“I work all the time, but it doesn’t feel like work,” Loretta Lynn tells Rolling Stone in an endearing, matter-of-fact manner. The country singer, age 83, has been working hard for nearly six decades now, touring and recording hits. But it’s hard to imagine she has ever had her nose to the grindstone quite as much as she did in the sessions that produced her latest album, Full Circle. “We did so many songs,” she says. “At first, I said, ‘Let’s cut all the Number Ones again. Let’s cut all the Top Fives and then the Top 10s, and then we’ll go from there.’ I think we cut 90 songs, just playing the guitar and singing, to come out on albums. This is the first one.”
The LP is her first since the one she made with Jack White in 2004, Van Lear Rose, and it contains 14 of those 90 tracks, which span her entire career. It begins with a new version of the first tune she ever wrote, a jilted-love song called “Whispering Sea,” and it ends with a couple of duets: a newly written love-from-a-distance Lynn original called “Everything It Takes,” featuring Elvis Costello, and a tune by her son-in-law, “Lay Me Down,” that pairs her with her old friend Willie Nelson. She recorded the mega-session at the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash and her own daughter Patsy Lynn Russell in spurts over the past few years.
The work seems to be what keeps Lynn going. She still maintains a busy tour schedule and she has plenty of other ventures to occupy her time. A Broadway musical based on her memoir, Coal Miner’s Daughter, that would star Zooey Deschanel is still in the works, and Lynn recently sat for a documentary about her life, American Masters’ Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, that premieres on PBS on Friday, March 4th, the same day as Full Circle‘s release.
The concept of “full circle” is a difficult one for Lynn, since she never stops. But she says she nevertheless enjoyed revisiting her past.
Why did you want to re-record your hits?
Because you can’t get them anymore. You’ve got fans that want it. So we will give them to ’em.
You recorded with your daughter and with John Carter Cash as producers. How did that come about?
My little daughter Patsy, she manages me, and she takes care of me. I don’t know what I’d do without her, to tell you the truth. And naturally I trust Johnny, because me and Johnny Cash and June was real, real close. I had to take care of her kids. When we were doing shows together, they’d hand me [John Carter], and say, “Take care of the kids until I get off stage.” So now he’s recording me. He’s with Patsy.
They’re repaying the debt.
That’s right. Repaying the debt, and they don’t even know it.
You did your last album, Van Lear Rose, with Jack White. How was this different than working with him?
He’s such a good kid. We’d sit and talk everything over. If I come up with a song I’d like to sing, we talk it over. “What do you see in this song, Loretta?” he’d say. “What did you take from this song that you’d like to record?” And we would sit and talk it over, and then I’d sing and he’d record it. I think I’m going to do something with Jack White next. I’m going to record an album with Jack, see how it turns out again. Because me and Jack worked good together.
He sang some songs with you onstage in Nashville last year.
Yeah, we keep in touch. I miss him when he’s gone, because a lot of times I call him and ask him different questions about what’s going on, and what I should be doing and not doing. Me and Jack’s close. Him and Patsy, my daughter, were together a lot more than me and Jack, because when I come in off the road, I’ll hit the bed for a day, so me and Jack don’t get together very much anymore. But I just told him the other day, “Jack, we need to cut another album, soon.” I know he’ll be happy to do it.
One of the songs you sang live with Jack was “Whispering Sea,” which opens Full Circle.
That was the first song I ever wrote, and it’s Jack’s favorite song. Can you believe that? He didn’t know I wrote it. I couldn’t believe Jack picked the first song I ever wrote.
What do you remember about writing it?
When my husband [Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn] lived in the state of Washington, we’d fish a lot. I was down at the ocean, sitting up in a little branch — I found the tree to fish. And my husband said, “You’re going to fall out of that tree and kill yourself.” But I sat up there and wrote “Whispering Sea,” while I was fishing.
But you didn’t want to be a singer at that point.
It’s true. He pushed me into singing and he pushed me onstage the first time. I almost passed out. And I cried. I didn’t want to sing to anybody or be around anybody; I was too bashful. One day, he told me, “Loretta, you’re ignorant. That’s not bashful.” That did it. That made me so mad. I thought, “The next time somebody comes around, I’m going to talk to them.” My husband pushed me into everything I’ve ever done, really.
Is it true that your original plan was that you’d be a singer for two years and buy a house and retire?
That’s what we thought. I bought this place at Hurricane Mills [Tennessee]. It took 25 years to pay for the darn thing. You don’t get a house and 1,600 acres given to you. You don’t realize stuff like that when you’re buying something. You think, I can pay them off. About five or six years later, I was making quite a bit of money at that time, and they wouldn’t let me pay it off. They wanted that interest. So I had to wait 25 years to pay it off.
