As Nashville Goes Pop, Loretta Lynn is Still Country

Loretta Lynn returns with a new album after twelve-year hiatus

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It's been twelve long years since a fresh Loretta Lynn album found its way into stores, so the release of her new effort, Still Country, would have been an event even if the legendary Coal Miner's Daughter had phoned in her performances. Fact is, it finds her to be every bit as sharp in her sixties as she was in her heyday when she turned Nashville on its ear with her self-penned tunes that combined short story sense of detail with a hearty dose of backlash against country housewife stereotypes. But Lynn's hiatus never had anything to do with loss of spirit. Mooney "Doolittle" Lynn, her husband and soulmate of nearly fifty years, was dying, and while he lay sick, music came in a distant second. The most striking tune on her new album is "I Can't Hear the Music," the title of which was a line Lynn's husband spoke as his hearing disappeared. Her voice, always a first-rate emotional vehicle, cracks beautifully, close to weeping as she pays tribute to her "baby."

But Still Country is first and foremost a celebration: of her return to recording, of her country roots and of her loved ones. It concludes with a rowdy, rousing "The Blues Ain't Workin' On Me." For a long stretch, Mooney Lynn wasn't the only one who couldn't hear the music. But his wife is not only hearing it again, but feeling it in an age where the country has all but been sucked out of country. Leave it to the writer and singer of "Fist City" to throw up her dukes and throw down in the name of country music.

You're sure sounding vibrant on this album.
Thank you. You know what I missed on it?

What's that?
I've always done my own harmony.

Was that [producer] Randy Scruggs' decision?
Yes. I said, "You know what I miss is my harmony." But, he said, "I want everybody to hear that you can sing better than anybody in Nashville without anything added to your voice."

Did you enjoy working with Scruggs?
I've known him since he was thirteen. Because when I came to town, I wasn't much older than that and his mother booked me with his daddy and [Lester] Flatt. Flatt and Scruggs, you know. Of course, I wasn't making but $25 a day. It fed the kids though anyway.

The album seems much more country than anything coming out of Nashville these days. It sounds classic.
Do you know they called and said twenty-something stations picked it up today? The people are hurtin' for country music. They're really having a hard time and I think that the artists are looking for the fast buck. Thing of it is, it won't last. And before you know it, it will be over. I worry, 'cause I love Faith [Hill] and I love Martina [McBride] -- I love all of these girls, you know. I am afraid because I think that little Leann [Rimes] might be going pop on us. They're doing the wrong thing because she had got a good start in country and so did Faith.

So, was it easy for you to get back into the saddle and record after so long?
I thought I might as well record and get it going again. And when we were getting started I had that flu for eight days. Randy had sent "On My Own Again" over here and I cried all day long while I was listenin' to it. He called me and said, "Have you got your songs together?" And I said, "I've been listening to that song you sent me and I've been crying every day." He said, "You ain't got no songs ready?" And I said, "No." So Randy tried to help me find the songs and get them ready. He heard me humming "God's Country" and he said we're going to do that.

That's a great song.
Well, you know, I'm not sold on my writing. I really ain't.

Even at this point?
No.

That seems so strange. You've been doing it so long.
Maybe writers are like that, I don't know.

But the writing always seemed such an distinctive part of your sound.
You know when I cut my first record, I'd only been singing six months. And my husband brought me a little ol' country song round-up book in so I could learn songs and sing them for Saturday night. 'Cause, you know, I was getting five dollars for Saturday night, and I sang for four hours. So, when he brought me that songbook I looked at the songs and thought, hey I'd been rhyming songs all my life. This is too easy. And it is. So, I started writing and I wrote the whole album.

Your husband played a very instrumental role in your breaking out as an artist.
Well, when he told me that he was going to make me sing, he got me out there and he said we'll sing for two years and then buy a home and you can get out of the business. Well, two years from that day I didn't have enough money -- I was making twenty-five dollars. I didn't have enough money to hardly buy a hamburger a day and I lived on a hamburger a day.

It seems the Nineties were a different kind of difficult. In addition to your husband, you lost your producer, Owen Bradley, and your musical counterpart, Conway Twitty, your good friend Tammy Wynette< -- all of whom were very dear to you.
Oh, it was really bad.

But the album, particularly the last tune, sounds triumphant.
I guess it was. I guess it was, though I didn't think so at the time.

This one kind of emotionally fits in with your other work. There's that same honesty in the songs.
Every word that's in "I Can't Hear the Music" was what Doo [her nickname for her husband] said to me. That was the whole story. He said, "You know that I am not going to be here long." And I keep saying, "Honey, it won't be long 'til we'll be going some place or doing this or doing that." It was two weeks before he passed away. It was a really sad thing and he kept saying to me everything that's in that song. So when I was doing that song I cried my heart out. I tell you we almost never got it done. [Scruggs] stopped me on the last chorus. I was crying so hard then I hit the chorus and it was terrible. Randy said, "Think about something you want or you'd like to do." And I thought, "I am starving to death." I hadn't eaten all day. I want to eat a candy bar out of that candy machine over there. He said, "Well, go to it." I went out there and I hit the chorus harder than I hit the whole song. It did the trick.

After your husband passed away, did you find it difficult to try and sing again?
I came to Nashville three days after he died . . . I couldn't take it at the ranch. Later on, I asked my friend, "Have I been here about two months?" And she said, "Loretta, you've been up here a year." I couldn't believe it. So, I called my manager, I said, "My friend says I've been here a year." And he said, "You have." I said, "For god's sake do something with me. Put me on the road. I've lost my mind." I just watched television and didn't do anything. It was kind of sad.

You didn't seem to think twice about putting everything musically on hold while your husband was ill, though.
I know. I didn't record or sing anything the whole five years I was by his bed. And if he was here I'd still be there.

So I trust it won't be twelve years 'til the next album.
No, I'm getting my stuff ready. Randy's written about four things and I've written another three. It'll be a lot of honky-tonk stuff. There's certain kinds of writers, and I'm a honky-tonk writer. They holler, "Hey, Loretta, aren't you getting a little old to write honky-tonk songs?" I'm gonna tell them, "No, people in honky-tonks are going to be honky-tonkin' til they die."

I heard there might be a new autobiography. It's been ages since Coal Miner's Daughter.
It'll be out in the spring. We've had so many problems since then. So I kind of left that on the shelf. See, when I was fifteen, I was thirty-five. When I was thirty-five, I was fifteen. I was seventeen when I had four kids. I came to Nashville, put all of 'em in school and then in two years I get pregnant and I had twins. I'd lost three. At thirty-five was when we was writing on that book, I thought to myself, "I haven't lived." Now I know what problems are, what heartaches are, what happiness is, and it's time to write the book. Now I know what living is.