Loretta Lynn: Honky-Tonk Woman

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

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

 Loretta Lynn is admirable for many things: for the sheer guts it must have taken to haul herself trembling onstage when she was a painfully shy young mother who fled from strangers; because she's a good shot with a rifle; she sang with Sinatra; she can kill, clean and fry up a chicken; and she was once whipped nine times in school for calling her cousin a turd. After she was told not to kiss black country star Charley Pride on a televised awards show in 1972, she got so mad she did just that. When Doo would smack her, she said that he got smacked back twice, once hard enough to knock out two of his teeth.

You want to talk about keeping it real: This is a woman who wore flour-sack dresses as a child, who ate possum and didn't see a flushed toilet until she was thirteen. And after all this time she is still the Kentucky girl who was "borned a coal miner's daughter," who is ornery enough not to reveal her age ("between one and 100, and it's none of your business," though it's a matter of public record that she was borned in 1935).

Lynn married Doo at the age of thirteen, and she stayed married to him for nearly half a century, despite his having a temper that once caused him to drunkenly break 100 jars of green beans she'd been canning all day when she didn't have dinner ready. "My husband is the reason I got out of Butcher Holler," she says. That was, as anyone familiar with the Lynn mythology knows, her childhood home, a remote region in eastern Kentucky where the residents would yell "stranger coming up" house to house, if a newcomer appeared.

Loretta Webb was born the second of eight children in a one-room cabin. She had a happy childhood, despite doing without shoes and sometimes spending the winters subsisting on bread dipped in gravy made of brown flour and water. The Webb family loved music and would frequently have singalongs (accompanied by her banjo-picking grandfather, who played with his toes when he got drunk), so it was cause for celebration when her father saved up enough to bring home a radio. The family's favorite program was the Grand Ole Opry, and Loretta would sit on the floor and listen to Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb.

When she was thirteen, she met Doolittle at a pie social. He was older and had a reputation as wild, but after he gave her the first kiss she'd ever had, Loretta was smitten. When he proposed, her heartbroken folks cried all night. "You be good to my little girl," her Cherokee grandfather told Doo, "or I'll kill you." She didn't even know her husband's name was actually Oliver until she stood before the judge and she was even more in the dark about how babies were made. When she went to her doctor at the age of fourteen saying that she felt sick, Doc Turner told her she was pregnant. She didn't know what the word meant.

The two moved to Washington state, where Doo believed work would be more plentiful, and stayed for more than a decade. He bought his wife a guitar on her seventeenth birthday and gradually became convinced that she could sing better than all the other girl singers on the radio. By the time she was twenty-four, he was pushing her to a singing career. She thought her life was already following a certain course: She had four kids and would eventually have two more, and she worked odd jobs to put food on the table. But soon enough, she was winning talent contests and playing local honky-tonks. When she appeared on a TV show hosted by Buck Owens, a lumberman named Norm Burley, who was eager to break into the music business, was so taken with her talent that he started a label, Zero. The Lynns soon relocated to Nashville.

Her first single was 1960's "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," and that year also marked her first stint on the Grand Ole Opry. "I did 'Honky Tonk Girl' seventeen weekends," she says, giving her teenage grandson Anthony a kiss as he ambles by. "I got seventeen dollars for the first song and three dollars for the second. That Opry spot meant a whole bunch, because that bought our groceries."

Thus began her string of hits and her near-constant touring. The only sure route to national exposure in the days when the only music acts on television were few and far between, so Doo stayed home with the kids and worked on the ranch while she battled her guilt and did what had to be done. In 1976 she wrote Coal Miner's Daughter, a frank account of her hardscrabble life and her volatile marriage. When it was made into a movie, Sissy Spacek - who would win an Oscar for the role – spent the better part of a year with Lynn, observing her. Lynn says she was "dumbfounded" when she first saw a screening of the film. "It warps your mind a little," she says. "It's hard to see your life flashing across the screen." After the film came out, women would sometimes march up to Doo and slap him in the face, incensed with the way he had treated his wife.

Every pleasure for Lynn – trips to the White House, piles of awards from the Country Music Association – seemed to be offset by tragedy: In 1984, her second child, Jack, died after a horse-riding accident on her ranch. "It ripped the heart out of me," she says. To this day, she can't remember his funeral, and for a solid year she didn't want to know where he was buried. Then, in the early Nineties, her good friend and duet partner Conway Twitty died. Shortly thereafter, Doo's health began to decline due to heart trouble and diabetes. In 1995, he had one leg amputated, then the other, torture for a man who was intensely self-sufficient. In 1996, he died.

After his death, Lynn spiraled into a deep depression, wandering around her house in a daze, unaware what day it was or even, sometimes, what month. After about six months, she "more or less crawled" back onto the stage and began to learn how to cope without him. "There never was nobody like him," she says. "He was funny, and he was serious. And he was happy, and he could get daggone mad. As long as we were together, we'd fight. But we'd make up."

