After a morning spent desperately trying to help freshmen understand the crucial need for unwavering honesty in a personal essay this morning, I heard the news that Loretta Lynn had passed. I shut the door to my office and spent what time passed crying hard at my desk. My colleagues were consoling if confused, and I was too shaken and heartbroken to try to make sense of how deeply saddened I was to my fellow faculty members who took the news with casual reverence to the passing of a celebrity who enjoyed a long life. I was too upset, and the middle of the day between meetings and classes, was no time to try to relate why I fell into such mourning. So, to make explain my grief truthfully as an elegy for Loretta and to live out my own lecture I will try to do so here. But note that words fail, and the term essay derives from the French “essayer” which means to try. This is me trying.
My family originally came from Letcher County Kentucky, where Loretta Lynn was raised at the head of Butcher Holler before we moved to another coal town in Clay County. Eastern Kentucky is synonymous with poverty and ignorance; an embarrassing backward area of the country open to be mocked for a catalog of hillbilly tropes from inbreeding to feuding. It is an area that has been economically ravaged by coal and timber companies who left behind a legacy of black lung, poisonous groundwater, and once-wooded hills blown up and bulldozed into barren mesas. It has been exploited in the national media from Walter Cronkite’s 1964 special “Depressed Area USA,” to HBO’s 1999 America Undercover Special “American Hollow,” to “American Idol Gives Back” in 2008. None of these examples, or any other that come to mind, represented the goodness of where I come from. At best, as in the recent floodings in eastern Kentucky, they highlighted the pitiful circumstances of those most dejected and offered tokens of compassion, that like the focus of disaster relief, fades and forgotten.
This is why Loretta Lynn mattered so much to natives like me, and why I fell to tears. Not because she was a celebrity, but because she was a symbol that stood in direct opposition to the bad humor, privileged judgment, and embarrassment Appalachian Kentuckians face. She wasn’t a joke no matter how open she was about her life in poverty or her sometimes volatile marriage. She was loved by the public without reservations, and in that, in a small way, we felt a part of us was loved and respected as well.
When people ask me where I come from, I say that I was raised halfway between Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. This isn’t just for the sake of brevity. It is an explanation born of pride.
The remnants of Van Lear and dozens of other out-of-state coal companies still mark the state routes passing through towns like Whitesburg, Hazard, Hyden, and my hometown of Manchester. In brick and steel, still bearing the company names, these towering dinosaurs of oil-stained coal tipples, of conveyors rusted to the color of sulfur, and derelict rail lines whose dry-rotted ties now serve as planters for fox sedge, crooked stem asters, and June grass. The few coal mines that remain are in their twilight. The industry has left broken men, opioid addiction, and an ever-increasing population flight. The prospects for any industry replacing coal with jobs offering a living wage in such a geographically challenging area are slim at best.
In the early eighties, when the mines were still a viable option for men with families to support, I was taught in grade school the two types of coal: anthracite and bituminous. My teachers must have believed this was important for boys to know. By the time I studied English at the University of Kentucky my professors stressed that I had to lose my heavy Appalachian accent as it would harm my chances of being both taken seriously and employed. But I am sure in my heart that those same professors loved Loretta and would not dare change a single tone or inflection of her speech.
The mines have been closing all my life. I’ve been made fun of for my accent no matter how reduced it has become through conscious practice. I have seen the land where I come from continue to be exploited and disregarded in a hundred ways, but until today, I still had Loretta praising all that was patronized, denigrated, and ignored.
Loretta Lynn was the embodiment of eastern Kentucky and its people. She glorified the hardship of working the land until its people and hills were inseparable. She honored the lessons of poverty that shaped her. She was fierce and generous, wrapped in faith when there was no clear promise on the horizon, and continued to love fully despite times when good reason would argue for separation. She remained a part of the hills and of all of us. A rare spirit from a hard land who was loved so completely that our people carried a small ember of hope that we mattered as well.
I did not cry at my desk and on my drive home today because Loretta was famous. My heart ached because she was that special person who those from the hills understand without explanation: not family— but kin.