By Ken Cameron
Sunday, December 5, 2004 12:19 AM CST
Nothing in the news compels me to write about Loretta Lynn today. I just like thinking about her from time to time.
You might think this means I was raised on Loretta’s music, but not so. About the time she was making her early splashes in Nashville I was an elementary school kid in Louisiana mesmerized by The Beatles. My growing-up years were filled with ’60’s and ’70’s rock-n-roll spiced with whatever sounds my father’s stereo was making in the pauses between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Pete Fountain, Floyd Cramer, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys thusly seeped into my consciousness unawares, but no country music was played, hence no Loretta.
I was to learn later that her music springs from her roots in the hills and hollows of Kentucky, where people wrote songs about everything – love and death and cheatin’ and moonshinin’ and taters and Jesus and, well, life. Her songs are straightforward, honest, uncompromising, unflinching morsels of life. Someone should have warned me.
Sometime during my high school years I heard one of Loretta’s songs playing in a record shop, bought a 78 version of it and snuck it home, not wanting my friends to catch me totin’ any music that twanged.
“Love is the Foundation” was the name of the song, and I played it continuously for days, lost in the smooth, sultry, down-home sounds. One morning, one of my mother’s best friends – I’ll call her “Mrs. Jones” since that was her name – came into our living room and asked what I was listening to. The refrain was playing (“And love is the foundation we lean on; All you need is love to ease your mind …”) and she liked it so we backed it up and played the whole thing.
I should mention that Mrs. Jones was one of my mother’s good friends from our steadfastly conservative church as well as the wife of our baseball coach and the mother of one of my best friends. These are important tidbits to keep in mind as you imagine us sharing these opening lines:
“I see him as he wakens in the mornin’;
He reaches out his hand and without a word,
As his fingers feather soft upon my face,
He lights the flame of desire and makes me want him.”
I remember this with a shudder of discomfort, though there was none at the time. Chances are a thing or two was lost in translation, since I had no experience in such matters, especially from a womanly point of view. Anyway, Mrs. Jones said it was a pretty song and retreated to the kitchen.
I think I survived that experience simply because it was Loretta: no pretense, no euphemisms, no sugar coating. If an experience was real, then her song was real and sung without apology. She didn’t create the life she experienced, but she would sing it true.
I figure I’m not the only male to appreciate Loretta, and I wonder what makes her so special, given that a lot of the songs that made her famous were clearly written from the feminine perspective. Songs and lines about “The Pill,” “Don’t come home a-drankin’ with lovin’ on your mind,” “You ain’t woman enough to take my man,” and “I’m here to tell you gal lay off of my man if you don’t want to go to fist city” hardly spoke to my experience as a young southern male.
I think part of the reason she is special is that, for southerners and country folk, Loretta is the favorite aunt or cousin or mother or (now) grandmother we have all known. She is a country girl singing the country way of life. This is why a lot of guys are protective of Loretta, as in “Don’t say nothin’ bad about Loretta or we’ll have to go to fist city.” Southern men are taught to protect their women, and she’s the epitome of the southern country woman.
To use a fancy term, Loretta is “archetypal” – fulfilling the ageless story of the person from the heartland who strives, overcomes, remains true to herself and her roots, and in singing the story of her life sings ours. The song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is the essence of archetype and mythology come to life.
Ultimately, though, on a simpler level, we love Loretta because she is “real.” Unlike many of today’s stars who fake or exaggerate their country roots to make a buck or, to put a more positive spin on it, try to create a nostalgic image they wish was true, Loretta never tried to be anything that she wasn’t. She never felt the need to “recreate herself” or manipulate her image (which, in the world of entertainment, amounts to the same thing). Loretta simply told the truth of life as she experienced it.
A lot of country singers try to act like Loretta, and I wish they would get the deeper message of Loretta’s life: To be real, you don’t have to be Loretta, you have to be yourself.
When I was younger it confused me that various singers were introduced as “The First Lady of Country Music”. Tammy Wynette was introduced this way, and maybe even Dolly Parton, although I think Loretta herself would give the honor to Patsy Cline. And although I’m not going to get into a fight about such matters (unless you say anything bad about any of them), it’s clear which pronouncement I adhere to:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the First Lady of Country Music, Mrs. Loretta Lynn.”