Interview: Loney Hutchins on His Journey From Appalachian Poverty to the House of Cash and Beyond
Few artists better encapsulate the "American Dream" better than Loney Hutchins Sr. Born atop Timbertree Branch between Bristol and Kingsport, Tenn. to poor and illiterate parents, Hutchins went on to complete college, serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, work as publishing manager for Johnny Cash’s House of Cash record label and curate a music therapy program while also carving out a musical career of his own.
Driven to build a life for himself better than the one he was born into, Hutchins had to mature and look out for himself much sooner than most. Excelling in school, he was an avid bookworm who read everything he could get his hands on. At the age of 11, he convinced his parents to enroll him in school just across the state line in Virginia, where the educational system was rated higher.
At the same time, he was always very creatively inclined. He loved exploring the wilderness around him and building little hideouts where he’d smoke, write and dream of a world other than the one he was living in. At home, his family’s poverty caused them to turn to music as a method of escapism and release.
“Everyone around me sang out of boredom due to the hard life we lived,” Hutchins tells The Boot. “We were so poor that we couldn’t even afford instruments. All we had was our voices. We were starving for it.”
Another thing Hutchins was starving for was food. With a lack of money coming in from his parents to put food on the table, he often went to bed hungry.
“When most people think of hunger it’s not having eaten since breakfast,” says Hutchins. “They don’t understand real hunger when there’s no food in the house, no restaurants and no neighbors nearby to go to for help. It’s a terrible, painful feeling not being able to sleep because of how bad your stomach aches from a lack of food. I still want to cry about those memories, not for myself, but for my mother’s sake.”
He lived a hard childhood, but Hutchins doesn’t discredit his parents. Although neither completed high school, he describes his mother and father as two of the most intelligent, hard working people he’s known. They were also critical in instilling his determination and drive to work for and chase his dreams.
Hutchins' dreams included getting a college education, something he got started through the G.I. Bill. He was placed in the U.S. Army’s nuclear missile program, which he later completed after exiting the military in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University. While in the service, he always had a guitar with him, unlike his childhood, and continually performed, honing his craft in the process.
After declining an appointment to West Point and leaving the Army, Hutchins opted to relocate to Nashville. After missing out on bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones during his time in the Army he was set on getting to Nashville to not miss out on other top acts of the day like Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, among others.
In 1972 he finally made the move to Music City, working as a mobile home salesman to pay the bills until he could get his music career off the ground. Before long he was connected within the city’s writer’s circles and became connected with Cash, who later recorded the Hutchins-penned duet “Jesus” with June Carter Cash for his 1974 album The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me. It was the only song of Hutchins' that Cash recorded, but it was one that continues to open doors for the artist today.
The cut led to Hutchins writing songs for the likes of Mel McDaniel and Tommy Cash along with becoming the publishing manager at the House of Cash from 1973-78. When Cash went to sell the label that year, Hutchins branched off and started the Appalachia Music Publishing Company, which later rebranded to the Appalachia Record Company in 1985. The name honors the mountains he calls home while acknowledging that no matter how far away he strays from them, they’ll forever remain a part of him.
"Music has been a part of the Appalachian Mountains I’m from since long before I was born, so I guess you could say that it's in my DNA,” says Hutchins. “Whenever I’m feeling down I’ve always got my guitar sitting in the corner looking at me saying, ‘Hey, pick me up and I’ll make you feel better.’ It’s like having an old friend to turn to. I can close my eyes, start strumming and just drift away, escaping the troubles of living in the moment.”
After releasing Appalachia and a handful of singles in the early 80’s, Hutchins stepped away from touring to pursue music therapy for a living and to work on raising a family of his own. With his son Loney Hutchins Jr. now at the helm, the label has recently revived Hutchins Sr.’s career by dusting off some of his old tunes after fear that the analog they were stored on would soon go bad, losing the recordings forever.
Now, nearly 40 years after first coming to prominence with the House of Cash and his own music, Hutchins Sr.’s catalog has been refreshed and introduced to a new generation of country music fans. Buried Loot: Demos from the House of Cash and “Outlaw” Era, ’73-’78, released in Dec. 2021, and Appalachia, which dropped this past March, act as tremendous time capsules, giving listeners a look back into Hutchins Sr.’s life and creative inspirations at the time.
Chock-full of bona fide outlaw country and electric honky tonk-backed stories of his struggles and joys of growing up impoverished in Appalachia, the two albums are just as relevant now as they were back when Hutchins first penned them. Although he has another five archived albums ready to be released, Hutchins is determined to go in a different direction for his next album.
“I want to put out something next that reflects the person that I am now,” says Hutchins. “I’ve continued writing a lot and plan on getting back into the studio in June to lay down some of those songs. I want to show people that I wasn’t just a good writer back in the day. I’m just as good, if not a better writer, today.”
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