Driving Tennessee's 'White Lightnin' Trail'—is it the Real Thunder Road?

Jack Neely retraces the infamous bootlegger's route as it becomes an official state tourist attraction

In the Bearden Hill parking lot of Calhoun's last Friday morning are a slate of politicians and state tourism officials, here with police escort. The words of County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and others would have surprised bootleggers of yore; they're all here celebrating the illegal transportation of illegal whiskey. The general theme of this hubbub is the state-sponsored White Lightnin' Trail, a thick 36-page driving guide to Knoxville and points north, to the Kentucky border. That's roughly the route of Thunder Road, at least in song, the route of Kentucky moonshiners from Cumberland Gap to markets in Knoxville and beyond.

By legends long-told, widely believed, and so far unproveable, the real-life fatal wreck of a bootlegger's hot rod referenced in Robert Mitchum's song "The Ballad of Thunder Road" happened here, or just down the hill, or maybe it was a little farther out Kingston Pike.

"Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike/Then right outside of Bearden, they made the fatal strike…."

Surely it was around here somewhere. The precise spot has been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles and books, all based on a premise, never confirmed by Mitchum, that the tale of intrepid bootlegger Luke Doolin is a true story. When he wrote those lyrics for a song to promote a notable B movie, the actor/writer perhaps didn't guess that he was starting something like a religion. To some, it's the most important thing that ever happened in the Knoxville area.

It has inspired the name of a good ale here at Calhoun's and a cheeseburger at Litton's. And now it's partly the premise of a state-sponsored touring route, the "White Lightning/Thunder Road to Rebels Trail." The 200-mile route might not make perfect sense to a bootlegger—its roundabout route is designed more for interesting cultural and historic sites than speed—but it does connect the geographical points mentioned in the song: Cumberland Gap, Maynardville, Knoxville, Kingston Pike, Bearden.

The idea, hatched a few years ago with another trail in the Nashville area, is to get people to look around a little, and see some of the state's attractions forgotten after the interstates went through. The Tennessee Department of Tourism folks, in cooperation with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp., are launching this trail, the fourth in the series, with a convoy of vintage cars, most of which were of an era when that they might have been modified to carry a few hundred gallons of moonshine. Photographer David Luttrell and I could not decline the invitation to ride along.

***

A stout, agreeable young fellow named Joe has agreed to escort us in a '64 Ford Galaxy. Post-Thunder Road, maybe, but plausibly a bootlegger's car. "I hope it'll make it," he says, adding there's been some problem with the engine. We set out, the windows down, on Kingston Pike. The car has no trouble making it all the way down Bearden Hill, and proceeds another mile or so admirably through the old commercial section of Bearden, but near Sequoyah Hills, the engine dies. The car hasn't even coasted to a stop before a female voice crackles over the walkie-talkie. "Car Five is having trouble. The people in Car Five need to get in Car Six," she says. Luke Doolin never got that kind of attention. Joe's able to get the car started again, but near Neyland Drive, it dies again.

We get out of the car, bid stalwart, unflappable Joe adieu, and get into the car right behind us, which is, fortunately, a voluptuous midnight blue '39 Oldsmobile four-door. The owners of the Oldsmobile are Fords, John and Belinda, and yes, they've heard the jokes. She's from Clinton and he's from Fountain City, but they both now live in Farragut. Retired engineers, both with the Department of Energy in their resumes, they obviously spend a lot of their time loving this car. It has an '88 350 engine, an automatic transmission, and air conditioning. Only the body and frame are 71 years old. A completely rebuilt classic car is kind of like putting a motor on a classic work of art. But you can't deny it's more fun to ride in a '39 body than in any modern car. People stare, grin, wave.

We make a couple of loops through downtown Knoxville, which probably would have seemed unnecessary to a bootlegger unless he was making stops at Blount Mansion and First Presbyterian Church and the S&W (and who knows?) but then we're on Broadway, part of the real Thunder Road of song and legend. John, who wears a short gray beard, a broad-brimmed straw hat, and suspenders, waves at the people on the sidewalk at the homeless shelter, and they wave back.

In Fountain City, we pass Litton's, which for years has offered the spicy, rich Thunder Road cheeseburger. We're doing Thunder Road backward. Halls Crossroads isn't as pretty as the farm country it was when Luke Doolin sped through it in 1954. But it has a whole lot more to eat. It also offers a lot more places of worship and martial-arts opportunities.

Beyond the strip malls, old Highway 33 turns green. "It's such a beautiful, beautiful area up here," Belinda says. "Parts of it." There's the surprising Knoxville Dragway alongside a larger northern branch of Eddie's Auto Parts, and the Red Gate horse farm, advertising a Rodeo on July 7.

