One year after his grandmother’s death, Caleb Johnson gets in the car she left to him and retraces the route she took to her favorite place on earth, Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.

By Caleb Johnson
June 25, 2020
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Credit: Cedric Angeles

Five months after my grandmother Margaret Louise Johnson died, my dad and I spread her cremated remains on the Alabama land where she’d grown up. The farm had since been abandoned and then strip-mined and was overrun by young pines and briars. A lone mulberry tree stood near the road. “This thing had berries as big as your thumb,” Dad said, then began shaking the plastic bag filled with Granny’s ashes in the same way I’d seen him spread fertilizer. “Whew, I’m glad that’s over with,” he said once the bag was emptied. “Finally, she can rest.” But I didn’t feel the same sense of closure as Dad. I got back in the car Granny had left tome and drove away. 

She’d paid cash for the used silver Buick Lucerne with faux wood inlay, tinted windows, a six-disc CD changer, and wide cloth seats. Granny was newly widowed at 81. This car was the first major purchase she’d ever made for herself. It allowed her freedom to piddle around Jasper, Haleyville, and other small towns near where she lived in rural northwest Alabama, visiting thrift stores and Walmart, stopping for lunch at a Jack’s fast-food restaurant. The destination didn’t matter as much as the ability to go, which was something she’d lacked for much of her life. 

The Buick Lucerne that set the trip in motion
| Credit: Cedric Angeles

Around the time Granny bought this car, I flamed out of a newspaper career. She and I hadn’t been close, but this changed as I rode shotgun on her excursions to town. Our soundtrack was a cache of classic-country compilation CDs she’d purchased off late-night television—songs by Kitty Wells; Hank Williams; and Granny’s all-time favorite, Loretta Lynn

When I inherited the Buick after her death in early 2018, three of those CDs remained inside the player. They became totems. I convinced myself that Granny had left the car to me—one of eight grandchildren—because we’d built a relationship in it, listening to songs that helped me embrace my rural identity. To honor her, I decided to drive the car to what she considered country music’s wellspring—Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.

In the 1960s, Loretta and her husband, Mooney, renovated a mansion and moved there. By the 1980s, the Lynns had built a modern house out back and turned the mansion into a museum for her fans to visit. Granny once told me if she could go anywhere on earth, it would be to this place, dubbed Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, which has grown to include a Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum, Butcher Holler home replica, RV park, and dirt bike track. She went there at least a dozen times. But I had never been until last year, when I set out from my parents’ house one rainy morning. 

Credit: Cedric Angeles

My first stop was a painted-green cinder block house near Double Springs, Alabama, where Granny had once lived. The house was vacant. Two sets of solar panels had been installed where she used to plant a vegetable garden. As I sat parked by the mailbox, I thought of afternoons she and I had spent on the screened porch. For many years,I’d viewed her as distant. She wasn’t a hugger or one to say, “I love you.” But those afternoons, as an overweight Chihuahua named Tammy circled our feet, Granny had opened up and told me stories—like how her mom gave her away to a widowed farmer named Boshell and then took her back to live three years in a Birmingham brothel, how she was starved when she returned to the Boshell farm and couldn’t stand upright, and how she then became so well fed that people in local coal camps marveled over how fat she’d gotten. 

A 2016 portrait of the Caleb's grandmother, Margaret Louise Johnson
| Credit: Courtesy of Irina Zhorov

Past Double Springs, I followed a two-lane road into Bankhead National Forest. Many creeks had flooded and were running the color of peanut butter. I’d downloaded several Loretta Lynn albums—classics like Fist City and Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ as well as her newest release, Wouldn’t It Be Great. My admiration for her goes beyond Granny’s influence. I appreciate how, even as musical tastes have changed, she’s refused to soften her Eastern Kentucky accent. Nobody writes about rural lives the way she does: unflinchingly, proudly. Although Granny never put it to me this way, I suspect those lyrics made her feel seen. I know they do that for me. 

I sang along as the route wound through communities where the houses stood on rock foundations. The forest gave way to farmland and then to downtown Florence on the other side of a tumid Tennessee River. From there, it was a straight shot north to the state line. In Tennessee, I merged onto the Natchez Trace Parkway, where days of heavy rain had turned the fields into shallow lakes. 

I checked into my hotel at dusk, then walked next door to Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen, where my cousin had remembered eating with Granny. A gift shop showcased souvenir shirts, mugs, and pickles, but I was tired, unable to experience the joy these products were meant to bring. 

At the buffet, I loaded a plate with fried chicken, pinto beans, creamed corn, turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and a cornbread muffin. No more than 10 people sat in the large dining room. Above every table and booth hung a different image of Loretta, making each seat feel like a personal altar. Outside, rain continued falling. I settled near a window and watched headlights drifting along I-40 as I ate a version of the meals Granny used to cook.  

Left: Credit: Cedric Angeles
Right: Credit: Cedric Angeles

The next morning, I woke up early and met a tour guide outside the gristmill that came with the property Loretta and Mooney bought for $220,000 in 1967—a year before “Fist City” reached number one on the country charts. The song, a warning to women who might covet her husband, was followed by eight more number one singles in the next decade. The ranch was closed for the season, so I boarded an otherwise empty tour bus that took me across a frothing creek. There, an iron gate that featured silhouette cutouts of miners and musical notes swung open, and then we headed uphill toward the mansion. 

