There’s some great graffiti on the walls in the toilet stalls of Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. Aside from affirmations, and quotes from the scriptures of both the Holy Bible and Lynn’s own country songs (‘Honky Tonk Girl’, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, ‘Don't Come Home a Drinkin’), there is a whole literature of slogans that alter the traditional ‘X was here, date’ to incorporate a celebrity in the value X: i.e. “Loretta Lynn was here 2008”, a not unlikely statement that segues effortlessly into more imaginative concatenations such as “Lady Gaga was here” and even “Snookie took a dookie here, 2012”.
“Snookie took a dookie here” is a work of minor genius. Anonymous teen vandals have had the poetic gall to scratch a stall door with a perfect satire of what I, and others like me, have been doing from Hollywood to Chicago, Memphis to Nashville, and beyond: crisscrossing the USA in the strange dance that makes up the tourism of proximity.
Anyone who has stood behind the velvet rope of Elvis’ bedroom at Graceland while an amiable guide recounts The King’s ablution habits and TV watching schedule, or slept beneath motel sheets thinking of the time that Tennessee Williams, or Bessie Smith lay here, knows what I mean.. Proximity tourism is a travel style where you visit places based on who (or what) has been in this place before you. As though stomping on Elvis’s carpet — or, in the current example, using one of the public toilets that Loretta owns — might give you some particular insight. But insight into what?
Into the reality behind the myth, perhaps. As though a hair on the sink or an original bed sheet might pin down and locate the mystique, and more importantly, allow the tourist to enter into it, to incorporate it and become in turn incorporated.
While this kind of tourism occurs everywhere, I have never participated so fully and shamelessly in it as now, in the middle of my first trip to the USA. I have become a proximity tourist because of my long time obsession with the country’s pop culture, and also because such tourism is so available, so promoted. The homes of celebrities and the places where famous things once happened show up on every city and every town’s internet tourist to-do list. I ached strangely with loss when my itinerary originally did not allocate enough time in Palm Springs to see both the vacation home of Marylyn Monroe and the house where Elvis and Pricilla honeymooned. Later though, sitting in the rental car out the front of Elvis’ love nest, I am struck by a different kind of emptiness: the boredom of sitting in a car outside a house, on a stake-out of a long dead suspect. Not that this boredom will kick my proximity craving; rather it intensifies it, motivates me to search harder, move closer. If myth has an aura, I wanna get my stink on it.
We discovered Loretta Lynn’s ranch while searching out the mythic locales around Tennessee. Unlike Graceland or Dollywood, Loretta’s Hurricane Mills Ranch seems particularly exposed and lawless. For one thing, Loretta still lives there. She has opened up her ranch to “the fans” and the local community. She hosts concerts, motocross events and trail rides that attract country folk from all over Tennessee and Kentucky. They drag their floats and families and horses onto her property and camp for weeks on end. Swimming in her creek, singing round her campfire. The fans do much the same thing, though some also sit out all night outside her home, telling the security they are just 'lovin' Lorretta'. When we arrive we are told to pull up anywhere. We pitch our tent between the stables and the billboard of Loretta’s face over the scrawled “Y'all make yourselves at home”.
My abiding interest in Loretta springs from several places: from a love of the kitschy, from her own place in the country music scene of the ’60s and ’70s, and from an enduring fandom for feminist music. Loretta Lynn was one of the first big female country superstars, the protégé and bestie of Patsy Cline. Her songs tell first person narratives of country women’s lives while eschewing the whole lonely victim thing. Loretta ain’t all torch songs and regret. She fights. She writes songs with titles like ‘Your Squaw is on the Warpath’ and ‘Fist City’. She refuses to either romanticise or be ashamed of her childhood poverty, declaring simply in her hit song that she is “proud to be a coalminer’s daughter”. In 1975 she wrote the first English language song that mentions the oral contraceptive pill. In the song, obliquely titled ‘The Pill’, she declares to an oppressive husband-figure that “I'm tearing down your brooder house, ’cause now I've got the pill”. Today aged 80-something Loretta is a woman who’s still working, writing, touring and destroying taboos, by appearing in video clips in her Grand Ole Opry gown, flirting and kissing Jack White while singing sexed-up duets.
And, of course, she still has her ranch, “the seventh biggest tourist attraction in Tennessee”. It’s run mainly by her massive brood of kids and grandkids, and it employs loads of locals. The ranch itself is huge, and its 1966 bill of sale also included a ghost town, one that Loretta, with her country singer’s command on kitschy narrative, has turned into a museum and gift shop complex. The ranch has a grist mill and a simulated coal mine, the latter of which a tour guide takes us through before concluding with the statement that 60 percent of America’s power still comes from coal, which means, to both him and to Loretta, that coal miners “are heroes that need to be sung”.
In another building, Loretta displays a vast collection of some of the most hideous, buck-toothed and pin-curled plastic dolls I have ever seen. A redheaded, watery-eyed kidult in brocade stares up from a display case devoted to Loretta’s Minnesota fans, its pink tongue protruding suggestively from beside a centre clump of bottom teeth. Other cases feature some impressive fan art, as well as art by the Lynn clan. There are velvet paintings commemorating Loretta and her husband Mooney’s anniversary, ancient Valentines’ Day cards with a thousand signatures, and ancient bottles of Crisco’s vegetable oil, a product which the guide later tells me Loretta briefly endorsed during the early eighties.
