Some people are just born with it. With the gift for writing songs. Songs come to them, and they just need to write them down. It doesn’t take any agony or even much thought, it just takes time with a guitar alone to capture them as they fly by. That’s the case with Loretta Lynn. Right out of the gate, she wrote songs richer and deeper than the finest songs emerging out of Nashville. And she sang them with robust bravado, this little girl “dressed up like Annie Oakley,” and ascended swiftly to Nashville royalty as one of country music’s greatest singers and songwriters.
Born in 1932 in Kentucky, she married her beloved Doolittle (Oliver Vanetta Lynn) when she was only 13, and had four of her six kids before she was an adult. He gave her a guitar for her 24th birthday, and she started playing and singing as if she’d done it her whole life. Her first two songs, “Whispering Sea” and “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” were also the twin sides of her first single. And when people heard that voice with those songs, songs that reflected country life as it was really lived, they fell in love.
After those two, the songs kept coming. When the Nashville crowd first heard her music, they were stunned. Roy Acuff said he couldn’t fathom how she could write such astounding songs – “every one a little movie” – after never writing before. Gradually she created a bounty of work, a deep well of country music splendor from which singers have drawn for years. A new tribute album, Coal Miner’s Daughter, A Tribute to Loretta Lynn, has just been released, featuring Steve Earle, The White Stripes, Carrie Underwood, Kid Rock, Lucinda Williams and others, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her debut.
Lynn attributes it all to telling the truth. But sometimes the truth wasn’t what the good ol’ boys in Nashville wanted to hear, because it reflected too closely the reality of the changes America went through in the ‘60s, such as “The Pill” and “Rated X,” both of which were promptly banned from radio, and both which went to Number 1, sparked by controversy.
Today she’s home in her sun-dappled writing room, tending, as she often must, to the business of being Loretta Lynn. But as anyone who knows her will attest, she is no diva, quite the opposite. When told that it’s an honor for this writer to interview her, she just laughs, and says, “Honey, don’t say that. You can interview me anytime.”
You once said you would rather be remembered as a songwriter than a singer.
I would. Way before I started singing, I was trying to write. I lived out in the state of Washington and I had my four babies out there. I was trying to write everyday and I didn’t know how. So I looked at the songbooks and thought that anyone could do that, so I just started writing. “Whispering Sea” was my first song and then “Honky Tonk Girl” was my second song.
Did songwriting come easy to you?
Yes. When I started writing, my husband was out on the ocean fishing, and I wrote “Whispering Sea.” “Whispering sea, roll on by, don’t you listen to me cry.”
“Honky Tonk Girl” came from a lady who kept coming into the little club. Doo got me a job working for five dollars on Saturday nights, a little club. She came every time I worked. She told me that her husband had left her for another woman. She’d sit there and cry. She picked strawberries with me during the time when strawberries were ripe. And when strawberry picking was over, she kept coming to the club and crying. And I wrote “Honky Tonk Girl” from that.
So you have an idea first before you start writing?
Yes. I had to have a real reason to write a song. I wrote them about true things. And I just kind of kept that up. I’d write the words by thinking and watching.
Do you write a whole lyric before the music?
No, I start the music on guitar with the first two or three lines.
Many of your songs are in odd keys, not normal guitar keys. “Honky Tonk Girl” is in C#.
Yeah, I know it. I don’t know why. They told me in Nashville they couldn’t believe it, what you’re writing! All your keys are funny. ‘Cause they wrote D, G and A, you know. I was going out on a limb a little bit, but I didn’t realize that. I started playing rhythm guitar with my brother and a steel player when I first started singing. And I played barre chord rhythm. I had all sorts of notes on the guitar at that time, now I probably wouldn’t remember all of them.
Since I learned all the keys, I just thought everybody did it that way. And evidently I was different. I was so far away from country music. I was a long way from Nashville, Tennessee.
I never knew another songwriter until I came to Nashville and met Harlan Howard. And he said, “Who in the heck taught you to play rhythm guitar like that?” I said, “I taught myself.” He said, “I can’t believe you’re the writer you are and taught yourself to play rhythm guitar like that.” But I did.
