Salt of the Earth: A Conversation with John Lingan

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Patsy Cline, the legendary country singer, haunts John Lingan’s new book, Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk. The arc of the narrative follows Cline’s life and her legacy as they continue to haunt her hometown, Winchester, VA. But more than a biography of a person, Lingan’s book is a biography of a town. Exploring, class, race, and place, Lingan attempts to untie the Gordian knot of American culture through the lens of music and the Troubador Bar & Lounge, where Cline first started her career.

I spoke with Lingan about his book, Cline, and the way the American landscape forever imprints on our lives and writing.

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The Rumpus: While reading the book, I sat outside drinking whiskey and listening to Patsy Cline.

John Lingan: This is the kind of sacrifice that I’m just so happy to hear people making on behalf of the book. Everybody is a latent Patsy Cline fan.

As I have discussed her and this whole idea for the last few years, I’ve had a lot of people who remember that music very fondly but from an older relative, which is what I mean about being a “latent fan.” You listen to it, and it’s just amazing, and you do have a personal connection to it.

Rumpus: In listening to Cline all over again, I was surprised at how soft and folksy her music feels. Because, as you describe in the book, the early reception to her was not positive in Winchester. It took a long time for her town to embrace her. Even as they embrace her, it’s this kind of bougie, cleaned-up version of her, which is part of the tension.

Lingan: I don’t think anybody in the seats of power in Winchester in the 1950s knew anything about country music. When she sang on Jim McCoy’s show in 1948, that was the only show on that station playing country music, and that wasn’t the reigning cultural style. People loved it, but, if you were upper-crust at that time, you pretty much didn’t even listen to country as we know it now. It’d be like being eighty when the Beatles came out or something. It just doesn’t even register as music to you.

Rumpus: And now country music is everywhere on the radio.

Lingan: Increasingly, you get Spanish language music as well. The radio is an oracle. It will tell you where people are when you’re riding around, for sure.

Rumpus: How did America switch from no country music to all country music?

Lingan: I think what happened was, in Virginia and elsewhere, power structures politically moved toward cities. The development that everyone was so excited about coming out of World War II, that created this incredible market for pop culture and technology, which allowed country music to proliferate in that time. So how small towns survived was they invited big businesses in.

In Winchester’s case, this was particularly catastrophic because they had been such a closed-door area for two hundred years. There had just been one level of people who owned everything and another level of people who worked for the people who owned everything, and that was just it.

But now, with money coming in from the outside, what happens is you get more money in the town but it also weakens the imaginative hold of that feudal system that you built up for two hundred years. Before you know it, people who grew up on Patsy’s side of town are in local government or on the school board or something like that. They bring those changes in with them.

Rumpus: Let’s talk craft. I noticed that your book doesn’t have a lot of exposition, which contrasts with other books in a genre I’ll call, “Let’s Talk about the Rest of America.” You have a lot of scenes and dialogue, but you restrain from spinning out to bigger conclusions. Was that a conscious choice?

Lingan: It’s super funny to hear you say that because most of the important editorial feedback that I received while I was working on this was that I should state more outright what I actually think is going on. They wanted more exposition.

Rumpus: What was the hardest part of putting this book together?

Lingan: The biggest surprise for me was that the magazine writing that I had done, which formed earlier drafts of some of these chapters, was no preparation at all for writing this book. I thought, “Oh, okay. Great. I’ve written four chapters broadly defined. Now, all I have to do is fill out the rest of the title and stick it together.”

But it was an extremely difficult thing to turn the three or four magazine-style pieces into coherent elements of the same book. I was shocked at how difficult it is, and it’s partly because the voice that you have to develop for a book is just so different than even the longest magazine piece. You have to hold people’s attention in such a different way. It has to be really immersive.

I’ve got two kids. I work a full-time job. I know when a book’s no good; I’ve gotten very unromantic about it. Down it goes to the used bookstore. Thank you. Next, please.

It was important to me that Homeplace felt like you were kind of riding shotgun with me and going from place to place. It’s not a book about me, but it had to have me in it because that was the sort of thing that made it coherent. The magazine pieces had this different layer, too. Different levels of my involvement based on what kind of story it was.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about this genre of book that’s basically people explaining America to Americans. Like “This Is the South” or “This Is Middle America”…

Lingan: People are calling it “Trump Country,” which I despise. It is not acceptable.

Rumpus: Definitely not.

Lingan: The problem with the sort of hillbilly elegization of our culture around these issues is that people tend to think, “Oh, it’s poor white people, so they’re all the same,” and it’s like no, no, no, no. It’s way different to be a poor white person in Baltimore versus Cincinnati versus western Maryland versus Texas. It’s totally different. I don’t know what the solution is to this except for just more people to write thoughtfully about the microregions they come from.

Rumpus: But how do you get it right? Because, you can be the most talented writer in the entire world and still fuck up writing about a place because you were just parachuted into Pella, Iowa by the New Yorker. But then, there’s the argument if you’re too deep in a place, can you ever really get it?

