Fifty-nine years ago today, on Saturday, October 15th, 1960, Loretta Lynn, the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner, took the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. With her debut single climbing the charts, the young wife and mother of four (who would later have a fifth and sixth child, twins Peggy and Patsy) traveled with husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, from Washington state where the couple were living, to Nashville. Her Opry performance came just eight months after she had signed a recording contract and cut her first four songs in a Los Angeles studio, a trip arranged and financed by Norm Burley, a wealthy widower in the lumber business in Vancouver, British Columbia, who had seen her perform on Buck Owens’ Tacoma, Washington, TV show. He then put the Lynns in touch with a Canadian businessman who was living in Hollywood, where the track was cut, along with Lynn’s “Whispering Sea” for the record’s flipside. The single was released on the Zero label.
Written on the $17 guitar her husband had bought as an anniversary present for her, Lynn penned “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in just 20 minutes while leaning up against the toilet in her bathroom at home. After purchasing a copy of Country Song Roundup at a candy store, Lynn studied the lyrics printed in the magazine and figured that was the best way to get started, once she dreamed up a title and a story to tell in her songs. “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” was specifically inspired by a girl she would frequently see drinking and crying into her beer at Bill’s Tavern, a watering hole Lynn played regularly in Blaine, Washington.
Featuring famed pedal steel guitarist Speedy West, who arranged to have a more accomplished group of musicians on the session once Lynn’s singing talent was evident, the promotion of “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” was a largely homemade affair, with Loretta and Doo mailing 3,500 copies (according to her autobiography) then following up on the record’s progress as they drove from Washington to Nashville just prior to her Opry debut. The depiction of that cross-country journey is among the many highlights in Coal Miner’s Daughter, the 1980 film featuring Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning performance as Lynn. In recent years, Lynn has recalled that the only thing she can actually remember about her first Grand Ole Opry performance is that she tapped her foot the entire time she sang. Her performance was memorable enough for Opry management that she would soon set a record there by appearing at 17 consecutive shows. And in September 1962, Lynn officially became a Grand Ole Opry member, by which time she was recording for the Decca label and she and her family were living in Nashville.
Three years after Coal Miner’s Daughter was released, Loretta Lynn closed out the eighth season of the popular PBS music series Austin City Limits, performing “I’m Honky Tonk Girl” and many of the now-iconic songs that would follow its Top Twenty success on the country chart.
Lynn, who suffered a stroke in 2017 and a broken hip in early 2018, was feted with an all-star 87th birthday concert in April. The made-for-TV movie Patsy & Loretta, about Lynn’s friendship with fellow Opry star Patsy Cline, premieres on Lifetime this Saturday, October 19th, at 8:00 p.m. ET.