James Best, a native of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, like John Prine’s parents, died last night at 88. He was probably best known from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the goofy rural comedy that ran on CBS Television from 1979 to 1985. Best portrayed Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (not to be confused with Mr. Peabody’s coal train). “The Dukes of Hazzard” debuted the same week Prine started recording his Pink Cadillac album in Memphis.
Sparsely populated Muhlenberg County spawned a rich and curious mix of 20th century celebrities. Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy in Powderly, a town between Greenville and Central City. He was a first cousin of the Everly Brothers: His mother, Lena Mae Everly Guy, was the sister of Ike Everly, the brothers’ father. (Prine’s maternal grandfather, John Luther Hamm, played guitar and fiddle, sometimes accompanying Ike Everly.) Ike’s older son, Don, was born in a Mulhenberg County coal-mining camp called Brownie in 1937 — 20 years after country music legend Merle Travis was born down in Rosewood.
Best had retired to Hickory, North Carolina, about two hours west on I-40 from where I live. When I visited Muhlenberg County two years ago this month while researching John Prine: In Spite of Himself, one of the people kind enough to fill me in on the area’s rich musical heritage was Joe Hudson, executive director of the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame. Hudson was friends with Best and would drive down to North Carolina occasionally to visit.
My favorite Best character was Jim Lindsey, the musician he portrayed on a couple of episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” He was the on-again, off-again guitarist for Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat. (Thanks to the magic of black-and-white television, Best’s character could make electric-guitar sounds with an unplugged acoustic, and play rhythm and lead simultaneously in a fashion never dreamed of by the thumbpickers back home in Muhlenberg County.) Best also appeared in several horse operas over the years, as well as a few “Twilight Zone” episodes and the movies “Shenandoah,” “Sounder,” and “Ode to Billy Joe.”
Annother veteran of Western movies, character actor Warren Oates, was born outside Greenville in Depoy in 1928. He appeared in several Sam Peckinpah films (“Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”), a series of TV Westerns (“Rawhide,” “The Virginian,” “The Big Valley,” “Gunsmoke”), Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” and the 1981 Bill Murray vehicle “Stripes.” Music fans may remember him best as the nameless driver in Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult classic “Two-Lane Blacktop,” which pitted Oates’s GTO against the ’55 Chevy piloted by singer-songwriter James Taylor (“The Driver”) and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (“The Mechanic”) in a cross-country road race.
Oates and Prine crossed paths in Los Angeles, according to Warren Oates: A Wild Life, a biography by Susan A. Compo: “Oates had met musician John Prine at Dan Tana’s. Oates was a great fan of Prine’s song ‘Paradise,’ about a disappeared town in Muhlenberg County.”