How old were you when you started playing?
24. Well, I had four kids, one right after the other. And when all four kids were in school, I started writing. My husband got me a job making $5 on a Saturday night and I thought I was gonna get rich. I saved my money up and bought me a black skirt with fringe, and these cowboy boots – they were $14 – and, well, I looked like Annie Oakley. I didn’t know that people didn’t look like that. I come to Nashville and I’m the only one who walked in looking like a country singer, with my boots and my guitar round my neck, I’ve come to sing.
When I first started singing, although I was writing songs, I did other people’s songs, like “I Walked Away From The Wreck.” Owen Bradley told me, “You start doing your own stuff.” But I was afraid they wouldn’t go over. I put out records, but they didn’t do nothing until I started doing my own songs. And they went to Number 1. I was hitting home with them, I guess, with the honky tonk music.
Your songs are so rich in detail. Did that come naturally to you?
Yeah, it just come naturally. I think anyone could do it. I think a lot of people try to write songs that are a little out of reach. And they should just sit down and write what they know. And what they see.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” is such a vivid picture of your childhood.
I had more verses. Owen Bradley said, “Loretta, there’s already been one ‘El Paso’ and we’ll never have another one. Get in that room and start taking some of those verses off.” Yeah, I took six verses off.
Six? It has four we know, so it had 10 verses altogether?
Yeah, I had a whole story going. I wished I’d never thrown them away. If I’d kept them, I could record them now and put them back in the song.
You don’t remember them at all?
No, but I should sit down and start rewriting on that song, and come up with some more verses. I threw them away and I should never have done that.
It’s amazing to think of you writing a song like that so easily – not only is it richly detailed, but you have great craft in there, like rhyming Butcher Holler with “poor man’s dollar.”
Well, that was the truth. Everything that I put in that song was true. I lived all of it. I’ve lived a lot of stuff that I wrote. Of course Doo, my husband, wouldn’t have wanted to heard that. But I did. I never had to lie about anything I was writing about. That was my problem. I didn’t lie. And sometimes Owen would say, “I don’t know whether you should put that out there now. Doo might divorce you.” And I’d say, “Let him divorce me, it’s the truth.”
And he never did.
No, he never did. He knew they were true.
Would you always play new songs for him?
Oh yeah. I let him hear it first.
Was he honest in his response?
Yeah, he never denied any of it. He was always honest. If he liked it, he liked it. If he didn’t, he’d say, “I don’t think that’s so good.” And I’d throw it away and start again.
Were you there when they shot the movie about your life, Coal Miner’s Daughter?
I’d seen some of it. I would fly into a place if Sissy [Spacek] needed me. Sometimes they’d call me and say, “Loretta, can you fly in? She’s been crying all day.” I’d fly in and there’d be part of the movie that bothered her, and she’d be crying, and I’d try to shut her up. I’d say, “I’m here, why are you crying?”
But she did such a good job. For the first year, I was doing two shows a night. And I’d bring her onstage. I took her on the Opry with me four times before the movie started. It was so hard on me, but we made it.
What inspired “You Ain’t Woman Enough For My Man”?
“You Ain’t Woman Enough” come to me when a little girl come back stage and said her husband didn’t bring her to the show, he brought his girlfriend. This was before the show started, and she wanted me to look out the curtain and see what this girl looked like. I peaked out and there she was, painted up like you wouldn’t believe. I looked round at the little girl that was talking to me. And she didn’t have no makeup at all. And I said, “Honey, she ain’t woman enough to take your man.”
I went right straight to my dressing room and wrote it in ten minutes. Ten minutes and a lot of money I made on that song. A lot of people have recorded it.
Is writing a song in ten minutes unusual for you?
Sometimes they work, and sometimes they just won’t. Sometimes you get hung up on them. When that happens, you just throw it back, and maybe come back to it two or three weeks later.
Some of your songs were quite controversial, and even banned, such as “The Pill,” about birth control.
Oh yeah. “The Pill.” Also “One’s On The Way.” They started hollering about some of the songs and banned them from the radio. But immediately, when people would hear they’d been banned from the radio, they’d hit Number 1 in a hurry. And then [radio] would have to play them. If they had listeners, they’d have to play the one that was banned.