Our guide, taking his fifth tour for the day through the star attraction, Loretta’s ex-plantation home — the Adirondack rocking chair sitting right on top of the century-old ‘slave hutch’ — informs us that “Y'all might recognise this kitchen, ’cause this is where Loretta stood and did those Crisco ads.” A squeal emits from a few of the people in the group who remember the advertisements. Now they are proximate not only to Loretta Lynn but also to their own childhoods, basking in the Crisco-yellow glow of the television.
The museums are exhaustive; they include every award, every hand-stitched dress, every family photo. There’s every opportunity to take hold of Loretta’s life and immerse yourself in her mythology. There is a kind of unselfish narcissism at play: you are invited to share in a shrine constructed by its object. The ranch workers have a simpler take: one tells me that “Loretta is a damn pack-rat, that’s for sure.”
Loretta Lynn’s rags-to-riches story is well known and documented. Her songs account for some of this, as does the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek, based on Lynn’s autobiography. Loretta grew up dirt poor in a coal mining community in Kentucky. The oldest of eight kids, she married at thirteen and got to breeding her own six strong family before her drunken, philandering husband Mooney (his nickname awarded on account of his moonshining racket) bought her a $19 harmony guitar on which she learned her chords and wrote her first hit singles. Mooney bullied her into her full potential and then behaved rather badly when her success emasculated him. His poor behaviour in turn became gold records, classic Loretta lines like 'I'm not here to fight though if he were a better man I might'.
Touring the ranch property, inspecting the perfect replica of the dilapidated miner’s cottage in which Loretta grew up, exploring the recording studio and gift shops, my companion noted how engrained and well-loved the rags to riches narrative is in US mythology: “This could just as easily be about Jay Z.” (Or indeed Elvis, or a dozen others at first thought). These kinds of stories always include the same elements: the loyalty to the humble origin, and the creation of a small empire that brings members of the old community into a new golden world. It’s a story we never tire of. A rise to stardom from the boggy marsh of extreme poverty suggests that the system works (or at least provides the interpretive structure through which we can construct the myth). It’s the map that draws up the territory. In this Tennessee ranch museum we are proximate not just to Loretta’s specific story, but also to the possibility of our own banal or wretched beginnings turning mythic in the shadow of some marvellous, glittering possible future.
There is an argument that says that today’s museum is no longer located, but instead incorporates the whole of reality, making us all the subjects of some invisible ethnology. This is a function of narrative, a by-product of our impulse to order experience with stories. I'm a fan of these kinds of theories, but they can become a convenient way to avoid responsibility, especially when you are doing activities as covetous and selfish as tourism – or worse, writing. This is drawn into sharp relief for me at Loretta Lynn’s ranch, where the appeal of myth and the violence of reality clash, rendering me uncomfortable in my skin.
One evening that we are there the ranch hosts its annual rodeo and, sitting in the stalls with my Budweiser, anticipating immersion in some curated and mythic event, I begin to realise that this gathering is not a tourist spectacle or a privileged glimpse at some mythic practice. This is a real rodeo full of real ranching folk who like to rope steers and drink beers and know everyone around them. I flinch as a cowboy cable ties the ankles of a calf in less than thirty seconds. I am totally out of place. This event isn't being offered up to my gaze as a prefab narrative – it’s participatory and alive, with all the good, bad and ugly in attendance.
Immediately my fan-girl motives, my movie monologues in fake southern accent and my love of ‘kitsch’ is exposed as pretentious and offensive. It’s a colonial impulse to reduce a whole living culture to artefacts that I can know and understand just by looking at them. I'm a grifter with lazy TV eyes. The tourism of proximity is not just silly, but straight-up wrong.
I squirm in my seat as a cow lets out a pained bellow. How can I reconcile my point of view with my actual view? Should I change the subject of my inquiry and my writing from pop culture to people? I shudder at the thought, sip my beer, loath to step in to the arena of anthropology and wrestle the poor steer that is ‘real people’.
In order to redeem myself I have to find a more comfortable job description, a better narrative. What am I? What active role do I have here? I have paid my admission fee but I'm still interloping and scrounging for scraps to pilfer. Perhaps, if there is any place for me it is as a kind of myth side-worker, a member of a maintenance crew that continues to consider and re-narrate the myth, even just to keep the dust off it. Because myth isn't something that exists on its own, isn’t something can be packaged and sold to tourists, not really. Mythology is a participatory sport. It requires constant upkeep. If you think proximity alone will unlock mystique and allow your incorporation, think again. You might as well sit where Snookie took a dookie and think that makes you special.
Leaving Loretta’s ranch, driving past her smiling face on the billboard with the scrawling kindness “Ya'll come back now”, we drive through the depopulated and dirt-poor countryside, past the closed down diners and factories and bars, and back onto the giant rolling interstate which links one part of the museum to another. Now flashing past the car window are global franchises: the Arbies and Burger Kings, the Sonic Drive Throughs and Super 8 motels. They spool like a repeated background in an old cartoon and it occurs to me that the myth I am trying to incorporate is bigger than Loretta or Elvis or The Beats or The Delta Blues. The myth I wanna get real close to is America itself. Its rags-to-riches. Its impossibility. I wanna sleep in the sheets America slept in; America The Dead Celebrity as well as America The Real Place, where real people dwell and live and die and have their own stories to tell. I wanna incorporate and be incorporated in this TV and pop song land, but this damned interstate, and the fact of being a tourist, a writer, a fan, an outsider with an itinerary and agenda – that’s the real velvet rope. That’s the thing that makes it both so pressing, and so impossible to attain any real proximity.