By Ed Reynolds
Loretta Lynn has always cherished her role as a rebel in the country music industry. In perhaps the oddest collaboration in Nashville’s storied history, Lynn’s newest release, Van Lear Rose, was produced by rocker Jack White of The White Stripes (the band dedicated its third album, White Blood Cells, to Lynn, and White has called her the greatest female singer/songwriter of the 20th century). The result is the most gloriously unrefined recording of Lynn’s long career. White’s signature guitar is evident throughout the CD, especially his red-hot slide work. He even joins Lynn at the microphone on “Portland, Oregon,” a charming duet about a drunken one-night stand, an endearing track since White is 28 while Lynn is 70 years old.
An afternoon telephone conversation with Lynn that took place before her new album was recorded reveals a woman completely unaffected by notoriety. Lynn sounds as though she were still a Butcher Holler farm girl, speaking in a rural dialect that contradicts her stardom. The singer doesn’t pull any punches. Hit her once and she’ll hit back twice. Her husband Doolittle’s (Doo) philandering and chronic alcoholism provoked more than a few violent episodes during their 48-year marriage. She knocked two of his front teeth out one night, pleased as she could be that his cheating was put to rest until he could get new teeth. Their marriage is tumultuously detailed in her second autobiography Still Woman Enough, an entertaining but brutally honest account of Lynn’s life as one of America’s greatest country music performers.
Lynn literally defines country. The names of her children read like a hillbilly sitcom: Betty Sue, Ernest Ray, Patsy, Cissie, and Jack Benny. Married at age 13 in Kentucky coal-mining country, Lynn and her husband moved to Washington State a year later so Doo could pan for gold and Loretta could pick strawberries. Though noting there were anecdotes in her autobiography that she couldn’t have written if her husband were still alive, Lynn is unwavering in her devotion to the man directly responsible for her success. Doo convinced Loretta to sing in Northwest honky tonks despite her severe stage fright. Lynn began to build a following in Canada but noticed that her most loyal fans were suddenly absent for a couple of months. When she finally confronted them about where they’d been, they explained that they had given up Loretta for Lent. The singer said the only “Lent” she was familiar with was the kind that gets on your clothes. Doo later chauffeured her on a blitz tour of radio stations around the country to convince disc jockeys to play her first single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” And it was her husband who got her on the Grand Ole Opry after her first record entered the charts. She was invited to sing on the Opry for the next 17 weeks, receiving $18 per night (with three additional bucks if she sang an extra song).
Being an Opry star didn’t change Lynn much. She continued to slaughter her barnyard chickens for dinner and shop for material at the Salvation Army thrift store to make her own stage outfits. She was once chastised by a ranking Opry official who saw her coming out of the store. He told her it “cast a bad light on the Opry when local folks saw the show’s singers acting like poor people.” She didn’t know how to use a credit card until Conway Twitty instructed her in the late 1970s.
Influenced by nothing more than Saturday night Grand Ole Opry broadcasts and her delight in rhyming words with siblings as a child, Lynn displayed a remarkable ability for writing songs. “Doo got me a book that showed how you wrote ‘em. It was called Country Roundup, I think. I just looked at the songs and I said, ‘Anybody can do this.’ The first spanking Doo ever give me was because I rhymed a word. And it rhymed with door—you know what it was—and I didn’t know what it meant. It was raining and cold and he let the door open and I said, ‘Shut the door you little. . . .’ And I got a whippin’ for that—and he’d promised Daddy he’d never put a hand on me. And that was the next day after he’d married me. He throwed me over his knee and busted my butt.”
In 1963, the singer was asked by her childhood idol Ernest Tubb to record a series of duets. “I never dreamed I’d ever sing with him, ’cause when Daddy had that little radio, we’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night and the news, ’cause the war was goin’ on. But I’d start to cry when Ernest Tubb started to sing. And Mama would say, ‘I’m gonna turn the radio off if you don’t quit cryin’.’” Tubb was instrumental in establishing Lynn as a country institution. “When I come to Nashville, MCA Records, which was Decca at the time, they asked Ernest to record with a girl. And he said he wanted to record with me. He did so much for me. The last time I sang with him, it was like standin’ up by a big monument. I even went to Billy Bob’s [famed Fort Worth bar, the largest honky-tonk in the world] and did a show for him to buy medicine with, ’cause he had run out of money. He helped everybody in Nashville, but no one would go help him.”
But it was her series of duets with Conway Twitty that placed Lynn on the same “classic duo” pedestal occupied by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. “Yeah, I loved Conway. He was like a brother, and he would give me advice. If he thought I wasn’t doing things right, he’d tell me, ‘This is how you do it,’ and I’d say, ‘No, that’s how you do it. This is how I’d do it,’” she laughs. Their string of soap-opera-style hits included “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” and “Backstreet Affair.” In a strange twist of fate, Conway Twitty unexpectedly died with Lynn at his bedside in a Missouri hospital in 1991 after Twitty was overcome with a stomach aneurysm while touring the Midwest. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, where Lynn happened to be waiting as Doo recovered from open-heart surgery. She thought that Twitty had decided to drop by to visit her husband. “I watched Conway’s bus come off the exit. I run downstairs to let him know what room Doo was in, and they come draggin’ him in. Blood’s comin’ out of his mouth and his eyes was tryin’ to focus on me and he couldn’t. I almost fell out right there. The chaplain came in and told me that Conway would not live through the night, so he told me if I wanted to see him I should go on back there. I went in his room and patted him on the arm and said, ‘Conway, you love to sing, honey, don’t you leave me.’”