Who knew? And then we're in Maynardville, which may have its charms, but from Highway 33 it looks, more or less, like North Halls. Maynardville once had a downtown, but it's hard to find now. Today it's a community of people who prefer to return to their cars between each errand. Another building off on its own is a practical cinderblock yellow building with a red roof, run by the Union County Historical Society Museum, better known to some as the Roy Acuff Museum. They offer us a bin of RC Colas and single-decker Moon Pies, a much-appreciated breakfast.

It's a community-center kind of museum, on an intuitive plan, with plows, quilts, and class pictures, better than any garage sale. There's an exhibit of vintage ViewMasters near an exhibit of Civil War Minié balls. The museum is the only place on the trip where we get live music, a trio—two guitars and a stand-up bass. It's appropriate, considering that Maynardville, a community of fewer than 2,000, may have more per-capita associations with prominent musicians than anywhere else in the Western hemisphere. Fronting the two adult sidemen is a grade-school kid playing guitar and singing plaintive versions of country classics. His name is Greyland James.

Phyllis Quallis-Brooks, the assistant commissioner of the state tourist-development department who's riding along in a convertible, tells a story about Roy Acuff, that his first night on the Grand Ole Opry he got a better response from the radio audience than he did at the Ryman Auditorium, which is inspiring somehow. Phyllis declares young Greyland to be the next Kenny Chesney. It's hard to tell whether the low-key kid's happy to know that.

Upstairs on the mezzanine—and you may have to ask how to get there—are interesting but unnarrated exhibits about Acuff, Atkins, Carl Smith, who had a string of hits in the '50s and early '60s, and current low-brimmed sex symbol Chesney—as well as Lois Johnson, Lorne Rogers, and Esco Hankins, presented democratically as if they're every bit as worthy as Acuff and Atkins. Most of the music exhibits consist of articles and pictures. But there is a treasure in this museum, a fiddle in a case—you can rotate it around to get a good look—with Acuff's name scratched into it.

***

We're already way behind schedule, so the lead car ditches a lot of the classic route. We head over to Anderson County via Hickory Star and Hickory Valley roads, along woods and hayfields and cattle pastures and wildflowers, a meandering two-lane, like rural highways before the interstate. We skate alongside Big Ridge State Park, and Andersonville, where a goat roams free in a front yard, and soon we're at John Rice Irwin's Museum of Appalachia.

"Museum" has never seemed an adequate word for the place, which is more like a stimulating sanitarium for intelligent hillbillies. Spend half an hour there with a glass of iced tea among the bleat of sheep and the tropical calls of peacocks, and you get the impression everything's going to turn out all right after all. Free near the parking lot a colorful peacock intimidates a perhaps larger rooster. He tried the same trick on a beagle, who seems bored. Guinea hens trot among them like polite children. Clumsy June bugs blunder through the air into your face. Out in the field, mockingbirds chase them.

It's a dependably wonderful place, even if you've been there a dozen times before: artfully bizarre, juxtaposing barnwood sheds and handmade farm implements with street artifacts from downtown Knoxville, bringing out Appalachia in the only honest way, randomly, in ways that make coherence seem mundane. John Rice Irwin is a Tolstoy who uses objects more than words to tell his epic stories. He's represented today by his daughter, Elaine Meyer, the current director–a blonde woman of middle age, maybe not the showman her father is, but not afraid of a good story, either.

They feed us lunch like hillbilly manna, a lively chicken pot pie, fresh tomatoes in some kind of nectar, tart fried green tomatoes, corn bread, and of course iced tea. We eat more than they expected us to.

There are 40 buildings now, each one a relic. One's a cabin where a pickup band is always playing. As we wander by, it happens to be a grassy version of "The Tennessee Waltz." Next door, another shelters Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton's still. One of them, anyway. Meyer tells the story of how the late Sutton was invited to show his craft, with the understanding he would pour it out when he was done. But it turned out he just couldn't do that, and happily shared it with the crowd, even allowing the children a taste, to prime them for adulthood. The Museum regretfully ended his demonstrations.

One of the newest buildings looks like another outhouse, but it turns out to be the entire Union County home of "Old Tom Cassidy." The cabin, 10 by 12 feet and accompanied by a recording of Cassidy's fiddle playing, reminds us that, really, we don't need much. It has some holes in the tin roof; Cassidy drank now and then, and one night suspected that federal agents were up there.

The Appalachian Hall of Fame offers the best single-site review of Southern Appalachian music you're likely to find. You'll find out more about Roy Acuff at the Museum of Appalachia than you'll find at the Roy Acuff Museum. They also have an exhibit about Uncle Dave Macon, who, 70 or 80 years ago, was kind of the John Rice Irwin of the banjo.

Now 79, Irwin retired last summer, but can't stay away from the place. As we left, we saw the silver-haired scholar arrive, in his trademark khakis and blue blazer, even on this hot day, with a red kerchief peeking out of the pocket, walking respectfully amongst the guinea hens as if they were welcome tourists.

