Loretta Lynn was born in an Appalachian coal-mining community so far from the rhinestones of Nashville there wasn’t so much as a dirt road for getting down the mountain. People entered Butcher Holler, Ky., by way of a footpath, and they almost never left.
Lynn did, of course — an exit she credits to her late husband, Oliver Lynn (known to the world as “Doolittle” or “Doo”), whom she married at 13. Loretta was still a teenager when Doolittle bought her a guitar for their anniversary, telling her he liked the way she sang to their babies (four by the time Loretta was 18). Doolittle was also the one who took Loretta to her first honky-tonk and talked the band into giving her a turn onstage.
But Loretta was the one who sang. And Loretta was the one who started writing the songs that spoke to so many women: poor, entirely at the mercy of their husbands, and covered up with babies. She has said she never considered herself part of the women’s movement. Nevertheless, when she sang, in her then-scandalous 1975 hit “The Pill,” that birth control would let her trade her “old maternity dress” for “miniskirts, hotpants and a few little fancy frills,” her frankness about women’s changing roles had the force of truth spoken to power.
In 1960, she cut her first single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” She left the kids with her mother and lived in the car, while she and Doo visited every country station they could reach. They appealed in person to disc jockeys to get the record played.
Fifty years later, Loretta Lynn has piled up an Appalachian mountain’s worth of milestones and honors. She has four Grammy awards, 16 No. 1 singles, and 51 Top 10 hits to her credit, and in 1967 she became the Country Music Association’s first female Vocalist of the Year. In 1972 she set another milestone, becoming the CMA’s first female Entertainer of the Year.
In 1976, she released her best-selling memoir, Coal Miner’s Daughter. That led to the 1980 film version, and Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning performance in the lead role introduced Loretta Lynn — and country music — to an audience far beyond WSM Radio. Six years ago, Lynn recorded the critically acclaimed CD Van Lear Rose with rocker Jack White of the White Stripes, further extending her reach and cementing her success as a music legend.
In person, she has the disarming habit of treating every person she talks to as a long-lost friend, even interviewers she’s never met before. Loretta Lynn recently spoke by phone about the re-release of the Coal Miner’s Daughter book and about a new CD called Loretta Lynn: A Tribute to a Coal Miner’s Daughter, arriving Nov. 9, that features today’s country stars — Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack, Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, among others — covering her groundbreaking work.
Q. A lot of people credit Coal Miner’s Daughter with bringing country music to a larger audience. When you sat down to write the book, did you have any inkling of the impact it would have?
Loretta Lynn: I had no idea that anyone would care whether I come from Kentucky, or whether I was born in Kentucky, or whether I was singing or not. I had no idea that anybody would care. I was really shocked when it become one of the bestselling books. It was just a plain little old common book. I didn’t think it amounted to that much, and here it was No. 1 and stayed No. 1 for quite a while.
Q. I just read your new introduction to the re-release of Coal Miner’s Daughter, and you explain that you hand-picked Sissy Spacek for the movie.
Sissy Spacek, she was the only one that I picked. And I thought that Levon Helm done a great job as my daddy — looked just like him. And you know I couldn’t watch the movie because of that. I seen it the one time, and now I try to dodge it because it brings back so many memories.
Q. It’s harder for you to watch the film than it was to write the book?
Yeah, because it goes much deeper in bad things. I mean, we had nothing when we were growing up.
Q. Whose idea was it to write this book?
I think mine. Believe it or not.
Q. How hard was it to write?
There would be days it would bother me. It would be according to what we were talking about that day. You know me and Sissy kind of hung together for a year. I kind of stayed with her and made sure that everything was pretty well done like it was supposed to be. I think Sissy had a hard time too because there’d be days where she’d start to cry, and they’d call me on the road and say, “We’re having a hard time with Sissy today. She’s been crying all day, can you call her?” And I would call her. I don’t get to see her much anymore because she’s so busy, you know. She come down one day last year, and we did pictures all day long for something that she was doing. I love Sissy, and she knows she can call on me at any time. And I can call on her any time. It’s just one of them things.
