Built in 1926, U.S. Route 23 was conceived as a North-to-South highway spanning from Detroit to Jacksonville. Unlike the sleek, efficient Interstate Highway System that would later come into vogue, U.S. 23 and its contemporaries meander through small towns across the country. It offers few tourist activities, and the scenery is usually pretty modest -- small homes, even smaller post offices, and the errant law office -- but for Eastern Kentucky natives, Route 23 is so much more than a road. It's a symbolic journey to economic improvement, a sentimental drive home, and the birthplace of country music royalty. It's a lesson in industry, and economics. It's the road we take when we run away, and the road on which we inevitably return.
U.S. 23 winds through the heart of Eastern Kentucky, coming in from Virginia at Jenkins and stretching north to Ohio along the river bank in Ashland. This 144-mile stretch traces the journey of Kentucky's coal industry -- from the coal mines in the heart of the region to the tipples and factories in the more industrial Northeast corner of the state.
Near Prestonsburg on U.S. Route 23.
For Appalachia natives, this stretch of road is known mainly as the road to the factories of Ohio and Michigan. To our uncles and grandfathers, it was the road to a better life. Jobs at the Detroit automotive factories lay at the Northern tip of Route 23; my own family history is filled with stories of carloads of young men leaving the hollers and making the trek north. After graduation in the '50s and '60s, few job prospects arose in Appalachia. It was only in researching this piece that I learned that Route 23 was known as a Hillbilly Highway for the escape route it provided young Appalachians seeking a better life. I certainly did know, however, that the lyrics to Floyd County native Dwight Yoakam's 1980s hit "Readin', Rightin', Route 23" rang true to so many of our friends and family.
In the years since Dwight first sang his powerful tribute to Route 23's legacy, the Kentucky portion of the road has been nicknamed the Country Music Highway , since a famous country music singer hails from every county along the stretch. Road signs along each county mark these famous sons and daughters, and a Paintsville museum commemorates their work. The road commemorates the rockabilly sound of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting ballads of Keith Whitley, and the virtuoso performances of Ricky Skaggs. The Queen herself, Loretta Lynn, is honored, as are the Judds. There's even a sign denoting the hometown of singer/actor Billy Ray Cyrus, if that's your thing.
Route 23 has remained virtually unchanged for as long as I can remember. It's an old road going through old towns. It isn't the kind of road that attracts golf courses, shopping centers, or subdivisions. It's a slice of old Americana virtually preserved in amber. Recently, however, the stretch of 23 running through Johnson and Lawrence counties was affected by an intense tornado. Homes were tragically destroyed, as were many fields and hillsides. Sections of Route 23 now present heartbreaking scenes -- homes are destroyed and hillsides demolished. Yet, for Eastern Kentuckians, the road has always been about hope. It's the promise of a better future. It's the road to prosperity and better times.
Stars of the Country Music Highway: