Loretta Lynn: Honky-Tonk Woman

After more than fifty country hits, what was left for Loretta Lynn? Making a record with Jack White

May 27, 2004
Loretta Lynn, Adrian Phillips Ballroom, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Loretta Lynn performs at Adrian Phillips Ballroom in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Donald B. Kravitz/Getty Images

 You don't need to see a name on the mailbox to know that you've arrived at Loretta Lynn's place in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. One giveaway is the large two-tone purple tour bus parked in the driveway with her name emblazoned in cursive on the side. Another is the sign that says no trespass'n. Then there is the cleared patch of land in the yard. It's a vegetable garden. Lynn still grows her own vegetables and cans them, too. She may have released more than seventy albums, but despite her money and her fame, Loretta Lynn still does things the way she learned them as a barefoot child in rural Kentucky. "I can't help it," she says, standing in the doorway. "That's just in your blood." Lynn, all warmth and country hospitality, greets me with a big kiss. She is slim and pretty in her black pants and sparkly lilac shirt. "You want something to drink, hon?" she asks, hustling me into the living room. "Who wants coffee? Who don't? Here's some chips and salsa. You hungry? You want a sandwich?" She offers up some bologna, known as "coal miner's steak" in her youth. "Go ahead, it's in the refrigerator," she urges, pushing over a loaf of bread she made. The house is bright and airy, filled with all manner of antebellum dolls, Native American memorabilia such as dream catchers (she's part Cherokee), as well as gifts from fans – an oil painting of Lynn made by a guy in prison, a bouquet of flowers painstakingly fashioned out of plastic spoons and an afghan spread on the couch knitted by an older lady in a wheelchair. Lynn is petite, with a straight back and a steady gaze, and she flits around the room with boundless energy. She is, as they say in the South, a hoot, with her salty sense of humor and infectious laugh. She says exactly what's on her mind with zero filtering, and she gets visibly uncomfortable if she's treated like a star. (How many other celebrities would have a yard sale at their ranch?)

Lynn's white-columned plantation house, where she lived with her husband of forty-eight years, Oliver "Doolittle" Lynn, looms in the distance. She doesn't live there anymore. Too many memories. She prefers the smaller home her husband built before he died in 1996. She recently had a fence built around both places, which Doo wouldn't allow despite the camera-toting visitors that trooped right into the house. "He said he wasn't in jail," she says ruefully. "Mercy, what a man. What a man, what a man. I remember I come out of the bedroom one morning with my housecoat on, and there stood people looking into the kitchen at the way the cupboards were made."

Lynn's fans feel like she is family, because she has shared every aspect of her life with them in her fifty-one country hits and in her two plain-spoken autobiographies, one of which was made into the 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter. In songs such as "Fist City" (in which she threatens to beat down a woman who's after her man) and "The Pill" (a 1975 Top Ten country hit about the liberating powers of female birth control), Lynn expressed the concerns of everyday women with a directness that was at once revolutionary and unassuming. Her awards range from being the first woman to land the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award in 1972 to last year's Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement.

Aside from the occasional random fans, Lynn's smaller house is host to a constant stream of visitors – she has five kids and twenty-one grandchildren, as well as her "friend forever," Jack White of the White Stripes. White, 28, who produced her addictive new album, Van Lear Rose, ran out and got a guitar after seeing Coal Miner's Daughter as a kid in Detroit and dedicated the band's 2001 album, White Blood Cells, to Lynn. Jack and Meg White – who were then still steadfastly maintaining they were brother and sister and not, in fact, a divorced couple – also covered Lynn's divorce song "Rated X" as a B side. Lynn says that when she heard it, she "just about fell out."

She promptly invited Jack and Meg White to her ranch, where they ate homemade chicken and dumplings, and Lynn pressed one of her Sixties stage dresses into Meg's hands – red velvet with white lace. Then she hauled out a bunch of boxes of her original vinyl albums and told them to take their pick. They already had every single one. "Jack's one of my biggest fans," she says, settling down on her living-room couch. "And she's as bad as he is. I think he might have married her twice, I'm not sure. I haven't flat-out set him down and said, 'Tell me the whole story.'"