Lingan: In general, there is too much of this attitude around writing about rural people that, even if an author doesn’t come out and say it, there’s this implication of, “Take a look at these folks!”

Rumpus: Don’t tap the glass. They’re crazy.

Lingan: Right. I think, nine times out of ten, the people who are going into middle America or the South and coming back with the reports are well-meaning, thoughtful writers. I don’t think it’s a conscious process. As it pertains to that whole discussion of exposition, perhaps another thing that was sort of guiding me was kind of wanting to push back on this. I didn’t want this to be a “discover America with John” book just because I sort of hoped that point I was trying to make was even more of a historical one than a contemporary one.

Rumpus: One of the moments I loved was when a cook named Perry was trying to get a patron of his restaurant to try hollandaise sauce. She was skeptical and he just urges her on. You describe the moment without exaggeration.

Lingan: When we talk about all these numbers and figures and changes and electoral results and all that kind of stuff, what are we actually talking about? We’re talking about folks like Perry and his friend who are sitting there sharing this really funny cross-cultural thing in the diner on a Sunday.

If you’re gonna understand a guy like Perry, you can’t only do the backstory. You have to see him at his work. You have to show him doing what he is absolutely great at and show him owning that and kicking its ass so hard. That way, later on when he struggles, you realize, man, it’s hard out there. We know this guy has the goods, and he’s from this town, and everything else. If it’s tough for him, who isn’t it tough for?

Rumpus: Reading the book, hearing how Cline found freedom and entrapment with marriage, how she wore pants, how she did what she wants… I wanted to make her a feminist hero. But of course, that’s bullshit because if she’d known the term feminism, she would’ve hated it. I think about what you just said about the people behind the poll numbers. People’s lived experiences are so much more messy and nuanced and frustrating than we really give them credit for.

Lingan: We tend—and by “we,” I’m gonna implicate myself because I’m an East Coast tote-bagging pansy liberal as much as anyone else—have this idea that, on the liberal side, that when it comes to these hillbilly types, we just have to message things in the right way, and they’ll get it.

Cline’s whole thing is that she was salt of the earth to the people who knew her and the people from her side of the town. They loved that about her. She was very genuine, and she did what she wanted. One big controversy about her was that she wore pants. It was not cool to wear pants for a woman back then, and she just did it. She was really thought of by wealthier, “civilized” people as this kind of shameful hussie.

But then, the people who knew her weren’t afraid of the fact that she ran around on the weekends in a truck full of men from town to town and played in beer halls until three in the morning. So, really, who’s open-minded? Who has the capacity to accept differences of opinions? Honestly, who creates more progressive icons?

Rumpus: I think the thing that really struck me about her was it’s not like she was wearing pants to damn the man and Gloria Steinem the shit up. She was just wearing pants because it was the easiest way to live. She was just a lady doing what she wanted and sometimes, that’s really fucking radical.

Lingan: Cline was working full-time and actively pursuing an increasingly time-consuming music career from the age of like, sixteen. So she’s working full shifts, getting off full shifts, going home, changing into her stage clothes, getting in a hearse or something diabolical, and riding into the woods and playing on plywood stages in front of drunk audiences. Just imagine the grabbing and the harassment in a backwoods beer hall in Virginia in the 50s. Then, she’s coming home in the morning, and I’ll bet a person like that has days where they just don’t want to shave their legs. So it’s a pants day.

But she wasn’t political. She never even did feminism to the point that Loretta Lynn did. Just everything you hear about her, and every sort of decision that you see her make throughout her life is that of a really decent, open-hearted person. She does everything for other people, and she’s also very generous. When she makes it to a certain point, and she’s a very kind and thoughtful pen pal to lots of people over the course of her career. She’s not on a soapbox about anything. I’m not claiming her as a liberal but just as a person who’s a kind, decent, thoughtful, cultural figure.

Later in the book, it ends with these two characters in Perry and in Oscar, who are both, I think, sort of embodying that same kind of ideal as Patsy. They have a thing they want to do, and they have big visions for what they want to achieve and how they want to help people. So, the spirit of mid-century white woman icon lives on in these two men, a black men and a Mexican gay man who are living in Winchester.

Rumpus: Because place is so strong in your book, I want to understand how you think the setting and the place impacts the characters you met and spent so much time with?

Lingan: I kept seeing over the course of the different stories I was drawn to that there were people who are compelled toward big dreams. Obviously, it’s self-selecting. And this could very well just be an author looking for a metaphor in real life. But, I definitely think that the vistas that you get in Winchester and in the Shenandoah Valley are big, too—really big, lush, romantic scenery.

You can find yourself riding around through these mountains, and the tree line separates for a couple feet, and what you see is just gorgeous—you see farmland and these manorial estates in the folds of the mountains, and the trees are like ocean waves. It’s unbelievable. I have to believe that had something to do with people’s tendency to come up with grand designs for themselves.

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Author photograph © Pat Jarrett.


Lyz's writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode, Jezebel, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book on midwestern churches is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She has her MFA from Lesley and skulks about on Twitter @lyzl. Lyz is a member of The Rumpus Advisory Board and a full-time staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. More from this author →