Loretta Lynn has taken her music across the country and around the world, and on the same day she travels Full Circle with the release of her first new album in more than a decade, the country music legend is also the subject of an in-depth PBS documentary film. American Masters — Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, premiering tonight, features revealing interviews with the singer-songwriter as well as personal reflections from family members and many of the legendary performer’s famous friends who have been influenced by her artistry and inspired by her rags-to-riches story.
Among those appearing in the film are musician Jack White, actress Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter director Michael Apted, Grand Ole Opry legend Bill Anderson, Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert, Full Circle producer John Carter Cash and Reba McEntire, who reveals the Loretta Lynn song she sings every night before hitting the concert stage.
Lynn’s story has been told before, in 1980’s Oscar-winning big-screen biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, but with another 35 years of performing and recording behind her since then — not to mention some of her most personal challenges faced during that time frame (including the deaths of her husband Doolittle and son Jack) — there’s no shortage of dramatic elements to draw from in the two-hour film. But Still a Mountain Girl does have its lighter moments, including a wild visit to the White House.
Here are 10 things we learned from Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl.
- Her first major prize had nothing to do with country music.
She’s won Grammys, CMAs, ACMs and membership into the Country Music Hall of Fame, not to mention a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But at age 19, having moved from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, to Washington state, the young wife and mother earned recognition for another of her talents. When Lynn received her Medal of Freedom from President Obama in November 2013, he got a laugh when he told attendees at the ceremony that the singer won 17 blue ribbons for her canned vegetables at the local fair, at which she was named Canner of the Year.
- Her first guitar didn’t cost much, but was certainly worth the investment.
President Obama noted that in spite of her talent for canning, she began to focus on another of her gifts, playing a guitar purchased for $17 and writing her own songs. Obama said of the instrument, “With it, this coal miner’s daughter gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted to talk about and saying what no one wanted to think about. Now, over 50 years after she cut her first record and canned her first vegetables, Loretta Lynn still reigns as the rule-breaking, record-setting Queen of Country Music.”
- The guitar wasn’t the only thing Lynn picked while living in Washington.
In Blaine, Washington, Lynn’s first public performance, singing “You Are My Sunshine,” earned her a weekly Saturday night gig with a band that paid $12. She also worked in a strawberry field, picking strawberries for five cents a crate and making up songs while she picked. The strawberry patch is where Lynn wrote what would become her first hit record, “Honky Tonk Girl,” scribbling the lyrics on a paper bag.
- Producer Owen Bradley got Lynn as part of a package deal.
The Wilburn Brothers, a successful country duo who had a syndicated TV series, signed Lynn to their publishing company and used her to sing on their demo recordings to pitch to other artists. When Loretta recorded “Fool No. 1” to be pitched to Brenda Lee, the brothers told famed producer Owen Bradley, then head of Decca Records that Lee couldn’t have the song unless Bradley signed Loretta to the label, which he did. Decca was also home to Patsy Cline, who would become close friends with Lynn before dying in a plane crash on March 5th, 1963. Although Lynn drew comparisons to another Decca artist (and her singing idol) Kitty Wells, Bradley liked her sound and called Lynn “the female Hank Williams.”
- Her first radio appearance in Nashville was aided by several soda crates.
When Lynn begged Ernest Tubb to put her on the Midnight Jamboree, which aired from Tubb’s record shop after the Grand Ole Opry signed off, one of the people who famously heard her was Patsy Cline, who was in the hospital recovering after a near-fatal car wreck. While radio listeners had no trouble hearing her, fans jammed inside the record shop couldn’t see her, so she took off her shoes and stood on several Coke crates, dedicating her performance of “I Fall to Pieces” to Cline.
- Lynn’s close friendship with Patsy Cline was skin-deep — literally.
After hearing her sing, Cline, still in the hospital, wanted to meet Loretta. She sent her husband Charlie Dick to the Opry to tell her and once the two met they became fast friends. In addition to giving her performing advice, Cline gifted Lynn with numerous boxes of hand-me-downs for Loretta and her family. This included a pair of Cline’s panties that Lynn wore for four years. “I don’t know how long she had ’em,” Lynn says of the undergarment. “I never did wear those panties out, there ain’t no way to wear ’em out!” Lynn once had them on display in her museum.
- While Coal Miner’s Daughter portrays Lynn’s husband Doolittle (“Doo”) as sometimes violent, Lynn admits she wasn’t afraid to fight back, which cost him some teeth.
“If he smacked me or anything, I’d stand up and be fightin’ him just like I’d be fightin’ the other woman,” Lynn says of the man who was notorious for his drinking and womanizing. “He’d smack me, I’d smack him; he’d pull my hair, I pulled his hair. That’s the way it was.” Lynn describes one such fight that started when he came home drunk. She threw a punch and was shocked when she made contact with his mouth. “I heard teeth hittin’ the floor and thought, ‘Ooh, I’m dead. He not gonna put up with this.’ But he laughed.” Doolittle lost two front teeth in the dust-up, and only had them replaced after Loretta started making money singing. “He was kind of proud of it,” she notes. “He’d tell ’em the old lady knocked ’em out.” Lynn also once emptied an entire bowl of beans over Doo’s head when he passed out drunk at the dinner table.
- Lynn’s Cherokee heritage was blamed for a strained relationship with her grandfather.
Loretta was convinced that her mother’s father didn’t like her because she would sit by him and try to talk to him, but he would frequently just grunt. Her mother told her not to pay any attention to him because “he’s Cherokee. He thinks he’s talkin’ to ya.”
- Performing has been a family affair for generations of Lynn’s family, the Webbs.
Of the eight Webb children, four of them (Loretta, Peggy Sue, Jay Lee and Brenda — whose stage name is Crystal Gayle — had record deals and songs on the charts. Of Loretta’s six children, four had record deals. Lynn’s grandchildren including Tayla Lynn and great-grandchildren including Emmy Rose Lynn (both of whom are seen performing in the film) are carrying on the family tradition.
- Lynn once shared a helpful cooking tip with a waiter at the White House.
Garth Brooks was seated next to Lynn at a White House dinner. He recalls that her daughters couldn’t keep her from taking off her shoes. When a young server set a plate with a little biscuit in front of her, she pulled him close to her “using his necktie like a doorbell” and asked what he had just served her. “It’s a flat biscuit,” the waiter told her. Brooks recalls Lynn telling the waiter, “You tell those people in the back if they add a little self-rising flour that thing’ll pop right up.” The film also includes a sweet clip of Brooks and his wife Trisha Yearwood singing the classic Loretta Lynn-Conway Twitty duet “After the Fire Is Gone.”