Cheesy Wrestling in the Shadow of Patsy Cline’s Honky Tonk
In the Mid-South Appalachians, life’s lessons used to come from honky tonk songs and now they come from wrestle mania, but the messages hardly change at all.
The Troubadour Bar and Lounge was famed as the last honky-tonk bar in the Virginias, and it loomed so high in the Blue Ridge Mountains above Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, that returning to town always felt like landing back on earth.
One night, making the trip myself, I paused at the intersection with Washington Street, Berkeley Springs’ main drag. There was a gas station to my left, which doubled as the welcome sign for anyone coming off the mountain to rejoin civilization. Across the street was the town’s hippie-styled restaurant, specializing in veggie wraps and barbecue ribs. To the right of its brown facade, a narrow, nondescript driveway entrance fell off out of view. I’d never even noticed it during my dozens of stops at this exact spot, but now, right at the cusp of sundown, I could see that a hazy light was shining in the distance, back farther than I would’ve thought that driveway could go. I drove across the street and entered.
The narrow road opened into a series of small parking lots that led up to a wide white steel barn. That’s where the light was coming from: two flood lamps beamed above the tall doors and some vividly well-lit party was underway inside. I parked amid huge pickup trucks and dented sedans and joined a loose flow of multigenerational families toward the yellow-white glow.
A huge sign on the white hangar advertised that this was the Berkeley Springs Sportatorium, and the occasion was an amateur wrestling event: Hot & Bothered, a production of Covey Promotions. Two enormous men, some of the tallest and heaviest-looking human beings I’d ever seen, stood in dark sunglasses and sleeveless T-shirts along the gravel path leading up to the doors. They checked all bags and watched the procession skeptically: bouncing little kids with their parents, preadolescent boys with their friends and one tired mother trailing far behind, couples with their hands in each other’s rear jean pockets, all the way up to grannies with walkers and even an old man on a scooter with an oxygen tube in his nose.
Passing in the shadow of our silent, skyscraping security pair, I found myself within earshot of a particularly awkward trio: another prepubescent boy with poor posture, his mother, and her overeager date. The boy was small and nearly frail in a polo shirt and buzz cut, the man was tall and Sears-catalog handsome, and the woman stood between them, trying for balance.
“This’ll be great,” the man said. “You excited, Corey?” The boy stared straight ahead and said nothing.
I stayed near them as we entered and paid our $15 per person and took our seats by the ring. To the left, a store-bought multicolored disco light rotated above a black curtain. To the right, two women at a table with chips and soda were doing fleet business. The elderly folks all sat in the front row while the younger kids ran around on Mountain Dew fumes. I looked at the program, an ink-jet printout listing the night’s bouts. There would be the Tag Team Title Match between the duos Good Vibes and Double Dragon, a Television Title Match between a cop-styled character named John Boy Justice and a businessman known as The CEO. These and other costumed men were posed fearsomely on the flier, leering, posing, and pixelated in a crude collage. I recognized a few by the snack table, the Good Vibes pair, who wore pastel-colored zebra-stripe pants and spandex tops and were built like medium- and large-size barrels. Their fans gathered for pictures as the Vibes flexed muscles and held up number-1 fingers.
“Corey’s been looking forward to this all week,” his mother explained to Mr. Sears, who was dressed in a starched plaid button-down shirt and khaki slacks so sharply creased he could have used them to shave. The mother turned to the boy.
“Did you thank Luke for taking us here?” Corey was unmoved.
“My pleasure,” said Luke. “Never been to one of these. Looking forward to it.” An unbearable silence passed as Luke looked pleadingly at his girlfriend. She took mercy on him.
“You want to go get an autograph?” she asked her son, digging in her purse for a pen. She handed him one and pressed the program into his hands. He looked hesitant to leave her side but she nudged him gently, confidently, and he sidled past me and on toward the mugging mammoths in spandex. Luke pulled his hand through his hair and sighed. No man with a belt-clipped phone had ever looked more vexed.
“I just don’t know,” he said. “He’s not talking. I’m… I’m trying here.”
“You worry too much,” she assured him. “He’s fine. He likes you.” Luke was so unconvinced he laughed. She amended her statement. “He’s happy to be here.”
Over on the other side of the crowd, Corey stood between the twin towers of Good Vibes as someone clicked a photo on a phone, then as he started to walk back toward us, a man took hold of a microphone in the middle of the ring. The music hushed— it had been chugging, maximal-energy hard rock ever since we walked in — and he leapt into an emcee routine that was calibrated a few notches beyond what the scene required. To this audience of country families amid bright lighting and bulk snacks, he brought a galloping cadence clearly meant for TV, not unlike the practiced patter between Arthur von Wiesenberger and Jill Klein Rone, which I’d watched only a hundred or so yards up the road.