Her daughter Patsy isn't sure that Lynn has ever truly come to terms with the loss of Doo. She recalls a recent tour stop at the South Dakota border in which a gal named Beverly, claiming to be a friend of the couple, wanted to say hello. "I came back to the bus and told Mom, and she goes, 'That was your daddy's girlfriend, and if she comes back here, she'll leave out of this bus without a hair on her head.' " Patsy laughs. "I said, 'No, Mother, this woman is hideous, I'm telling you.' And she said, 'Well, bring her back, then. She used to be pretty, and I want to see how hideous she is.' And this is no joke: My mother came out of the back of her bus with every diamond she had." Patsy laughs uproariously. "And the woman had gained a lot of weight. After she left, my mother was dying laughing. She said, 'I wish your daddy was here to look at her now.' And she was still mad at my dad three days later!" Patsy stops laughing. "It's almost like he's still with her. It's very strange. I don't think she has totally accepted my dad's loss. It's almost like he's gone on a long vacation or something."

Loretta Lynn has had enough concentrated joy and pain for ten lifetimes, but she still possesses that resilient mountain spirit, blunt sense of humor and tenacious love of life that make their way into so many of her songs. When you are around her you cannot help but feel uplifted.

"What do you say we make some peanut butter fudge?" she says with a grin, bouncing up off the couch. She heads to her kitchen, which has a sign on the fridge: If Momma Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy.

"Now if you don't mind, I don't measure nothing," she says, dumping some sugar, butter and cocoa in a pot. As the fudge bubbles away, the stories start flowing. She comes from a long tradition of story-telling, so if you give her a few key words she will obligingly tell a satisfying yarn.

Mention her friend Tammy Wynette, for instance. "She and her husband wore fur coats in the summertime," Lynn says, reaching for some salt and throwing in a pinch. "They come to visit at our house in Hawaii, and the guy at the airport calls us and says, 'Loretta, there's a couple of people here that's fixed to come to your house. One's got his shirt unbuttoned to his navel and there's gold chains all the way down, and he's got a fur coat on. And the girl has a diamond on every finger, and she's got a fur coat on. What am I to do?'" She laughs. "I said, let them come. That's Tammy Wynette and George Richey.'" She raises an eyebrow. "George married one of the Dallas Cowgirls, one that was Tammy's friend. Same old stuff. Around and around and around."

Wynette always kept her beauty-operator license renewed just in case record sales ever dried up, and Lynn has the same practicality. Once you have been poor, she has said, it's always in the back of your mind that you're going to be poor again. "She won't throw anything away," says Patsy. "At concerts, when they bring her flowers, she makes her assistant Tim Cobb get the flowers and dry them out to make potpourri."

In the past couple of years, Lynn hasn't made any extravagant purchases, save for her own fur coat, which she wore exactly once. The real luxury, for her, is being able to stay home and enjoy her family, after years of being on the road sometimes for 200 nights a year. "What she desires," says Patsy, "is that Beaver Cleaver life. If my mom could go back thirty years, you probably wouldn't know her as the Loretta Lynn you know now. There's a sacrifice that she's made to do the things that she's done." She pauses. "She thinks she cheated us out of something, and what she gave us was everything. And she just doesn't know it."

This new domestic chapter of her life includes two male friends who visit occasionally. One is Pastor Murray, who preaches on television. She met him after Tim ordered some of his tapes from the TV. "He said, 'Well, is she there? Let me speak to her,'" recalls Lynn. "And he got on the phone and said, 'I'd sure like to meet you.'" She chuckles. "He's an old country boy."

Her other man friend is known simply as Wally, a widower who she met years ago. "Wally's really handsome," she says, "and the preacher is a great person, but I ain't got time for it." She puts her hands on her hips. "I've got to write songs and I've got to record them, and I've got things to do." She hands over a jar of Jif. "Put as much in there as you can," she instructs.

Her schedule may not be as crowded, but she still plans to work until she can work no more. A staff helps her run the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch near her house, a vacation destination for some 300,000 people a year. It has an RV park, a motocross racetrack, a replica of her childhood cabin, Loretta's Western Store and the Loretta Lynn museum. She has a Christmas album in the works and has talked about doing some dates with Jack and the Van Lear band, after she shared a bill with the White Stripes at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom. "I haven't seen nobody work so hard onstage as Jack," she says. "He come off just wet. And Meg's a funny little girl, but man, can she play them drums."

Despite all the attention, Lynn hasn't mellowed. "I still hold grudges," she admits. "If you hold a grudge, you won't get hurt no more. I've got grudges you wouldn't believe." She throws the fudge into a tray, but to her dismay it has gotten hard and crumbly. "Well, shoot," she says. "My candy went to pot. Lord, have mercy on me." She sticks some spoons in the mixture and serves it up anyway. "Well, we invented something new," she announces cheerfully.

A few days later, a package arrives at my New York apartment. It contains a red-checked apron, a creamy block of peanut butter fudge and a note on LL-emblazoned stationery. "I wanted to send you some to show you how it's supposed to be!" she wrote. "Love you, Loretta Lynn."

This story is from the May 27, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 949: May 27, 2004