Did you enjoy making the album Van Lear Rose with Jack White?
That’s the country-est album I’ve ever done. I told [Jack] that and he said, “Well, thank you.” And he’s not a country guy, he’s rock and roll. But when my movie came out, he was nine years old and he said, “I sat in the theater and watched it all day long.” It just kept coming back on and he kept watching it. He’s a good guy, Jack White is.
I didn’t know he was gonna sing with me on “Portland, Oregon.” I walked in the studio and I said, “Who is that man singing it with me, Jack?” and he said, “That’s me.” I like Jack. Anything he did I thought was cool.
Do you write the music for a song before you finish the words?
Yes. I write the melody as soon as I finish the first verse. It’s got to fit the song. If it don’t fit the song, I don’t think it’ll come easy. But I think if it comes easy, then the melody is gonna be okay.
How do you create melodies yourself?
When I write a song, the melody just comes in my mind to fit that song. And if it’s a slow tempo, I think of a slow melody to get in that mood. I let the song come to me. I just gotta get by myself and get that song. And if it don’t come easy, I lay it down. And sometimes I’ll pick it up, and sometimes I won’t ever go back to it.
Can you write at any time of day?
Night is best.
When you come up with an idea, do you always write it down right away?
If I don’t, I’ll never remember it. I’ve got to write it down right then, or I’ll lose it.
Do you remember writing “Miss Being Mrs.”?
Oh yeah. You know, that just came, to be truthful with you, from one of those things where I just thought, “I miss being Mrs. tonight.” When you’re not married anymore – which I’m not, my husband passed away 14 years ago – naturally, you’re gonna feel that way. And you just miss being Mrs.
You’re good with wordplay like that. Like in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” when you say “I remember well the well where I drew water.” A beautiful use of language.
Well, when I thought of that I felt it was a good line to use. And then I got to thinking maybe nobody will really understand that line, so maybe I shouldn’t use it. But I let it go anyway and thought, yeah, I’m gonna use it.
And we understand.
You knew it was good, didn’t you? Well, bless your heart. Boy, I’ve drawn a lot of water out of that old well back in Kentucky. That was my job. To go and get the water.
Do you remember writing “Rated X”?
Yeah, that was about a married woman. Things didn’t work out and she was divorced. I probably sat down and talked to her. She told me the story and I just wrote it.
I love your song “Van Lear Rose.”
I had to talk about Mommy in there. She had the biggest bluest eyes I ever seen. She was a beautiful woman. I remember back when she was 32, 33 years old. Mommy was so beautiful. I always wanted to be as beautiful as Mommy. Never made it. She had long black hair, beautiful blue eyes and a dark complexion. She was Indian and Irish. My father was Indian and Irish. And the Irish have great personalities you know. And most of them sing. People from Ireland, you know, they come into this country singing. There’s a couple of them in Branson right now singing. And Indians are in touch with nature. That’s me. I wrote about things that have happened. I probably took after the Indian part on that.
Do you remember writing “You’re Looking At Country?”
Yeah. I remember we came home. We’ve got about 12 or 1300 acres. I was out riding around and I looked over towards the field. Doo and Hattie all planted some corn, and I thought, “Now you’re looking at country.” And immediately I come into the house and went to the writing room and wrote it.
Are there songs you start that you can’t finish?
Oh yeah. I’ve had a lot of them. I don’t know why I don’t go back and finish them. I just kind of quit writing. I haven’t written a song in a long time.
Lazy. But I’m gonna get back to it.
You’ve written so many classics that you have nothing left to prove.
True, I don’t have a thing to prove, but if I write, I’m gonna prove something. Don’t do anything that you can’t do best. I don’t believe in doing something that I don’t know is good. If I go back to writing, I bet there will be a good song out of it. If I write ten songs, there will be three good ones out of it. I won’t dedicate my life to something that’s not good.
What advice would you give songwriters?
Write about the truth. If you write about the truth, somebody’s living that. Not just somebody, there’s a lot of people.