Loretta Lynn is not homeless and living in a bus. Tabloid reports to the contrary, the recent floods in and around Nashville, did not take the country superstar’s home. “Ain’t that somethin’?” Lynn said about the homeless rumor. “The water did get right up to my house. That scared me to death. No one could get in or out. We didn’t have power for six days, so we used a tour bus generator for power.” Unfortunately, Lynn doesn’t have a helicopter to get onto and off of her Tennessee ranch.
“I wanted a helicopter so bad,” she said, laughing, something she did a lot during a half-hour telephone interview. “Years ago, I wanted a helicopter, so I talked to a man about buying a helicopter. Then I told Doo (her late husband, Oliver “Mooney” Lynn) this man wanted to talk to him. A while later Doo came up to me, ‘You ain’t gettin’ no damned helicopter to get killed in.’ So I never got my helicopter.”
But Lynn did get a lot of things, including a bunch of hit songs, a handful of Grammys and a career that has lasted more than 50 years. Born in Butcher Holler, Ky., the daughter of a coal miner, just as her “Coal Miner’s Daughter” song and autobiography, and the subsequent Academy Award-winning film said, Lynn started singing professionally in Washington state in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
“I never thought about ever singing,” she said. “I would rock my babies and sing, but I only knew a couple songs like ‘The Great Titanic’ or ‘White Christmas.’ Back home I would sing those songs on the porch and my daddy would tell me, ‘Loretty’ — he called me Loretty — ‘would you shut your big mouth? Everybody in the holler can hear you.’ I told him everybody in the holler is related to us and nobody cared. He told me not to sass him. He died in 1959 and never heard me sing.”
But a lot of people heard Loretta sing in a small Washington tavern that Lynn had to sneak into and out of because the owner didn’t believe she was 21.
“I was 21,” she said, “but barely. I already had four kids, but I never had a birth certificate. After I was singing at that tavern for about five months, the Zero label asked if I’d record for them. It made me zero, but it got me out of Washington state. I love Washington state, but I was ready to leave.”
Loretta and Doo Lynn worked the road hard promoting her debut single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” to radio stations. By the time they reached Nashville, the single was a moderate hit, and Lynn started recording with producer Owen Bradley. A long string of hits followed. Songs such as “Success,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Fist City,” “After the Fire Is Gone,” songs Lynn wrote, ruled the country music charts. They also were written and sung from the point of view of a strong woman who refused to put up with nonsense from men or from women.
“I never, never thought about being a role model,” Lynn said. “I wrote from life, how things were in my life. I never could understand why others didn’t write down what they knew.”
Lynn then told a story about meeting a fan backstage before a concert in St. Louis.
“This little lady said her husband wouldn’t bring her to the show because he brought a girl he was seeing,” Lynn said. “I took her up to the stage curtain and asked her to point him out. We peeked out and there they were in about the third row. I told her, ‘She ain’t woman enough to take your man.’ And she wasn’t. She was all overblown. And she didn’t take her man. I got a letter from that little lady a few weeks later and she caught that girlfriend in an alley and told her what was going to happen if she kept seeing her husband.”
And Lynn got an excellent song, a classic, out of the encounter. “You Ain’t Woman Enough” made it to No. 2 in 1966. But not all of her classics have gone the way she envisioned.
“I had six more verses for ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ but Owen Bradley told me there’s already been an ‘El Paso’ (an epic Marty Robbins song) and get in there and cut six verses,” she said. “I did. And now I can’t remember all the verses. I think the tapes burned up in a fire.”
Lynn could be counted upon to write, and sing, hits, solo and duets with Ernest Tubb and Conway Twitty. But Lynn’s work, including “Rated X,” “The Pill,” “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” and “I Know How,” while loved, and purchased, by herds of country music fans, weren’t always embraced by radio stations.
“I don’t know why the radio-station owners thought every song I sang was a dirty song. They aren’t,” Lynn said with an indignant edge to her voice decades down the line.
“I had a preacher in Texas come up to me after a show and ask if he could talk to me. He told me he had a 15-year-old daughter and he thought ‘What Kind of Girl (Do You think I Am?)’ was the greatest message song ever on record. But radio stations would can a song, then it would become a hit, then they’d start playing it.”
A similar thing happened with Lynn’s latest CD. In 2004 she teamed with Jack White, then of the alt-rock duo White Stripes, to record “Van Lear Rose.” Commercial country radio practically ignored the disc, but it was embraced by Americana stations and fans of real country music. “Van Lear Rose” won two Grammys in 2005, including best country album.
“Jack White moved to Nashville. He’s going to record one of my songs. You know which one? ‘Rated X.’ It’s not dirty,” Lynn said, laughing uproariously before singing two verses. “I don’t know how I remembered that.”
Lynn is at work on three new albums — a religious album, a Christmas disc and an album of new material. In concert, listen for Lynn to remember as many songs as possible.
She works with an eight-piece band. Three of her kids, daughters Patsy and Peggy, who work as The Lynns, and son Ernest, are part of the show.
“I just get on stage and try to sing the songs the people want to hear. I’ll sing a few and then ask the audience if there’s anything they want to hear. They all holler and I can’t understand a word,” she said, laughing. “Then I say, ‘OK, this side.’ And they all holler. It’s fun.
“When you can’t have fun with a show, quit. I want to do what the people want to hear. They paid to come in the front door. I snuck in through the back. If I have to stand on my head and wiggle my toes to make them happy, I will.”
It probably won’t come to that. But don’t bet against Loretta Lynn accomplishing that feat if she needs to.