“Hello, Berkeley Springs!” he shouted. “We want you to be loud and boisterous, we want you to cheer for your favorites. We want you to boo for your un-favorites.” He then led the crowd in a call-and-response of cheering and booing, getting everyone accustomed to the shouting required for broadcast. Two cameramen were roving around the ring, preparing to start the live feed on the local cable-access station, footage from which would later be repurposed for the weekly hour-long Covey Pro highlight reel on the same channel. These broadcasts, which were also archived to YouTube, contained advertisements for bail bonds, local lawyers, and Berkeley Springs restaurants.
“But first let’s rise and gentlemen, please remove your caps.” A recorded, melismatic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over the loudspeakers as crowd members shushed their kids and held their hands above their hearts.
“How’s that autograph?” Luke tried once the recording ended, and Corey passed him the program. “Got ’em both? That’s cool.” Corey held close to his mom as our emcee introduced a minister, a tall man clad mostly in black who spoke in a similarly television-friendly way.
“Friends, we just celebrated the seventieth anniversary of D-day, so I would like, if any veterans are here with us, would you please stand and be recognized?” A few younger men and our oxygen-dependent neighbor rose from their chairs and received their due reverence. The preacher started back in.
“Dear Lord, we are truly here in the land of the brave and the home of the free. Thanks to these brave men and women who have defended our Constitution and sacrificed for our freedom. But we thank you for your greater sacrifice, of your son. May we have a great show, keep everybody safe, and in all these things we give you the glory.” A mumbled “amen” lifted out of the crowd.
“Thank you,” said our emcee, retaking the mic. “One last reminder, folks, there is no smoking except on the gravel outside. If you are not standing on gravel, please keep from smoking.” This was in keeping with local smoking laws, which even in rural West Virginia had grown prescriptive to a degree that would have been unimaginable even ten years earlier. Morgan County passed its ban on smoking in restaurants in 2007. The ban did exempt bars, however, meaning that Jim and Bertha McCoy, owners of the Troubadour, had to legally classify their venue as such, since a smoking ban in a honky-tonk would be an affront to country living. But that meant that no kids were allowed in the place anymore, at least not indoors.
Strange as it may sound, the Troubadour used to resemble this wholesome family scene prior to that. In communities where there’s not much going on, the distinction between a family venue and a grown-up one tends to blur. A single bar can be the place where one man brings his kids for payday dinner and another man finds the night’s romance. Children in these settings are exposed to the whole messy tumble of adult life from an early age. For years it went unchallenged that the members of a community should be able to smoke in the same place where they entertained their children. That changed in the early twenty-first century, and it might seem like a small thing except for the fact that it deprived children of those wondrous, aesthetically edifying interiors that define the country mind. The Troubadour could provide a preadolescent with a window into the full range of human feeling, smells, and humor. It could mark a person’s values for life.
His night may have been smoke-free, but Corey was certainly getting a fair taste of this humid, high-intensity southern humanity at Hot & Bothered. The high ceilings and metal walls of the Sportatorium made the place echo with boos and hurrahs. The sun was going down outside but it wasn’t getting any cooler. The mosquitoes gathered and spun around the lights by the doorway. The stale air took on the smell of sweat and powdered cheese. Dots and circles formed in Luke’s armpits and back, darkening his blue button-down shirt as he sat with his elbows on his knees, his hands connected only at his fingertips like a church spire. Corey hung close to his mother, scanning the room, quietly absorbing a southern community through sensory overload and trying to make sense of the physically and emotionally outsize adult world. Right on cue, the wrestlers entered the ring.
Hulks all, but none exactly muscular. More like bomb-shaped, thick, human punching bags built for bludgeoning and bruising. Good Vibes were up against Double Dragon in the tag-team round. Double Dragon were two white guys with black hair dressed in matching black-and-orange singlets with Chinese dragons crawling up their legs. Their bout was a brutal slapstick ballet. The men scaled the ropes and flew face-first into the hard canvas, they threw themselves backward to amplify the effects of a forearm to the face. Elbows and heels flew at close range, and each of the four men got his turn to be choked between an opponent’s armpit and elbow notch. Whoever wasn’t fighting stood high on the corner ropes, compelling the crowd to wilder screams. They needed little encouragement. Finally, in a whirlwind of spins and collisions and suffocating holds, Double Dragon were disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct: using a chair. The bruisers of Good Vibes had their bulky arms held high, and emerged from the ring with a pair of hand-painted championship belts that they draped on their shoulders. The cameras snapped around them as they held shaky number-1 fingers up, still sucking air.
The other matches followed the same template of crushing limbs and audience-minded peacocking, but the characters were like something from a semiotician’s dream. First came the match between John Boy Justice, a mustachioed policeman, and Charles Everett Osgood, aka The CEO, who entered in a suit jacket that had been painted with a dollar sign across the back. The cop beat back the moneyed man with a baton, a symbolic battle that obviously meant more to the crowd than surfers and martial artists. The boos against The CEO grew deafening as he traipsed by the ropes, holding a hand to his ear and laughing smugly. Here was a heel worthy of rural America.