You were able to build a career, though. One song on Full Circle, “Lay Me Down,” finds you singing with a longtime friend of yours, Willie Nelson. How did you two meet?
Me and Willie hit this town about the same time. I always loved Willie. He’s always been a great guy. And he was always so nice to me. He wasn’t one of those guys hanging around just trying to go with you, or nothing like that. He was writing songs trying to make a living, too. And he wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline. I recorded that about 15 years after she died for the album I Remember Patsy. Willie was a great songwriter when I met him, and it took him longer to realize he was a singer, too. He’s so good.
The first year we’d come to Nashville, his hair was the color of brass, and his eyes were the same color. And boy, was he handsome-looking. I thought he was one of the handsomest songwriters in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve never told him that, but I will. When we get around to talking.
You also sing “Everything It Takes” with Elvis Costello on Full Circle. How did you meet?
Elvis and I met each other about four or five years ago, and we sat down in the studio to write a song. I had a piece of paper and a pencil, and he had a computer. So we looked at one another like, “Hmm, what’s going to come out of this?” He was laughing about it, but I didn’t think it was funny because that’s the way I write all my songs. Not on a computer. I don’t know how to turn one on, let alone write on one, and I don’t care if I do or not. When I write a song, I don’t want to be on a computer, I like to be alone. But it ended up working good.
Did you record together?
No. I wasn’t there when he did his part. The first time I heard him sing was on the record. I couldn’t believe it. We did a good job.
“Everything It Takes” is not the song you wrote with him, though. What inspired the lyrics for that song?
Oh, “She’s got everything it takes to take everything you’ve got.” I just thought that line would make a good song. It’s more for a woman, a woman song.
You’re one of the songwriters who really gave women an authentic voice in country music, since you sang your own songs.
I just write about what I would do if it was me. Some of the songs was me going through the stuff I was writing about. Like “Fist City.” There’s a lot of songs I’ve written that are about what things I’ve went through. I’ve had women come up and tell me that they were going through the same things. So I usually write from a woman’s standpoint, unless it’s something that doesn’t have to be, like, “Who’s Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone?”
Since we’re talking about coming “full circle,” you’ve inspired many artists of the years. What new singers do you like?
I like Miranda, Martina McBride, she’s a great singer, Carrie Underwood. There’s a lot of good singers today.
Do any of them remind you of you?
Well, I would have probably put a little more zing to it. But I’m feisty.
“I didn’t care if my husband liked ‘Fist City’ or not.”
You mentioned “Fist City,” a song threatening a woman who’s after your man. What did your husband Doolittle say the first time he heard that?
Well, I was singing on the Grand Ole Opry the night after I wrote it. That night, he said, “I’ll just sit in the car. You do your thing and you just come on out and get in the car.” So I went on the air and did “Fist City.” So when I got through singing, I went to the car he looked at me and said, “That song will never make it.” I cried. He said, “Loretta, you called the girls guys.” I said, “I didn’t do that, Doo.” He said, “Well, it sounded like it.” [Laughs] But it was a Number One song so he couldn’t say much after that.
I imagine he got a kick out of it, too, if it were based on real life.
Yeah. But I didn’t care if he got a kick out of it or not.
You still tour a lot. Do you ever get tired of touring?
No, my bus is like my home. I have my own shower, refrigerator. I know where everything is on that bus. And that’s better than I can say at home.
Another song you redid from your back catalog was “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” Why do you like that one?
“Everybody wants to go to heaven and nobody wants to die.” Well, it’s the truth.
Some of the songs date back to your childhood, like “I Will Never Marry.”
That was one of the first songs my mommy taught me when I was just a tiny girl. Johnny said, “Loretta, do you remember some of the old songs? Let’s record it.” I said, “Yes, I remember some of the old songs.” So we recorded it right then.
What other songs did your mother teach you?
“In the Pines.” It’s as old as the hills. It’s one of the first ones my mommy taught me to sing. She used to stand me up on her Singer sewing machine and make paper dresses for me and she’d teach me how to sing and go through all the little motions. If Mommy didn’t sing it, I wouldn’t have known it.
This album really is full circle.
Yes, it is. And I ain’t through yet. I have a few songs started. I think Jack White is gonna have to help me. I thought of a song title, “She’s Your Baby, Now Rock It.” I thought that’d be a little rock song me and him could write, because he says he can’t write like me, and I’m gonna show him how. I sent him a little voicemail with it, saying me and him are gonna write songs. He didn’t text back and say, “We will,” but that’s all right. I’ll get him.