LORETTA LYNN: TELLING IT LIKE IT IS FOR 50 YEARS

By Luke Z. Fenchel – ithaca.com

Loretta Lynn, a signature voice of country music in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as an independent spirit and an early champion of feminism, is an artist not content to rest on her laurels. “I ain’t a star – a star is something up in the night sky,” she said on the fiftieth anniversary of the release of her first single. “People say to me, ‘You’re a legend.’ I’m not a legend. I’m just a woman.”

But on Saturday, March 31, the night sky in Ithaca is sure to shine a little brighter, because the coal miner’s daughter will be making a stop at the State Theatre thanks to Dan Smalls Presents. Advance tickets for the sure to be sold out engagement range from $38.50 to $58.50 and are available at the State Theatre Box Office at 105 W. State St., online at www.sateofithaca.com, or by calling (607) 277-8283.

With fifty-two Top Ten hits, sixteen number one singles, and fifty-four studio records under her belt, the singer shows no sign of slowing down. Her last album of original material was a collaboration with indie rocker and producer Jack White, which garnered a Grammy Award in 2005. Otherwise, the writing she has done has principally been literary: a revision to her best-selling autobiography A Coal Miner’s Daughter, a new memoir a few years back, and even a book of recipes and anecdotes titled You’re Cookin’ It Country.

But she continues to perform frequently around the country. “There still nothing better than walking out and seeing so many people who have come to my shows to see me,” she wrote to me by email earlier this month.

“I ain’t no different from anybody else. I’m my own cook. And I do my own gardening,” Lynn wrote in a recent introduction to A Coal Miner’s Daughter. But that modesty only adds to her charm: after all, she’s had not one but two major Hollywood productions based on her life. “To make it in this business, you either have to be first, great, or different,” Lynn has said. And even a casual fan of her work knows that she is all three.

“And I was the first to ever go into Nashville singin’ it like the women lived it,” Lynn said. Songs like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” were as feminist as country music got in 1966, and her autobiographical narratives (the most famous being A Coal Miner’s Daughter), took the glitz out an occasionally goofy genre. Lynn’s lyrics grew more strident through the ‘60s and ‘70s, including “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” (1968), “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)” (1969), and a tune about birth control called “The Pill” (1974).

Lynn challenged female rivals in her songs, showed tremendous blue-collar pride, and is unafraid of controversy, whether the topic is sex (“Wings Upon Your Horns”), divorce (“Rated X”), alcohol (“Wouldn’t It Be Great”), or war (“Dear Uncle Sam”). Like the lady herself, Loretta Lynn’s songs shoot from the hip.

Lynn may be most famous for her 1976 autobiography and its Academy Award-winning 1980 film adaptation starring Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, and the Band’s Levon Helm. Lynn actually is a coal miner’s daughter, raised in dire poverty in remote Appalachian Kentucky. Living in a mountain cabin with seven brothers and sisters, she was surrounded by music as a child. “I thought everybody sang, because everybody up there in Butcher Holler did,” she recalled. “Everybody in my family sang. So I really didn’t understand until I left Butcher Holler that there were some people who couldn’t. And it was kind of a shock.”

Referring to the lyrics of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn wrote in her autobiography: “Most people know that much about me, because those are the first words of my biggest song. I open my show with it because I know people are gonna request it until I sing it. I wrote it myself, nine verses, and it broke my heart when I had to cut three verses out because it was too long. I could have written a thousand more verses, I’ve got so many memories of Butcher Hollow.”

Lynn famously married Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn when she was a barely schooled child of 13. “Doo” was a 21-year-old war veteran with a reputation as a hell raiser. When she was seven months pregnant with her first child, they moved far away from Appalachia to Custer, Washington. By age 18, she had four children (two more, twins, came along in 1964). Isolated from her native culture and burdened with domestic work, she turned to music for solace.

Her husband bought her a guitar and encouraged her career. A 1960 single followed, and by the fall of 1961, Lynn was singing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where she and her husband had relocated.

Her chart debut came with 1962’s “Success,” the first of her 51 Top Ten hits, and it led to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry cast later that year. (Patsy Cline, a fellow Opry cast member taught her how to dress, style her hair, and wear make-up.)

By the mid-1970s, Lynn was a superstar. Featured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine, her humor, systematically scrambled grammar, and unpretentious manner made her a favorite on talk shows.

“I just wrote about things that happened,” she said. “I was writing about things that nobody talked about in public, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t. I was having babies and staying at home. I was writing about life.”

Lynn retired in the ‘90s to take care of her ailing husband, and when she returned to performing (“Doo” died in 1996), country music had popped out. But she had a chance at a comeback when The White Stripes’ front man produced Van Lear Rose, which Lynn has called the “country-est record I’ve ever recorded.”

Late in A Coal Miner’s Daughter Lynn recounts the elaborate process of preparing for a show while on the road. “I spend half an hour at the vanity, just making up,” she wrote. “A writer named Carol Offen once asked me why I got dressed up so fancy in these days when a lot of women are wearing blue jeans and letting their hair just hang.”

She continued: “I said that’s all right for other women, but I think my fans expect me to look a certain way. It’s part of my personality on stage.”

“I tell everybody, ‘It’s your show. What song do you want to hear?’ and we sing ‘em,” Lynn wrote by email. “I have not had a set list for 25 years.” And the artist is famously responsive to her fans; a New York Times concert review from 2008 noted: “Ms. Lynn encouraged members of the crowd to shout out requests, which they’d been doing unprompted, making the show more like a rowdy town-hall meeting.”

For Lynn, the performer ought to put on a performance.

“I enjoy seeing me change from Loretta, the gal in jeans,” she wrote in A Coal Miner’s Daughter, “to Loretta, the woman in the long gown. It’s a little like seeing one of the Hollywood stars appear before my own eyes.”

And then with a characteristic joke: “I guess my Mommy should have never let me sit looking at pictures of movie stars.”