We were locked out of the humble home where country music legend Loretta Lynn grew up and were about to leave Butcher Hollow when someone pulled up in silver Chevy Silverado pickup truck. A trim man with neatly parted gray hair wearing a pair of jeans and a red-checked shirt stepped out of the truck and introduced himself.
“I’m Herman Webb,” he said, shaking my hand.
It took me a minute to realize that this was the brother of country music stars Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gale. But how did he know that we wanted to tour the home they grew up in?
“You were just down at the grocery shop,” he explained, sensing my confusion. “They called and said there was someone here to see the house. I live just 500 feet down the road there, so here I am.”I like old school country music but I’m not so hardcore that I would ordinarily seek out the childhood homes of well-known country music artists. Loretta Lynn, however, is another story. Even if you don’t like country music, you have to love her life story.
The daughter of a coal miner, she was the second of eight children who grew up poor in a place called Butcher Hollow in Van Lear, Kentucky. (It’s pronounced and sometimes spelled Butcher Holler and is named after her mother’s family whose surname was Butcher.) She got married at 15 and had three children by the time she was 19. At 29, she was already a grandmother. Not exactly a textbook formula for success, but after moving out west she was discovered at a talent show in Tacoma and went on to record 16 number one hits, winning four Grammy awards and countless other accolades along the way.
Three of her siblings, sisters Crystal Gayle and Peggy Sue, and brother Jay Lee Webb, also pursued careers in country music, though none were as successful as she was. But despite her fame she never forgot her humble roots. Indeed her most recent album is called Van Lear Rose and her best-known hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is all about growing up in the Van Lear coal mines area.
Butcher Hollow is a destination, not a place you just happen to pass through. We were on our way back to Chicago after touring Hatfield-McCoy country in West Virginia and Kentucky and I convinced my wife that an excursion to Lynn’s childhood home was a worthy detour.
We got hopelessly lost but with a little help from some friendly locals we finally found Millers Creek Road, which meanders down to Butcher Hollow. It’s a narrow road that passes through this isolated community of trailers and modest homes. We passed a number of abandoned or burned out homes and shops, and in some ways, it almost seemed like a ghost town until we stopped into Webb Grocery, a small shop filled with Loretta Lynn memorabilia owned by Herman.
The narrow road leading down to the house is overgrown in places, and I kept stopping to get out and look at things that caught my eye: an old white school bus with “Kentucky” written in cursive script and a multicolored flag serving as someone’s curtains; a modest home with a cluttered front porch and a “God Bless America” sign; and a small home that was dwarfed by three huge satellite dishes. The nearest Starbucks, I later confirmed, is an hour and 20 minutes to the north in Huntington, West Virginia. Butcher Hollow is about as off the grid as you can get east of the Mississippi.
After a few minutes of small talk with Herman, 78, on the front porch of the old wooden cabin the family moved to when Loretta was a toddler, he put on one of his sister’s albums and we stepped into the house. The first floor has just two rooms, both with double beds, and a kitchen. (The attic bedrooms are off limits to visitors.) I was immediately struck by how tiny the place is, especially for a huge family, and by the fact that there was graffiti all over the walls.
“I can’t control what they do when they get ahead of you,” Herman explained.
The home is perched on a hilltop and is filled with period antiques the family actually used. Every inch of wall space that isn’t filled with family photos or memorabilia is covered in graffiti – people have signed their names and the date they visited the place or written other messages, like “Welcome to Butcher Holler” to mark their visit.
A trio of teenage girls turned up and Herman led us around the home, telling stories and pointing out the significance of various items on display.
“This is the best piece of furniture I got,” he said in his raspy, Kentucky twang, made horse by a lifetime of work in factories as a painter and welder, grasping a swing positioned in what was once his parent’s bedroom. “This swing was on the porch when I was a little kid.”
He pointed to a photo of his parents and said, “That’s mommy and daddy sittin’ in this swing in nineteen and fifty one. My dad died in 1959, at 52. Mommy remarried but she never did have no more kids.”
Herman told us that the town fell on hard times after the Van Lear coal mine closed in 1948.
“This used to be a thriving town,” he said. “We had plenty of stores, even a stoplight.”
The family moved to Wabash, Indiana, in 1955. Loretta and her husband didn’t care for Indiana so they gravitated west to Washington State where she was discovered. Herman said he returned to Van Lear for good in 1975.
“I don’t know why,” he joked. “Guess I was just homesick.”
A cousin lived in the place into the 70s and Herman started fixing it up, so he could open it to the public in 1986. The house had no electricity or running water, and everyone had to use an outhouse out back when nature called.
“We didn’t have much money,” Herman said. “But neither did anyone else we knew and there was always something to eat.”
He said that they learned how to forage for edible plants and berries on hikes around the surrounding hills. Herman played in a band called the Country Nighthawks; he played the “git-TAR,” but was never able to quit his day job.
“We played a lot of gigs but I could never go too far, because I couldn’t quit my job and we needed the money,” he explained. “But I still play now and again.”
His sisters still come back to Butcher Hollow for visits, and he enjoys visiting with tourists who come to see the place, especially since his wife died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease seven years back.
“This old stove, tea kettle and cabinets here are all the original things we had,” Herman said, leading us through the tiny kitchen. “That churn behind you – I’ve churned buttermilk in that, beat butter, I’ve done it all.”
He showed us a moonshine container, his dad’s coal mining helmet and a host of other items and after showing us around the living room, took a seat on a couch. As much as I enjoyed seeing the house and this unique little forgotten corner of the country, the real treasure in visiting Butcher Hollow was having a chance to meet Herman, who seemed to be in no hurry to go home.
After a nice long chat, we said our goodbyes and on the way back out of town I saw a bumper sticker on a parked car down at the grocery shop that read, “Y’all Been to Butcher Hollow?” I’ve traveled all around the world in the last four decades but I can’t remember ever getting a richer, more authentic slice of a fast vanishing culture than what we experienced in this forgotten little hamlet in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Hell yeah, I’ve been to Butcher Hollow and I plan to come back around someday too. Hope to see you there.