As the visit stretched on, Lynn brought out "Van Lear Rose," a tune she'd been working on (she grew up near Van Lear, Kentucky). Jack asked if he could demo it. "Of course, I dreamed of working with her," he says. "I also dreamed of carrying the train of her dress as she walks onstage, and cleaning out her tour bus, if need be."

Before long, they were in a studio in East Nashville, where they recorded fourteen songs in ten days, over two sessions, using the vintage equipment Jack White favors. He makes records quickly and simply, and his low-key style was new to Lynn, who was more used to the endless tinkering of longtime producer Owen Bradley, architect of the classic Nashville sound, who produced most of her hits as well as those of Lynn's friend Patsy Cline.

With White, it was a more casual affair. Lynn would bring scraps of paper from her songwriting closet (shelves stuffed with song ideas scribbled on notes, napkins and manila folders), they would go over the ideas, and soon they had enough songs for an album. "We sung them songs one time," she says. "I couldn't believe that was the way it was going to be," she says, laughing. "I said, 'Jack, let's do this two or three times, and he'd say, 'No, that's just fine the way it is.'"

"The first notes out of her mouth blow away any young singer that I've heard in person," says White.

Van Lear Rose's band included bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, friends of White's from the Cincinnati garage band the Greenhornes. "The studio was at this guy Eric's house," says Keeler. "It doesn't look like a studio, it's just a house. There were a couple of dogs walking in and out. One's on the album cover."

Van Lear Rose is the first album Lynn has done that was written solely by her. Tunes range from the hand-clapping call "High on a Mountain Top" to the gritty, hypnotic "Portland Oregon." Lynn duets with White on that bluesy tale of romantic dissolution: "Well, Portland, Oregon, and sloe-gin fizz/If that ain't love, then tell me what is, uh-huh." Some songs are older, such as the sultry "Have Mercy," which Lynn penned for Elvis Presley. "Me and him talked on the phone a lot," she says. "Believe that or not. My housekeeper would take my twins to Elvis' place, and they'd just pick all the flowers around his yard."

White calls Lynn the greatest female singer-songwriter of the twentieth century. "Loretta has some sort of instinctive ability to write naturally, realistically and 'pop constructively' at the same time," he says. "She has a sort of backward, double-chorus signature style that you don't see often. I'm often curious if this is an accident and she just focused on it, or if it just comes from inside her naturally." He cites her song "Fist City" as a perfect example.

Photos: Loretta Lynn

"You've been makin' your brags around town that you've been lovin' my man," "Fist City" begins. "But the man that I love, when he picks up trash/He puts it in a garbage can." The song is unflinching, threatening ("I'll grab you by the hair of the head/And I'll lift you off of the ground") and true: It was written after Lynn watched a Tennessee woman make eyes at Doo while she performed onstage. Lynn loved her husband fiercely and has said that their love story was the hardest one in the world; he was a vigorous philanderer and an alcoholic, and he occasionally raised his hand to her. Their tumultuous relationship informed her songwriting.

Lynn's music – whether her own songs or covers – unfailingly tells the truth, never shying from the painful, and even ugly, realities of life. She says a great song has to fulfill two requirements: It has to tell a story, and it has to have a great title. Those titles alone are masterpieces: "Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be," "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill." Her specifically female point of view on songs including "The Pill" and the pregnant-again tune "One's on the Way" kicked up controversy. "The Pill" got her songs banned from country-radio stations. "It was so silly," she says. "I mean, my God. How many women's had babies?" She sighs. "I write about life," she says simply. "And, boy, I got in all kinds of trouble. But that's what people are interested in. They're not interested in fantasy stuff."

"She's a songwriter, first and foremost," says her daughter Patsy, a singer. "And she came in here in 1960 playing barre-chord rhythm on the guitar and writing all of her own songs. Mom's first hit ["I'm a Honky Tonk Girl"] was a song that she wholly penned herself and played on the damn record. Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline – they weren't writing their own songs. She didn't walk through the doors of Nashville, she came in kicking them off hinges, doing things that women did not do."

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