“Pinball King” was the biggest hit in country music 35 years ago. Or at least it could have been. The artist behind the song, Loney Hutchins, cut a remarkable number of tracks that could have taken him to prominence. Instead, his career can feel like a near-miss, followed by a change of profession, some strange legal trouble, and – until now – an oddly low profile.
Looking back over all this history, Hutchins, with regular equanimity, said, “Everything that I’ve done – even the hardship, the poverty, the stress and strain of heartbreak…I wouldn’t want to redo any of it. Everything is part of me and is sitting here in this chair talking to you and I wouldn’t change it.”
Fortunately, Hutchins’ music is finally getting more attention, now with the release of Buried Loot: Demos from the House of Cash and Outlaw Era, ‘73-‘78, and with more music on the way. Hearing it now delivers a bit of a shock, considering that these recordings have been hidden away for decades. To understand where this art came from and why Hutchins can reflect so happily on what wasn’t but also what was, it’s worth going back to the start.
Hutchins was born in the 1940s in a poor Appalachian town near Kingsport, Tennessee, almost at the Virginia border. He ended up going to the same school as June Carter Cash, a bit of trivia worth holding on to until later. Officially, his dad was a sharecropper, but he also cut timber and the family “were just scrappers, digging a living out of the hills,” getting hired out for jobs other people wanted to avoid. Most people in the area were uneducated, many not getting beyond sixth or seventh grade, but “everybody sang.”
“The music was everywhere in those mountains,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins was the first member of his family on either side to finish high school. He then joined the army to get the GI Bill, go to college, and “change the cycle of poverty and no education” in his family. He describes himself as “a bookworm” from early on, still remembering the school library fondly.
“When I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on,” he explained. The library “would allow me to check out seven books a week, but that wasn’t enough, so I’d get a friend to check out seven more. I was reading 14 books a week. When I read all the good stuff, we had a mandatory study hall, and I’d just go in and pick up that unabridged dictionary and plop it on the table, and every day it would be where I left off. I loved reading the dictionary and seeing all the artwork.”
During the same time, Hutchins dreamed of going to Nashville. He “wasn’t able to participate in music much, except school and church,” but he said, “Johnny Cash had really touched me as a boy growing up in the mountains.”
He had a paper route in high school, traveling 26 miles a day to sell 20 papers, and he bought his first guitar for $2 from his uncle. He started writing songs and after the army, he made his way there, “selling mobile homes to survive.” He started driving out to Cash’s place nearly every day, just hoping to run into him. Eventually, he ran into June Carter Cash, “hollered at her and told her who I was and where I was from.” She went and got Johnny Cash, who said, “Where’s that boy from Hiltons?”
Hutchins had a tape of songs he’d made in Germany, but because of technological differences, only two songs would play when Cash listened to it. He was particularly taken by the song “Jesus,” which he recorded shortly thereafter and released on his 1974 album The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me.
“I hooked up with a friend that was courting Carlene Carter and Roseanne and all the girls,” Hutchins continued. “He started hanging out with me because I was a songwriter and he was, too.”
Hutchins wanted to move out of the trailer park he was living in, so he talked to Cash and got permission to move it to a trailer pad (where Carlene had once lived) almost across the road from the House of Cash. Hutchins started hanging out there, signed a writer’s contract, and began drawing $75 a week from “Jesus.” He felt that it was free money that he should be earning, so he volunteered to empty trash cans, sweep the floors, and more. Cash saw his work and hired him to be his song plugger for the publishing company. After he made an impact in that role, Cash hired him to manage the publishing company.
The typical person might have been satisfied with that place in Nashville, but not Hutchins.
“John had opened every door in the world to me and I was thankful for his belief and faith and his friendship. We became really good friends. But I had to leave because I hadn’t finished college,” he said. “I needed to do my own thing. Even though I was working for a great man, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t do that if I gave my whole life to someone else.”
Hutchins left House of Cash and started his own publishing company, Appalachia Music, and put a band together. He picked up any work he could get, toured a little with the Southern Grassroots Revival Project. He went to night school to finish college.
Later he started a record label in Gallatin, Tennessee, with some other people, and eventually, he ended up buying them out when they didn’t want to put more money in it.
“It was hard after I left Cash, to finish college and not be making much money. It was really hard for about eight years,” he explained, recognizing that the struggle was worth it.
“I was free. I was independent. I was raised to be totally independent. That’s spirit is still a very powerful part of who I am today.”