Q. She did an absolutely unbelievable job.
She did. She really did. And it really bothered her when she’d start to … she knew a lot of the stories that went deeper. I think that’s why she’d start to cry. She’d start to remember what we were talking about.
Q. You’ve written now two memoirs and almost countless songs. Is there a difference between writing a song and writing a life story?
Yes, ’cause the life story you pretty well have to hang to the truth. I mean you don’t want to overdo it or under-do it because it’ll be too emotional if you overdo it, and then if you underdo it you’re not going to get that emotion that you need. It’s kind of hard when you’re writing the truth down. If you’re just making things up, I mean, who cares?
Q. So your songs are primarily made up?
With every song I’ve ever written, there’s a part of me in it. Of course, I’m not going to say what all they were ’cause it would be hard to even do that, but I know there’s a part of me in every song I’ve wrote, if it’s just half a line.
Q. In the new introduction to Coal Miner’s Daughter, you mention that you have a little writing room beside your house. Could you describe that for me?
Tim Cobb kind of set it up. He’s the one that makes all my gowns and stuff. He tries to do stuff like that to help me out, and he fixed up the little writing room ’cause he knew that I like to go out there and write. I can’t write around anybody. It has to be whoever I’m writing with or be by myself. So he set up the writing room, and Sheryl [Crow] used the writing room the whole time she was here. And Miranda [Lambert] had her bus, so we all three had a place to run to when we got tired of each other. They did “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with me — on the new album.
Q. In Coal Miner’s Daughter, you write that you would sometimes check into a hotel, even when you were back in town, because it was so hard to come home for only a day or two between road trips.
Used to, I might be working three weeks and home one day. And this went on for 40 years. And people say, “Why are you working so hard?” Well, I worked hard because I had to. I had a big family, and my husband was a mechanic. He didn’t make enough money doing mechanic work to pay the rent, let alone anything else. So it was rough for us. Yeah, I tried to do everything I could to make it better for the family.
Q. What’s the biggest difference between Nashville now and Nashville when you got here?
Well, it’s more open to country music now than it was. It was kind of like a hush-hush thing when I come to Nashville. I couldn’t believe it. They wasn’t no country music hardly at all being played. The Opry was being played; Patsy [Cline] was being played, but Patsy was never real country, and there were very few [others being played on the radio]. Jim Reeves was one of the guys, and Sonny James — I worked with both of them. When we first started, I was in there with ’em. Jim Reeves borrowed my guitar for one of the shows one day. His got busted. He was doing a movie, and his guitar got busted so he borrowed mine. Doolittle was traveling with me at the time, and he looked over at Doo, and he said, “Doo, why don’t you buy that girl a guit-tar.” He couldn’t keep it tuned; he couldn’t hardly sing with it, so I thought it was funny.
Q. You really started your own success by visiting radio stations in person.
Radio stations and radio stations. And today, I still talk to [the DJs] on the phone. And if I’m in the town and I’ve got the time, I stop and see ’em now.
Q. Do you see yourself in any of the young female country artists today?
Miranda [Lambert] reminds me a lot of me. She probably reminds me of me because she likes the honky-tonk songs, and you can’t go wrong with a honky-tonk song.
Q. She’s on your new record.
Yeah, she is. The day that they come down here to work with me, all day long we were so busy recording “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” all three of us; that was quite a lot of work. I ended up working till about 9 o’clock that night. We put in a hard day’s work that day.
Q. The songs on this record are so associated with you — not with just your singing voice, but also with your life. Is it odd to hear other people covering your songs?
Oh, it tickles me to death. I don’t think it’s odd ’cause I cut people’s songs all my life. I just think it’s such a great thing that they cared enough for me to do this. You know, I never thought people cared about me being in the business almost 50 years now. And so I just thought it was fantastic that they cared enough that they even helped me out. That just shows you the country artists. It shows you the difference [between] the country artist and the rest. I think.
