A half-century ago, Loretta Lynn was driving cross-country with husband Mooney “Doolittle” Lynn, handing records to disc jockeys and hoping to get some airplay.
She got the airplay, of course. And the record deals, and ultimately the book deals, the movie deal, the Grammy Awards and the membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In this anniversary year, tributes to Lynn have flowed, with a Grammy Salute at the Ryman Auditorium, the re-release of her Coal Miner’s Daughter autobiography and a new, multi-artist album called Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn.
The latter effort features stars of rock (The White Stripes, Paramore, Kid Rock), country (Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill) and Americana (Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer) singing the songs Lynn popularized. There was plenty of material from which to choose, as Lynn has put her past half-century to good and prolific use.
Lynn spoke with The Tennessean from her home in Hurricane Mills.
Fifty years is a long time to stay in the music spotlight. What was your life like when you began trying to carve out a career?
“For one thing, I had four kids in school when I started singing, and back in them days I didn’t have a washing machine or any of that.
“I was scared to death about singing, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. My husband, Doolittle, believed in me, so I had to do it. He told me I could sing, and I couldn’t let him down. So I’d sing and I’d rock them babies.
“The first songs I wrote that got recorded were ‘Honky Tonk Girl’ and ‘Whispering Sea,’ and I wrote them in the same day, sitting outside by the toilet, on a $17 guitar that couldn’t stay in tune. I remember writing those two songs and not ever thinking anybody would hear them. Six months later, I was on a little record label, going across the country with Doolittle.”
You were taking your records to little radio stations and handing them to disc jockeys on that cross-country trip. It wound up working, since they played the records, and eventually people in Nashville paid attention. What if it hadn’t worked?
“I never even thought of it not working. And the more it became obvious that it was helping, the harder I worked at it.”
Did you like the early songs you wrote?
“I didn’t know any better, so I thought it was great. I didn’t know that it wasn’t. I tried to sing like Kitty Wells at first, because I love Kitty Wells, but everything I’ve ever written was about me. I had to put my heart and soul into all of them. I’d close my eyes and go through it in my mind. You know, you’ve got to close your eyes when you’re a writer. You need to get to yourself, and get into it.”
People all think of you as being from a place called Butcher Holler, Ky., but in fact there was no such thing as Butcher Holler until you named it that in the song “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which came out in 1970.
“I was the first one that called it ‘Butcher Holler.’ It didn’t sound right to sing ‘Webb Holler,’ which is what it was called. My grandma was a Butcher and my grandpa was a Webb, and there were as many Butchers as Webbs up there. But it’s Butcher Holler now, ever since that song. They’ve got signs that point you to Butcher Holler.”
In “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” you sing, “I never thought of ever leaving Butcher Holler.” You left at age 13, after you married Doolittle. Did you ever regret moving away?
“Never once did I regret moving. I loved being there, but it was not easy. I was the one that had to make sure the water was in the house at night, and in the wintertime it was so cold that the water would freeze. Our toilet was way out behind the barn at that time. It was rough, but it makes a better person out of you. When you do have something, you appreciate it a little more.”
At this point, you have a lot. And there’s a new tribute album with other singers paying their respects. What does that album mean to you?
“When I heard about it, I thought, ‘Gosh, people still love me.’ ”
Surely you knew that.
“It’s nice to know they remember you. And everybody sang the songs they wanted to sing. I love the way Kid Rock did ‘I Know How.’ I cut it real slow, and he changed it up and did something that was great. And the one little girl, the rock singer, Hayley (Williams) from Paramore, she did ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)’ just with rhythm guitar and her voice, and it’s something else. I love all of it.”
What was the hardest time in your career?
“Probably when Doolittle got sick, that was the most difficult time. I didn’t hit the road hardly for six years. I hung everything up and took care of him, and nothing else mattered. I stayed with him until he passed away (in 1996), and then I moved away from the farm and started spending more time in Nashville, thinking that would help.”
Did it help?
“No. I think Jack White was the big help. He came in and kind of jerked me around a little bit, saying, ‘You need to do this and this.’ And I didn’t want to let him down, and I kind of jumped right back in. When someone believes in you enough to set aside what they’re doing and help you, you want to come through for them.
The album you did with Jack, Van Lear Rose, was a Grammy winner in 2005, and you haven’t had an album since then. I understand you’ve been working in the studio this year, though.
“I’ve been recording with John Carter Cash, and we have enough recorded for three albums to come out: a religious album, an album of my greatest hits and an album of new stuff. But I’m not through recording, and I’m getting back into writing. Last year, I wrote a lot with Shawn Camp, who is one of the greatest writers in Nashville. He’s so good and country and wise.”
“Talented” and “country” aren’t hard to come by around here. “Wise,” that’s something else.
“I think that’s one of the doggone keys to everything, is being wise. If you’re not wise a little bit, you’re going to let everything pass you by. If you use your common sense, you get along a lot better. I’m not putting down school, but common sense can be a lot better than being a college graduate.”