A cat named Angel followed us to a side entrance. Inside, the decor was a blend of country and cosmopolitan—plush mauve carpet, a taxidermy deer head, blue silk drapes, cast-iron skillets, a crystal chandelier. I understood the appeal for someone like my grandmother, who lived the majority of her adult life in a three-bedroom house owned by the Episcopal church camp that employed her husband. No doubt, she fantasized about owning a home with enough wall space for every family photograph and ceilings you couldn’t stretch and touch. Perhaps the dream seemed slightly more within reach because of the background she shared with Loretta—born in a rural place during the Depression, married young, birthed several kids quickly, outlived controlling husbands. 

PawPaw and Granny on the porch of a relative’s house in July 1985
| Credit: Courtesy of Caleb Johnson

Granny told me she often had to lie to my grandfather (PawPaw) if she wanted to travel to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, saying she was visiting kin so he would let her go. I never became close with my grandfather, but I know from family members that he drank and would use his fists in place of words. My dad says PawPaw never begrudged Granny her trips to Hurricane Mills or anywhere else; he even gave her money for food and gas. But Granny didn’t ask for her ashes to be spread on or near his grave. Once, she told me about a time when PawPaw didn’t want her to go see Jimmy C. Newman perform at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch. This was many years after their kids were grown and out of the house. Eventually, she got in the car—one they shared before she bought the Buick—and went anyway. “Nobody sat down the whole time,” she said of the concert. “All of them were clapping and stomping.” 

It’s hard for me to imagine her among the crowd, with hands and feet keeping time with Newman’s Cajun-country band, and even harder for me to reckon with what she did after the show. Without enough money for a motel room and facing a three-plus-hour drive home on dark country roads, she parked outside a well-lit McDonald’s and slept with a .22-caliber pistol in reach. At dawn, she bought a coffee and a sausage biscuit and then drove home. I remember she chuckled while recalling this memory to me, saying that it was the first time she had shared it with anybody. 

Left: Credit: Cedric Angeles
Right: Credit: Cedric Angeles

After seeing the mansion, I visited the Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum, 18,000 square feet of space filled with a tour bus, furniture, guitars, dresses, proclamations and awards, letters from famous admirers, and even oil paintings done by Loretta over the years. Although I was the only tourist there that day, an ambient soundtrack still played softly in each room. Eventually, I heard the steel guitar opening of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which features my favorite rhyme, one only a natural Southern drawl can pull off: “The work we done was hard/At night we’d sleep ’cause we were tired.” I hummed along, climbed onto the tour bus, and sat there for a while. Later, in a documentary playing on loop, I watched a group of lucky tourists sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” for the girl from Butcher Holler herself. Some cried and stopped before finishing the chorus. Others belted through the entire song with their eyes squeezed shut. 

Granny never met Loretta Lynn. The closest I got was visiting a low-ceilinged room in the back of the museum where boxes filled with ephemera from her life and career are stored: rare 45s sent by the musician Jack White, family photo albums, Mooney’s keys and reading glasses, and fading lyrics scrawled on hotel memo pads. Loretta, I’m told, doesn’t throw away anything and reads every word written about her.

Left: Credit: Cedric Angeles
Right: Credit: Cedric Angeles

Typically, this room is off-limits. Along the walls were more than 800 dresses arranged in chronological order, from the 1960s (when she sewed many of her own) to the dazzling gowns she became known for later in her career. I brushed my fingers along them, knowing that Granny wouldn’t have forgiven me had I not. The garments were not as spectacular on a rack as they appeared when she donned them onstage. Up close, I noticed loose threads, faded fabric. I thought of the plastic necklaces and clip-on earrings Granny wore—costume jewelry. When it came time to piddle around town, she would pair them with a polyester pantsuit, treating a grocery store aisle as if it were a fashion runway. 

Before leaving Hurricane Mills, I parked the Buick in front of the mansion’s gates and took a photo with my phone. Across the creek was the main gift shop. If you call there, you can hear Loretta on an answering machine. Fans dial the number at all hours to listen to her voice. When I asked a tour guide what inspired this devotion, he said hearing her was like talking to your own grandmother. 

About a year before Granny died, I recorded audio of her. I’d realized she was a fine storyteller and wanted to capture her voice for future generations. One of her favorite stories was about the time she pulled a pistol during her son’s wake and threatened to shoot a family member she was certain had stolen from them. It should be noted that, by then, Granny was legally blind. Grown cousins hid in the kitchen pantry for fear of catching a stray bullet. “They all thought for sure I was going to pull that trigger,” she would tell me later with a grin. This became one of my favorite stories, because, by sharing it with me, Granny trusted I’d see the humor as well as the heartache in it—emotions that if put with three chords would get at the capital-T truth of what it means to love and lose someone, the same way a good country song does. 

But the day I recorded Granny, she spoke mostly of her childhood, a sign that the end was getting near. “I have dreams of being home,” she said, referring to the farmland where my dad and I would spread her ashes under a mulberry tree. “Just running around barefooted with a long dress on. I got about 3 or 4 hundred million little footprints on that place.” 

As I got into the Buick and drove away from Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, I thought about how many footprints Granny had left there. And now, finally, I’d left mine with them.