On her green-pastured ranch about 75 miles west of Nashville in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., country music icon Loretta Lynn sat smiling in front of nearly 100 journalists, music industry peers and family members gathered inside her 18,000-square-foot Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum.
The Country Music Hall of Fame member greeted the visitors Friday evening (Sept. 24) during an event celebrating her 50 years in the country music industry. Charting her first hit single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” in 1960, she broke ground for female singer-songwriters with a string of unforgettable material, including “The Pill,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Rated X,” “One’s on the Way” and numerous others.
The story of her life and the evidence of her legacy are literally written on the walls of her museum. Surrounding her are the accolades, the costumes, the memories of a life that began humbly as a coal miner’s daughter in 1934, in a one-room cabin in Butcher Holler, Ky. A replica of that very cabin is located inside the museum.
“I think staying grounded, you just don’t forget where you come from,” she told reporters during a press conference. “All I do is just close my eyes and I know where I’m from. I go back to that little one room cabin where I lived till I was 11 years old.”
All of the carefully-placed artifacts document her journey — from her meek beginnings to her eventual rise to fame as a country music superstar. Nearly every piece is marked by a personally-handwritten note. Among the memorabilia are the turquoise, knee-length dress she wore when she made her Grand Ole Opry debut in 1960 and a rose-accented gown featuring sequins glued on by her late husband, Mooney “Doo” Lynn.
Recalling her early performances at the Opry, she told reporters her husband spent much of his time at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge — a bar across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.
“When I first started singing, we’d come back to Tootsie’s,” she said. “My husband, he stayed at Tootsie’s while I sang at the Grand Ole Opry. When we’d get a break, I’d go over there with him. Of course, I’d have a Coke while he was drinking whatever he was drinkin’. God only knows what all it was.” Laughing, she added, “Tootsie’s was a good place to hang out back in them days.”
A multicolored floral skirt Lynn’s father bought for her 16th birthday, along with several aprons made by her mother, are also part of the large exhibit. A red nightgown given to her by her best friend, Patsy Cline, is there, too. Nearby are remnants left from the plane crash that tragically ended Cline’s life in 1963. The museum’s walls are lined with artifacts from her film biography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and photos of Lynn with famous actors, musical icons and U.S. presidents. And then there are the numerous awards and plaques.
“I look at these awards like they’re somebody else’s,” she said.
Quick to shine the spotlight on others during the celebration, Lynn invited her sister, singer Crystal Gayle, to the small stage. Lynn explained that the first time she ever heard her sister sing was when their mother sent her a tape in the mail.
“Crystal was singing,” Lynn described, “and all of a sudden, she cut loose, ‘Put the boooooottle on the table, let it stay there until I’m able.’ She was about four or five years old when that happened.”
“And I still scream ’em out there,” Gayle laughed.
As the two relived personal childhood memories, the entire room grew silent as though listening to the two share family secrets. Gayle reminisced about singing her sister’s songs until the day Lynn told her she needed to stop if she wanted to build her own career.
“We have one Loretta Lynn,” Gayle remembered her sister saying. “We don’t need another.”
“And she knew,” Gayle said. “She knew that the only way I was going to succeed was if I had my own path.”
Lynn also talked about writing Gayle’s first single, “I’ve Cried (The Blues Right Out of My Eyes),” and how it took her longer to write it than it did for her sister to learn it. She also shared the familiar story about coming up with her sister’s stage name after seeing a Krystal hamburger restaurant on the side of the road.
“So, I looked over at her and said, ‘Your name’s Crystal Gayle,'” Lynn recalled. “She hollered a little bit, but she finally went with it. And now she’s proud of it.”
“That’s right,” Gayle agreed.
Others shared their personal stories about Lynn during the gathering.
“I heard a quote that Muhammad Ali made one time that reminded me of her,” Marty Stuart said. “He said he was flying down in an airplane about to land, and he pointed out to the person next to him and said, ‘You see all those houses down there? I might be welcome at every door.’ And that’s the way I feel about Loretta Lynn. It don’t matter where she went on this planet. She’d be a welcomed guest.”
Lynn, who was now seated at the front table near the small stage, listened graciously as others took turns presenting her with gifts, plaques and kind words. Seated next to her and Gayle were their sisters Peggy Sue, Betty Ruth and brother Herman and several of Lynn’s children and grandchildren.
John Carter Cash, Johnny and June Carter Cash’s only child, acknowledged that he’s still in awe of Lynn.
“My upbringing, I got to see some stars,” he said. “I got to see some important figures in country music. Not all of them shine so bright when you get real close. And I’ve had the opportunity to become close with Loretta, and let me tell you, it’s just as real on the inside as it is on the outside. Ain’t nobody like you.”
A song that perhaps most brings to life this honesty and realness of her spirit can be found in the lines of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a song painting Lynn’s life in her own words. The autobiographical tune boasts lyrics, “Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter/In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler/We were poor, but we had love/That’s one thing my daddy made sure of/He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar.”
“I just thought it was another song of people talking about their life,” Lynn insisted. “I didn’t think about it ever being anything. But, it was a smash and I’m proud. I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.”