, 2011. Near the north end of the highway, Ashland’s Highlands Museum & Discovery Center has a Country Music Heritage Hall exhibit. This exhibit showcases twelve local musicians whose careers have brought them national acclaim. This museum is also too new for our trip, as it was organized in 1984. Once again though, it’s right on US-23, occupying three floors of the former C. H. Parsons Department Store, and it highlights the history of the area, so it’s well worth exploring. Or, you can pretend to shop the ghost of the department store.
Beyond Kentucky, Virginia has its Crooked Road, also known as Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. This route also uses part of US-23, between Pound and Gate City, Virginia. It continues elsewhere in Virginia. Of interest to us are several music festivals including the Clinch Mountain MusicFest in Duffield, Virginia and the Gathering in the Gap in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Much of the Virginia early country music was focused on the Bristol area, but included folks from the nearby Tennessee cities of Kingsport and Johnson City. By early 1927, several people had made records, including Charley Bowman, a Johnson City fiddler, who played lead on many of the early records. Charlie was known to have played at least fifteen standard instruments and some unusual items such as brooms, saws, and even balloons, and he played every one well. He stopped performing in 1957, was later confined to a wheel chair and died on May 20, 1962. The Dykes Magic City Trio was named after Kingsport, Tennessee and was acclaimed as one of the best String bands. They also recorded in 1927 and later that year, Ralph Peer brought engineers and equipment down to Bristol and set up a makeshift recording studio in a furniture store. He recorded dozens of songs by many groups and captured an early cross section of Southern music. The groups he recorded included the Carter Family, from Scott County, Virginia and Jimmie Rodgers, and these sessions and another set in Johnson City in 1928 helped lay the foundation for bluegrass and country music as we know it.
The original Carter Family, consisting of A.P. Carter, Sara Carter, and Maybelle Carter, stopped recording in 1956. They are considered the "First Family" of country music not only because of their own recordings, but because of their efforts at collecting the music and touring with other performers of the time. After her marriage fell apart, Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters, Anita, June, and Helen under the name "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters." They performed into the 1970s, so we could have heard them. The Carter Family Fold and Museum is located at Hiltons, Virginia, just 5 miles off US-23 from Gate City. Visitors may now visit the cabin and birthplace of A.P. Carter. The cabin was restored and moved from its secluded and inaccessible original location to a spot near the main Carter Family Museum. Daughter June married another country music icon, Johnny Cash, who was well into his successful recording career in 1962. I remember listening to his "Ring of Fire" when it was released in 1963 and I still love it.
The Country Music Highway could also arguably begin in Scioto County, Ohio, the home of Earl Thomas Conley, who charted more than thirty singles on the Billboard Country Charts during the 1980s and 1990s, including eighteen number one hits. He began his recording career in 1974. There is now a park named for him in Portsmouth, Ohio. But there is at least one more 1962 connection for US-23, the song "Saginaw Michigan." It is about someone living in that Us-23 town. The song was written by Don Wayne, a Nashville, Tennessee songwriter, who began work on it in 1962. Don was working as a machinist and has said he got the title and location from the box for a micrometer he used. The tool was from the Lufkin Tool Company of Saginaw, Michigan. The song was recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1964, so it took Don awhile to finish and market it.
You might expect to find more country music stars hailing from along US-23 in Georgia, but I haven’t found them yet. There have been plenty of great musicians and singers from Georgia, but they seem to come from other musical genres. Macon, Georgia was home to artists as diverse as Otis Redding, Little Richard, and the Allman Brothers Band. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame museum is located in Macon and has inducted artists from all over the state, who represent all music genres including rap. And though it’s not directly related to country music, it is sad to note that the museum is closing even as you read this. They announced it will close as of June 12, 2011.
The video clip I included above reminded me of the Breeze commercials I used to see while watching the Porter Wagoner Show, which aired from 1960 to 1981. Breeze was a detergent that took a different approach to keeping customers: free towels! I can still remember a late 1960s commercial featuring Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, who was his partner on the show. Dolly’s closing line of, "And you can only get 'em in boxes of BREEZE.", and a companion line of, "...in every box of Breeze.", are hanging around in the back of my mind. Come to think of it, other products of the period offered premiums in the box also. Another laundry product, Duz soap (it was real soap, not a detergent) included dishes and glasses in the box for years. The dishes were the Homer Laughlin Golden Wheat pattern pictured above, and every piece was edged with 22K gold. My mom collected a lot of these, but I don’t remember if we had any Breeze towels. Well, I guess I’m off topic now, so I just turn on some music from 1962 and say goodbye until the next installment of ROADTRIP-'62 ™ . And don’t forget to celebrate National Country Music Week! In 1962 it was observed from November 4-10 but it doesn’t seem to be celebrated any more.
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.