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grassland encircled by a grandstand
of natural forest and brush, serves as
a foundation for both Eastern Kentucky's long narrative of affliction
as well as its people's tenacity. It's
notable that future-president James
A. Garfield, though an Ohioan, led
the Union forces that day. Having
risen from humble roots, he would
be assassinated six months after
So it goes in along the Big Sandy. Kentucky rivers that flow into
the Ohio inevitably dye a deep
The Hatfield-McCoy War gave
the waters little time to clear.
Popular culture would like the
public to believe that the bitter feud
began with either a quaint disagreement over the ownership of a hog
or in the throes of a forbidden love
affair, a la Romeo and Juliet. Many
historians, though, mark its beginnings in the post-war murder of
Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy
at the hands of a Confederate militia that included a few key Hatfields
among its ranks.
Today, the conflict is an almost
comical trope. "This successful life
we're livin'," sang the late Waylon
Jennings (yes, a Texas boy), "Got us
feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys."
When Jennings relates his song's
spousal feud to the war, he unwittingly gives it the weight of a country divided not only by North and
South, but from township to township, and family to family. On the
West Virginia line, it was as if the
Civil War never ended. Communities suffered the consequence of infighting: exploitation.
In 1900, the first commercial
mine opened in the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield. Almost overnight,
the region changed from an agrarian
to a manufacturing society. Weakened communities were subject to
power coups that transformed them
into company towns. Business was
monopolized. Miners were paid in
Throughout these hardships, the
region's people cultivated their distinctive pluck and realized that they
were a stronger voice in unison in
the face of a common adversary.
"You load sixteen tons, what do you
get? / Another day older and deeper in
debt / Saint Peter, don't you call me
'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the
The song is commonly attributed to Tennessee Ernie Ford, but
was written by Kentucky-native
That adversary showed itself in
1931 when the Harlan County Coal
Company cut worker wages.
The response was a wave of
strikes, culminating in violence between company-bankrolled deputies and striking workers in Evarts.
It should have come as no surprise
that when the governor called in
the National Guard, their men were
ordered to break the picket line. To
the citizens of Harlan County, it was
clear that powerful coal companies
controlled their livelihoods.
They turned to folk singers when
politicians, police, and unions failed
to represent them. Two of those
singers were Aunt Molly Jackson
(1880-1960) and Florence Reece
Listen to Jackson's "Hungry
Ragged Blues," and her soprano
sounds as if it has feet and is teetering over the edge of the Cumberland Gap, daring the listener to give
it a push. Her rudimentary guitar
style elicits questions as to how she
ever found herself surrounded by
such greats as Woody Guthrie and
Pete Seeger. But those questions are
quickly answered by the urgency
with which she delivers her message.
Florence Reece's influence has
been clear across the 20th century
since the Great Depression, with
these lyrics: "They say in Harlan
County / There are no neutrals there
/ You'll either be a union man / Or a
thug for J.H. Blair/ Which side are you
on, boys? / Which side are you on?"
The cynic might say her words
would serve as a more appropriate
state song than "My Old Kentucky
Country music, though, says
that Reece's question represents the
The Country Music Highway
The 144-mile Eastern Kentucky section of U.S. 23 runs from Flatwoods to
Jenkins. It became a National Scenic
Byway in 2002. The perfomers whose
talents created the byway, along with
* Billy Ray Cyrus, Flatwoods
* Crystal Gayle, Paintsville
* Tom T. Hall, Olive Hill
* The Judds (Naomi and daughter
* Patty Loveless, Pikeville
* Loretta Lynn, Butcher Hollow
* Josh Osborne, Virgie
* Ricky Skaggs, Cordell
* Chris Stapleton, Lexington
* Dwight Yoakam, Pikeville
* Hylo Brown (deceased), River
* Gary Stewart (deceased), Jenkins
* Keith Whitley (deceased), Ashland
region's key conflict. In the face of
environmental and economic devastation, do we choose despair or do
we choose progress? Certainly, some
resign themselves to the former, but
their story goes unsung in the darkness. It's the stories of steadfast grit
that shine through and speak to the
true purpose of hardship.
Travel down U.S. Route 23 to
the tune of Loretta Lynn's 1970
release, "Coal Miner's Daughter."
She didn't write it with images of
sweeping amphitheater crowds
flashing before her eyes, but instead with the immediacies of her
hardscrabble Eastern Kentucky life
flowing through her veins.
Her six verses-however venerable-are only one loud voice in
Eastern Kentucky's great chorus.
The unheard sing to standing on
the rim of a great basin, where a
mountain once sat before surface
mining cut it away. To a second
cousin swigging McCoy moonshine at Tug Fork. To an ancestor
falling to the mud, a minié ball
having blown away a limb.
Great art is made in spite of, and
sometimes because of, great tragedy.
The hills of Eastern Kentucky have
given great measures of grief to their
residents, but, sure enough, we still
sing their praises.
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