***

The antique caravan looks apropos as it heads into old Norris proper, the planned ca. 1935 community—new urbanist before new urbanism was invented, visited by Eleanor Roosevelt and Jean-Paul Sartre—and then across the top of Norris Dam, not nearly as famous as it was 70 years ago, when it was inspiring journalist Ernie Pyle and influencing the architect Le Corbusier.

And picking our way among the back routes through Lake City and Caryville, we find ourselves in Cove Lake State Park, in Campbell County.

In the heat—it's 95 degrees, and could almost pass for 96—we sit at picnic tables with some fresh fruit and Amish bread and listen to interesting local statesmen talking about moonshine. Campbell County Mayor William Baird reads a strident proclamation. A florid, jowly gentleman in a green shirt and green tie, slacks and cowboy boots, he reads a series of whereases with a flair you thought has been lost since 1945. It's about the admirable trade of moonshining, and as Mayor Baird reads it, it sounds like a personal-rights manifesto, a friendlier, more reasonable version of whatever it is the Tea Party folks are driving at. "Whereas, the moonshiner tilled his soil and grew his grain and believed that he shouldn't be forced to pay a tariff on the whiskey he made on his own land..," "Whereas, the moonshiner's defiant attitude was in the best tradition of America's historical resistance to oppressive taxation and tyrannical authorities...."

He refers to Thunder Road as "one of the most successful films in U.S. history," a statement supportable if your criterion is being held over in rural Southern drive-ins.

He's the best speaker of the day, or is at least until he introduces Mr. Hack Ayers, the well-known auctioneer from Caryville who, it turns out, grew up in a moonshining family. His father was killed in a state law-enforcement raid in 1943. "Fifty years ago, we wouldn't want to be exposing moonshine trails," he says. More than most of the politicians we've heard today, he seems comfortable in front of an audience.

During his talk, a young man appears in shorts, with his wife and their dog, almost as if he's a camper from Michigan, drawn by curiosity. It turns out he's Aubrey Preston himself, who started this whole thing when he plotted a driving tour in Williamson County, where he lives. "I just want to experience the different trails," he says later. "Tennessee's such an interesting state."

E.L. Morton, a younger man who's executive director of Campbell County's challenged Chamber of Commerce, brings up an issue you don't hear about every day. Of Tennessee's 96 counties, almost half border other states which depend more on income tax than Tennessee, with its famously high sales tax. People in Jellico cross over to Kentucky to shop. Tennessee, he says, "is shaped the wrong way for tax revenue. But it's shaped the right way for tourism." It's an interesting observation.

***

Having grown to eight cars, the caravan cruises at 45 mph down the uncommonly broad streets of La Follette. Then there's a long, flat stretch, Highway 63 toward Cumberland Gap. Broad fields of rolled hay, more distant hills, black cattle, and Get Right/With God crosses. "It reminds me of the Shenandoah Valley," says our photographer.

Our destination is Harrogate, at Cumberland Gap. A fact too complicated to be widely remembered is that the towns up here—Harrogate, Cumberland Gap itself, and much-larger Middlesborough, Ky., just over the line—were all founded in the 1880s as part of a utopian-industrial dream by Alexander Arthur, a dreamy Scotsman living in Knoxville, well-known here for formal entertaining. He saw potential for a major inland metropolis at Cumberland Gap, near coal and iron deposits, and the potential for a European-oriented city there. He led the construction of the first railroad up here, from Knoxville. On the inaugural run of that first line to Cumberland Gap, it turned out the road wasn't quite ready. Not quite halfway up, the train derailed while crossing a bridge at Flat Creek, killing several Knoxville politicians and injuring dozens, including Arthur himself. Unfazed, he went through with plans to build a Four Seasons Hotel up there, while also planning a major luxury hotel in Knoxville, but the investments he hoped for never materialized, and by the recession of 1893 he was ruined. He left some unusually interesting towns.

At a gasoline break—most of these cars get 10 or 12 miles to the gallon—there's some grumbling about the most authentic car in the parade, a 1929 Packard that can't go much over 45. One of the other drivers says his modified antique runs cooler at higher speeds.

Among the celebrities on the trip is Mr. Alex Gabbard, author of Return to Thunder Road, as well as the revised version of Return to Thunder Road. When we get to 25 E, his voice comes over the walkie-talkie.

He doesn't sing the verses, he recites them reflectively as if quoting holy scripture:

"‘Roarin' out of Harlan, revvin' up his mill/He shot the gap at Cumberland and screamed by Maynardville….' Folks, we are now on the classic Thunder Road."

We take a left, and in no time, we see a statue, the melancholy image of Abraham Lincoln, contemplating 25 E as if trying to remember which way to Kentucky. With green hills so close by, it's confusing up here, knowing which way is up. Daniel Boone became famous partly for figuring it out.