Staunchly defiant, Lynn was a fly in the conservative ointment of the Nashville music industry. She was the first to write and sing about women’s issues. “The Pill” was the first of several of her songs to be banned, but Lynn was smart enough to recognize a marketing opportunity as women flocked to her side. “It’s all because I’d get down and talk to the women. All of ‘em were taking the pill and they weren’t wearin’ bras [pronounced 'braws']. Everybody was taking the pill, why not talk about it. Everybody was havin’ kids just like I was, why not say, ‘One’s on the way.’ I couldn’t understand why the public was worried about my songs. And when ‘Rated X’ come out, just the title of it, they started banning the record. And they didn’t listen to it. It was about a divorced woman. Nothin’ in it was bad. When ‘Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin” come out, the big 50-watt [sic] station in Chicago didn’t play it, ’cause they thought it was dirty. It went number one, they started playin’ it.”
Loretta Lynn’s music was a stark contrast to Tammy Wynette’s songs that advised women to stick with their man, regardless. Ironically, Wynette went through five husbands, while Lynn’s only husband was Doo. “Tammy Wynette was outspoken about standing by her man, and I’d done hit mine over the head with a rollin’ pin,” Lynn laughs. “Tammy said, ‘I’d be afraid to sing that, afraid they wouldn’t play my record.’ But it didn’t hurt me. They’d ban ‘em and they’d go number one.” Lynn took Wynette under her wing when she arrived in Nashville, just as Patsy Cline had done for her when Lynn first moved to town as an unknown. “Oh, Tammy was my best girlfriend. First girlfriend I had, except Patsy. I never did get that close to all the artists. All of ‘em have their own way of doin’ things, and I think they kinda stayed away from me because of the songs I wrote. They shoulda liked ‘em, they might’ve rubbed off on ‘em. They could’ve wrote their own.”
Lynn also didn’t think twice about crossing racial divides. “When Charlie Pride won Singer of the Year, I was the one that was supposed to give the award. So they said, ‘Loretta, if Charlie wins, step back one foot and don’t touch him.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearin’ ’cause I’d been livin’ on the West Coast for 13 or 14 years,” Lynn remembers, still appalled. “Charlie is just another singer to me. When it comes to color, I’m colorblind, ’cause I’m part Cherokee. So when Charlie won, I stepped up and hugged him and kissed him. They got a little upset about it. I thought, ‘Well, Charlie shouldn’t even sing for ‘em if that’s the way they feel about him.’”
One of her champions in Nashville was the Carter Family, who at one time asked her to join the group. Lynn refused because she felt she couldn’t sing their harmonies properly. She remembers trying to get a sulking Johnny Cash on stage. “Poor little ol’ Johnny. They couldn’t get him out on stage. Johnny Cash has always been good to me. He was the first one that took me out of Nashville on a tour. Him and the Carter Family, we went to Toronto and Ontario [sic]. He was not having too good a night. Mother Maybelle, June . . . they were all mad at him. I said, ‘Come on, baby, it’s time for you to go on.’ He jerked his coat down and there was a bottle of pills—a hundred-aspirin bottle of pills, but it wasn’t aspirin. I didn’t know what they was ’cause I’d never seen a diet pill in my life. And they went all over the floor and they was all different colors. And Johnny said, ‘Don’t leave any,’ and I sat down on that floor and picked up every pill and put them back.”
Refusing to sway from her convictions, Loretta Lynn has remained her own woman. Her forthright honesty provoked a showdown with Frank Sinatra, who invited Lynn to duet on what had been his first hit, “All or Nothing at All.” She told Sinatra it was the worst song she’d ever heard and suggested they sing “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” Sinatra told her when she had her own television show she could sing whatever she wanted.
Her simple approach to life and refusal to bow to showbiz expectations also left a lasting impression on Dean Martin. Martin had been so taken with the Carter Family’s performance on his show that he asked them to recommend another Nashville artist. They suggested Lynn, who refused to sit in Martin’s lap, as was customary when he sang duets with female performers. Instead of being offended, Martin decided her spunk was the perfect ingredient to spice up the “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast” show featuring Jack Lemmon. Lynn picks up the story in her autobiography: “Well, I’d never heard of a ‘roast.’ I thought Dean Martin was inviting me to dinner with his Hollywood friends. So I dressed up real nice. They made a special dress for me out of material flown from Paris, France. I couldn’t understand why they wanted me to eat in that fancy dress. They made me read from a Teleprompter and I told Dean I was scared to death and didn’t read so good. But I didn’t have a choice. I was stuck. Making me feel worse, I started in saying the most awful things about Jack Lemmon. I didn’t know they was jokes. So each time I said something, I turned to Jack and said, ‘I didn’t mean that, honey. I don’t even know you. I’m just saying what’s on that there card.’” &
Loretta Lynn performs at the Blockbuster stage on Sunday, June 20, from 8:40 p.m. to 9:55 p.m.
Editor’s note: After this issue went to press, Loretta Lynn cancelled her tour due to back problems. She will not appear at this year’s City Stages.