A representative for Loretta Lynn asks, “Are you ready for Loretta?” before handing the phone to one of the greatest singers and songwriters in the history of American music. Lynn takes the phone. “Ain’t nobody ready for me,” she says and laughs.
Lynn is correct.
Her unlikely story — that of a blue Kentucky girl, who grew up poor in a mining town only to become an iconic country-music star — has inspired songs, biographies, autobiographies, biopics and, in the near future, a Broadway musical. And even all of that doesn’t seem to capture the depth of her tireless spirit.
Lynn’s life has been an open songbook, yet when she speaks about it in her crackling and colorful voice, little details emerge that serve as a reminder that only she knows all the nuances that give her story a novelistic richness. Further, at age 77 — or 80 if you go by birth records — she continues to be active as a writer, singer and touring artist. In addition to the musical, which will star actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, Lynn has a new book in “Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics,” and another one’s on the way, as are multiple albums, including a record of old Kentucky songs she’s planning to make this year with the great producer T Bone Burnett.
“I feel better now than I ever did,” Lynn says. “I can outwork all the new artists today. Sometimes they have to make me get off the stage.”
Lynn will visit the Majestic Theatre on Sunday.
The touchstones in Lynn’s life have been well covered, but in short: She was born a coal miner’s daughter in Butcher Holler, Ky. She married at 13 and had four kids before she was 20. She and her husband loved hard and fought hard, and he nudged her into a new career at 24 by buying her a $17 Harmony guitar and encouraging her to write and sing. She proved to be quite skilled at both. By 1959, she was singing for audiences, by 1962 she’d hit the country charts, and by the middle of that decade she was a star.
Lynn’s songs were propelled by her powerhouse voice, but they were also marvelously constructed narratives. She wrote fairly frankly about sex and its aftermath, from children to fights — and she was unafraid to project the travails of her own marriage onto the radio. Lynn would occasionally dabble with songwriting that concerned itself with vaguely defined matters of the heart, but her work is notable for more often being driven by compact stories told with clarity.
“That was my daddy and my mommy,” she says. “Everybody told stories at nighttime. All there was to do was sit around the fireplace and tell about what things you’d seen and heard. That happened just about every night. Every now and then we’d pop some popcorn; that was the highlight of winter. You didn’t get much — not with 10 people in the family. But it was special.
“Right to this day that’s why it’s hard for me to see a kid throwing down pieces of candy or dropping an ice cream cone. I like to never get over that.”
Lynn’s early musical impressions mostly came from the radio listening to the Grand Ole Opry. But asked about the first time she remembers hearing music, she recalls being 3 and hearing her grandfather play the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.”
“But I was just a baby then, and even when I was older, I never thought I’d get out of Butcher Holler,” she says. “Let alone doing this all these years. This was way too big for me to dream. I remember when I was 13 we had a one-room schoolhouse. The teacher had all eight grades to teach. She let me help with the little kids. She’d give me $1 a month to help and sweep out the schoolhouse and erase the blackboards and set the chairs like they’re supposed to be. I thought I was gonna get rich. (Laughs.) Holes in the bottom of my shoes. It wasn’t easy, but I thought it was gonna make me rich.”
Those are the sort of details that populate a Loretta Lynn song. She credits her success to “writing the only thing I knew: how I grew up, how I lived and how things were. With growing up, I didn’t realize everybody didn’t live the same way. I thought everybody had been hungry.”
Pugnacious songs about marriage tended to resonate more directly with her audience. Lynn was forgiving of her husband’s philandering, just as long as he knew he would hear about it later with millions of other people.
“He knew what he’d done, so he was pretty good about it,” she says. “I always told him, ‘I can make it worse now …’ “
After years of ill health, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn died in 1996. Lynn had retreated from her career to tend to him.
Before he died he provided her with the title of one of her most heartbreaking songs, “I Can’t Hear the Music,” which she released on a 2000 album that put Lynn back in the music business. Her Jack White-produced 2004 album, “Van Lear Rose,” did more to restore her reputation as an American musical treasure whose peers have almost all passed. Lynn’s “Honky Tonk Girl” is full of the ghosts of friends: Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens, June Carter.
Lynn’s voice cracks a little talking about them, especially Cline, who gave her clothes and support when Lynn first moved to Nashville.
“It’s hard to get close to somebody who already made it, but she was so good to me,” Lynn says. “And that’s what I want to do. I wanna die being nice to somebody. I do not wanna die hurting anybody. It’d kill me to know I hurt somebody.”