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Loretta Lynn: Honky-Tonk Woman

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 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."

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