Q. I just re-read Coal Miner’s Daughter, and one thing you don’t really spend a lot of time on is how some of your songs — like “The Pill” and “One on the Way” — were considered controversial. Some of them were even banned from the radio.
I didn’t do it to be controversial. I was just cutting about real life, and they banned them at the stations, you know? And I thought, “Why in the world are they banning them? It’s going on all the time.” I never could understand why they’d do that. But every time they banned one, it went No. 1 for me. I didn’t really have to get out and spend any money or work with it. They still record my songs. So I’m just so thankful. Kid Rock, he sang [“I Know How”] the other night [at the Grammy Salute to Country Music]. Was you at the show?
Q. No, I’m sorry I wasn’t.
Well, what happened, Margaret? You should have hollered, and I could have taken you in.
Q. I wish you had. That would have been a highlight of my life.
If you’d’a come out to the bus — I got ready in the bus and everything.
Q. Next time I’ll try.
OK. And when we do shows down here, come down, too. It won’t cost you a thing; you just holler for me. Just say, “Loretta told me to come,” and that’s that.
Q. I’ll look forward to that. Thinking about that song Kid Rock sang the other night: When you first recorded that song, did you ever consider yourself a little bit ahead of your time?
I thought, “It’s weird that they’re banning them because everybody’s living this.” I was writing about my life, and everybody around me was living about the same way. I never could understand why they’d do that. I guess it was because they were a little bit … like they didn’t want nobody else to know. That’s ridiculous. Life’s life, and everybody lives it the same way. Some of them have a little more money than others; so what? Everybody has to live the same way. I don’t care if you’ve got money or if you’re poor, you’re going to go through life about the same way.
Q. Do you think it’s easier or harder today for a country artist to sing about controversial topics?
Oh, it’s easier. Oh, yes. Because this was 50 years ago that I was doing it, and I think maybe I knocked down a few of the doors. Miranda probably says it best. She says, “Loretta knocked the doors down so we can go through.”
Q. You’ve written so many songs about strong women and women who are able to take a hard situation and somehow come out on top, and yet were never associated with the women’s movement.
Well, I never had time really. When all this was going down, I was writing about it, but I never really got to live the way that. … Like “The Pill,” you’ve taken it, and you know that other women are taking it, so why make a big deal out of it? And “One’s On the Way” — how many have one on the way? It’s just no big deal, and that’s the way I felt when we was recording them. And when they’d hit the stations, “Well, oh my. One’s on the way, it’s gotta be dirty.” That’s just what their thinking was.
Q. I’m wondering if one of the reasons you didn’t necessarily consider yourself a feminist or part of that crowd is because your songs were doing all that talking for you.
Yeah, I was living through my songs, too. That’s why they were hits. Every woman was living through them songs. And I’ve had ’em holler out in the middle of my show and tell me all about their life. And sometimes [they] just stand up and start telling about their life. And that’s neat. I think it’s more personal because I would meet ’em, and we’d talk about the way we had to be living. And not all songs do that.
Q. I was thinking about you during all this excitement in the news about the miners down in South America.
It breaks my heart when I hear stuff like that.
Q. When you hear about these things on the news, does it take you back home?
It takes me right back to seeing Daddy come out of the coal mine, just covered with coal dust. And then they’d stop and they’d take a bath — they had bath houses for the miners — and it just took me right back to seeing Daddy come out of the mines. And Daddy would jump me for being around where I could see him because he’d say, “You know it might not be me that comes up out of that mine; it might be somebody that you wouldn’t want to be around.” And daddy would jump me. But I never was afraid. I guess it was a good thing that I wasn’t afraid because I don’t think there was any miners that would hurt me anyway. Because they were all like Daddy. Yeah, the coal miner’s daughter remembers a lot.