Lincoln welcomes you to the green campus of Lincoln Memorial University, founded in the 1890s, ostensibly as the result of a promise given by a Union officer to Lincoln himself to establish a major university in this part of the country after the war. No county mayors this time, even though we're in a new county called Claiborne, but a nice buffet of sandwiches. There's a casualty. The Packard, steaming over on this hot day, first looks like something on fire. Its captain seems perfectly good natured about the development, confident in his machine's future.

Near the buffet is a surprise: our first chauffeur, Joe from Knoxville. Not in our '64 Ford Galaxy, but a big modern pickup.

LMU offers a well-put-together Lincoln museum. Though there's only a little personal Lincoln memorabilia, it does include a bed he slept in the night of the day he turned 52—more significant than most of the beds where folks turn 52 in, maybe, because it was just a few days before his inauguration—and the cane he carried into Ford's Theatre.

Like most Lincoln exhibits, the museum makes a bigger deal of his violent death than any other single gesture of his life. One of the most prominent objects in the museum is an ostensible replica of the catafalque that ostensibly held his coffin for a while. And even it's covered in modern fabric. It's something for kids to stare at.

Overall it's an imaginative and professionally laid-out exhibit, with video and bits of music, and even modern art. The one room that serves as the foyer for the museum has more interesting images of Lincoln, on paper and in sculpture, perhaps, than any place in Illinois or Washington, D.C.

Some of the convoy's pilgrims stay for the film, several want to head back—it's past 6 o'clock, after all—but two cars stick it out to go to one further stop on the White Lightnin' trail, Cumberland Gap proper. Barely past LMU, getting there takes more faith than time. It looks like you're getting on an interstate highway for just a moment, then like you're driving into a soulless motel parking lot, but then there you are, hemmed in between green hills, in a pocket Shangri-La of old houses and sidewalks and shade trees, with a bicycle museum, a bed-and-breakfast, and a restaurant where a jug band is playing. It's on the main street, which is called Colwyn Street. Others are Merlyn, Pennlyn, Llewellyn. All the streets in this town sound like good names for elves.

Arthur founded Cumberland Gap in the late 1880s, for the guys working on the Cumberland Gap tunnel, but some things are older. The Olde Mill, a bed-and-breakfast, is a partly log building said to date from Boone's era. An authentic mill wheel turns in a creek where trout rise only to swallow bread crumbs thrown by children.

First we were just going to drive through and have a look, but Bob Jake's 1936 Ford is making some noises, and he stops to investigate. He folds back the side of the hood, but figures it's something in the wheel. By the time he decides to go on back to Knoxville while it's light, we're already looking around this rare township.

Just upstream from the mill, in a pleasant place in the shade by that clear creek, a young man is setting up a moonshine still. He's not even being furtive about it. He says his name is Bill Hockett, and though he's a clean-cut fellow from Ohio, he says he's an old associate of Popcorn Sutton himself. They made moonshine together for five years, he says. It's the third personal reference to Popcorn today, and probably 40 miles from the first one. For a guy with a reputation as a contrary recluse, he had broad influence.

Hockett's grumbling a little. The big White Lightning Festival is tomorrow, and he's here to demonstrate one of Popcorn's stills. "They make us do it with water," he says, with a sour look on his face. "I've never run it with water before."

Struggling for comparisons, people like to say "Mayberry" when they talk about Cumberland Gap, but it's not nearly as big as Mayberry. We found only two stores, one a tourist-trade place named for what it is, the Old Drug Store. Mr. Harvey Fuson, the white-bearded proprietor, explains the modern history of this unusual place. In his youth, he says, Colwyn Street was full of traffic. "In '65, it took you 15 minutes to cross the street," he says, gesturing at the street out the window. "When I came back, in '67, you could lie down on the street and take a nap." The difference, he says, was that the state rerouted 25 around town.

He doesn't seem particularly unhappy about that, and if that was a bad thing, nobody's complaining today. Several folks are in his shop on a Friday afternoon eating ice cream, and probably enjoying it more than they might if there were a thoroughfare out the door. Maynardville is a warning about what happens to towns when the highway doesn't desert them.

There are a few people on the sidewalks, older tourists, mostly, agog about the place, taking pictures. The town has a "convention center," as all towns with a population of 200 or more do, but this convention center seems to be mainly an open-air dining area, with a roof and ceiling fans, as maybe all convention centers should be.

We hint about having a second supper at Webb's Country Kitchen, a recommended eatery which appears to be doing big business, but reluctantly shove off, free of the classic-car convoy for the first time today, returning by the more direct routes of Highways 25 and, after Tazewell, 33. It's the true route of Thunder Road, in the direction described in the song, once familiar to Luke Doolin, or somebody like him. Everybody ought to do it once.