“They really hate him, don’t they?” asked Luke, as Corey avoided making eye contact with him. “So do I. Who do you want to win, Corey?” the man asked, soldiering onward.
Summoning impressive courage, the boy looked over at the interloper and replied, “I like The CEO.”
“Really?” Luke asked. “Okay, well that’s who I’m rooting for too I guess.”
The cop baton-bashed the businessman once again, then pounced, holding him to the floor as the referee slid around on his stomach with a whistle in his mouth.
“He’s got him! He’s got him!” yelled the ringside emcee, and the referee’s hand came slamming down.
The next two matches were even more crudely crowd-pleasing. First, Aken Pembrooke, a self-styled preppie with a cardigan tied loosely around his neck, fought Big John Greene, a sullen farmhand in green overalls. Pembrooke’s beard was perfectly trimmed, Greene was neatly shaved. Pembrooke looked barely out of college himself, Greene looked positively aged. It occurred to me that Greene wasn’t even a character—like an actual farmer, his movements were efficient and never oversold. The two men came together and locked hands at the head. They scuffled and threw each other down. Big John Greene earned the crowd’s adoration purely by being there, dressed and named like that.
Pembrooke stalked and strutted, teasing him and luxuriating in boos.
Finally Pembrooke had him on his back, straining as the farmer’s bulk twisted and flexed beneath him. Pembrooke popped up to summon more hatred once the whistle sounded, but Big John Greene just pulled himself up one knee at a time, as unemotive as when he entered. They cheered him as he left the ring, another day’s work done.
Before the class-struggle lessons of that bout had even been absorbed, another eminently despicable archetype sauntered onto the canvas: Louis B. Rich, a cigar in his mouth and a stack of fake bills in his hand. He counted a few off and threw them to the crowd. Children ran for the papers as they fluttered on the way down. The man with the oxygen tank held up two thumbs-down and shook his head in disgust.
Then a human bolt of lightning ran into the ring. A stringy, almost ferretlike creature in a trucker’s hat and long cargo pants, he entered shirtless and scaled the ropes to beat his chest. He leaned forward toward the crowd and stuck out a massive tongue which had been stained a deep, unnatural blue, like he’d just chugged a handle of antifreeze. This feral redneck madman was fan-favorite Crazii Shea, who everyone around me seemed to know and adore. He was a harder archetype to identify. He looked like something Big John Greene had caught in the hills and raised against the odds, keeping him fenced at night and throwing him occasional pork trimmings. Shea ran around Louis B. Rich like a dervish, flailing and slobbering. He summoned rabid love from the crowd, even Corey, who no longer felt the need to be iconoclastic. He finally smiled and hooted like a little kid, and the relief in his mother’s face was tremendous.
The bell rang. Crazii Shea spun and spit and flung himself at his opponent, who responded with calm but authoritative deflections and stomps. Trapped in a headlock, Shea let his blue tongue bulge out while his rangy arms and legs danced madly. He threw the wealthy bastard against the ropes and pounded his face when he sprang back. Rich grabbed Shea in midrun and twirled him up into the air before slamming him to the ground. When Shea landed on the mat, he sprang up in an instant and ran back for more. Eventually his energy began to work against him. He wobbled, woozy with exhaustion, and Rich tossed and punched him at will, throwing his body to the mat like a butcher slapping steak across the chopping block. His back and shoulders were raw from the canvas and ropes, and small red ribbons shone on his knuckles where the skin had broken. Shea’s tongue displays, once meant to scare, were now the best he could do. He stuck his tongue out to prove that he was still wilder than Louis B. Rich, even in defeat. He was his own man. Money could beat him, but he would not be tamed or impressed by it.
Finally the wealthy villain held Shea’s back to the mat. His legs twisted and turned like a fox fighting against a constricting snake, and at least one child screamed, “No, Shea!” as the referee raised a palm and slapped it down like the hand of fate. Corey fell back to his seat.
Shea was still a god after his loss. Corey stood in line behind a dozen others, and when his time came, the madman put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and held his tongue out. Luke watched, itchy from the heat, while Corey’s mom clicked her smartphone camera and immortalized the boy’s hard-won Friday night joy. A pummeling, heavy rock song blared on the speakers indiscernibly, bouncing off the white corrugated metal walls and echoing out into the quiet blue hills.
Corey had learned some time-honored lessons in that sweltering gymnasium, ones that previous generations of small-town boys had learned from old country records—about the persistence of heartbreak, the challenges of family, the endless threat of men with money and power. In his small town’s only Saturday entertainment, where prayers were offered for soldiers before the crudest urges were satisfied by showmen, Corey had witnessed a twenty-first-century version of a long-running American notion of communal escape: the revival tent, the traveling circus, the barn dance, movie house, or honky-tonk.
Adapted and excerpted from HOMEPLACE: A Southern Town, A Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk by John Lingan. Copyright © 2018 by John Lingan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.