Written by Ron McCoy and Pike County Tourism CVB
The Tug Valley has lost one of its brightest stars, as singer/songwriter Jimmy Wolford has passed away on March 5th, 2020. Wolford was also known as a storyteller, and one of the region’s pioneers in reviving the Hatfield McCoy heritage, which has drawn the interest of people from all across the globe.
Wolford recognized the importance of the tourism industry in Eastern Kentucky early on, seeing the value of the famous Hatfields and McCoys heritage long before most were willing to even come to terms with the history. Wolford knew that people from all around the world were enthralled with feud history and dedicated himself to providing a narrative for the story that was not only authentic, but also entertaining.
Wolford told the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud in song, producing an album titled “The Hatfields And The McCoys: The Great Vendetta”. This album features Appalachian folk music that showcases Wolford’s unique storytelling flair in a style that reflects the culture. One track in particular, “Men Who Matched The Mountains”, highlighted the challenging environment that the Hatfields and McCoys were thriving in, offering a clearer illustration of who these people were; not savages, but people surviving in the mostly lawless, post-Civil War Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Snippets from Wolford’s album are also featured on the wildly popular “Hatfields & McCoys Historic Feud Driving Tour” audio CD, which serves as an audio guide for one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions.
For more than 40 years, Wolford served as an ambassador for the “Hatfields and McCoys”, carrying the feud story with him wherever he went, across the country and around the world. Passionate about his heritage, he was also a role model for the power of grace and forgiveness. Nevertheless, telling the feud story wasn’t always easy. Growing up as a McCoy descendant in Williamson, WV in the 1930s, Wolford knew the feud was not something the McCoys were willing to discuss.
As a child, Jimmy recalled asking his grandmother about the feud. “Son, that’s something we don’t talk about,” said Wolford. “I went to Grandpa and I said, “Grandpa, tell me about the Hatfields and McCoys.” And he said, “We don’t talk about the Hatfields and McCoys.” As a musician on the campaign trail with Hubert Humphrey in the 1960s, Jimmy was often prompted by the Senator to discuss the feud. “He would say, Jimmy, tell me about the Hatfields and McCoys. I said, we don’t talk about that.” When Humphrey introduced him to the Prime Minister of England in 1971, Jimmy gave the same answer he always did: “We don’t talk about that.”
After the campaign trail, Wolford returned home to his roots, determined to tell the feud story in a way that had never been done. He partnered with songwriters Larry Johnson and Bob Stanley and spent three years researching the feud. Wolford was not content to telling the “McCoy” side of the story alone, however. He met with Willis Hatfield, last surviving son of “Devil Anse” and Dr. Henry D. Hatfield, “Devil Anse’s” nephew, and was impressed by their empathy. “They hurt for Roseanna McCoy. They hurt for Devil Anse and Ellison and them. They hurt for each other. (The feud) was something that occurred that did not have to happen, but it did,” said Wolford. His classic album, The Great Vendetta released in 1976 became the definitive musical retelling of the feud.
Wolford’s contributions to preserving feud history extended beyond music. In 1975, Wolford was concerned about the deteriorating state of the McCoy Cemetery in Hardy, KY. He enlisted the help of businessmen Joe “Tab” McCoy and Leonard “Mix” McCoy, owners of the McCoy Caney Coal Company in Phelps, KY. The McCoys cleaned up the cemetery and purchased an $8000 granite memorial for the site, manufactured by the Hatfield Monument Company in Sarah Ann, WV. The six-foot long monument in the shape of an open Bible featured a quote from one of Wolford’s songs: “There is no secret why they died so young; pride took control – youth’s song was never sung.”
Wolford was also influential in the publication of Truda McCoy’s book, The McCoys: Their Story. After her passing, Truda’a son Paul was determined to see that the book manuscript was printed. Paul contacted Wolford to enlist his help in finding a publisher. Wolford carried the manuscript with him in the trunk of his car for nearly two years. Finally, “Tab” and “Mix” pointed Wolford in the direction of Pikeville College and the capable guidance of Dr. Leonard Roberts. The book was printed in 1976.
In 1979, Wolford led the “McCoys” to take on the “Hatfields” in a five episode series of the game show, “Family Feud.” It was the first joint-appearance of the Hatfields and McCoys on a nationwide broadcast and it showed the camaraderie that existed between the families. During the show, Wolford presented a copy of the Great Vendetta album to host Richard Dawson. The McCoys would go on to win the series after a corrected cash total allowed the family to win by $1.
At the first national reunion of the families in Pikeville, KY in 2000, Wolford was the recipient of the first “Real McCoy” award, given for his decades of tireless service to preserving feud heritage. Twenty years later, his message to the families remains remarkably relevant: “Don’t ever let anybody say anything bad about a Hatfield because you’re a McCoy. Vice versa. Don’t say anything bad about a McCoy because you are a Hatfield. Because that’s the way it started.”
Being a McCoy descendant, Wolford inspired other McCoys to not only explore their history, but also come to terms with it. “What a life, yet Jimmy remained grounded and always promoted the Tug Valley in a dignified impartial way,” said McCoy descendant Eddie McCoy. “I am glad I got to meet him because he was probably the first McCoy who still lived in the area that I contacted back when I was a kid and the feud had been less in the public eye than it is now. He was always respectful towards the Hatfield family and that attitude was one I modeled myself after whenever I interacted with the Hatfields myself.”
“Jimmy has always been one of my heroes,” said Ron McCoy, great-great-great grandson of Randolph McCoy. “He was out promoting our family history when it wasn’t always popular to talk about the feud. It was his mission to preserve our heritage and he did so in a way that was positive and affirming. He never failed to reach out to Hatfields and McCoys alike. Jimmy has been a role model for all of us who have tried to carry on after him. Jimmy Wolford was one of a kind.”