IT’S A HOT Thursday afternoon in June in Nashville, and in the basement of the city’s Municipal Auditorium, Loretta Lynn is installed in a tiny booth decorated to look like a country store, signing autographs for about 200 fans who are crowded all around her.
“Hey Loretta, where you been?” shouts a fan. “We been waitin’ two hours!”
“Hey Loretta, here’s a picture of my boat and it’s named Hey Loretta, and here’s a picture of my six cats and they’re all named ‘Hey Loretta.’ ”
“Hi Loretta, would you sign my shirt right here by Conway Twitty’s name?”
“Where’s Mooney? Where’s Conway? Hey Loretta, look over this way!”
Fans are everywhere, pushing against the little booth, almost knocking it over. Loretta Lynn, smaller than one would expect, is perched on a stool, her long black hair hanging past the shoulder line of her western shirt. In profile, Loretta’s face seems all bones and hollows and flashing brown eyes — her Cherokee Indian heritage is obvious. She’s in a good mood, and she jokes with the crowd while her signing arm goes like a buzz saw, autographing 8″x l0″ color glossies of herself, copies of her autobiography, coloring books, hats, shirts, arms, jackets. Beside her stand the co-presidents of the Loretta Lynn Fan Club: Loudilla, Loretta, and Kay Johnson of Wild Horse, Colorado. While Loretta signs, the Johnson sisters sell souvenir items, but there is so much confusion that Loretta has to interrupt signing to make change for some fan who wants to buy a Loretta Lynn key chain or a Loretta Lynn hat or an official Loretta Lynn Fan Club jacket. Meanwhile, fans with Instamatics light the scene with flashing strobes and fans with SX-70s strive to get up close, so that when they take her picture the prints pop out right in Loretta’s face.
What’s going on is an event unique in the music business. It’s called Fan Fair and is an actual convention for country music fans who come from all over the world for the yearly week-long orgy of admiration for their favorite country stars. Fan Fair is cosponsored by the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Grand Ole Opry, and its stated purpose is to honor the country fan; its real purpose, of course, is to promote country music and sell records, but the fans have a good time anyway.
This year they came 12,600 strong for a week of free shows put on by the record companies, banquets sponsored by the various fan clubs, softball tournaments with the teams composed of celebrities, tours of the stars’ homes and, of course, the chance to actually meet their favorite entertainers in the basement of Municipal Auditorium. It’s this scene which is most alarming.
As many entertainers as possible (there were about 200 this year) set up little booths in the basement, each booth reflecting some theme. Loretta has the country store, Dolly Parton has a Tennessee mountain home, Johnny Cash has a cubicle draped in black, Conway Twitty’s has an outer-space theme and so forth. Then, each day, the fans are let loose in the cavernous basement to harass the stars of their choice. A loudspeaker announces which stars are in which booths and the fans stampede to get those autographs.
And there they are around the Loretta Lynn booth — folks wearing name tags and funny hats, cameras adorning the fronts of their double-knit leisure suits. They seem to come in couples, most are white (although there is a sprinkling of Japanese fans, most of whom are bluegrass fanatics) and appear to be nearing middle age. Some are carrying children. In the general pandemonium, it seems as if they never shut up.
“Loretta, I wanted you to sign that to Billy Bob, not Joe!”
A Japanese man with a grease-laden pompadour anchors himself to a corner of the booth and shoots dozens of SX-70 photos, all of the same pose. A man with his hair painted on — seemingly with black shoe polish — grabs Loretta around the neck and hands his Instamatic to a Johnson sister for a snapshot. The fans take up this idea with enthusiasm and almost everybody after him tries to get a stranglehold on their star. One of them, says Kay Johnson, licked Loretta on the face at the previous night’s show.
A man at the fringes of the crowd throws his small daughter into the fray: “Get that autograph, honey! Push! Wave your book!”
“Hey Loretta, there’s a crippled woman over here in a wheelchair wants your autograph!”
Loretta doesn’t scream. She just keeps signing and signing. She kisses the crippled woman. She hugs a child who has made his way into the booth. She marvels over presents the fans have brought her. Finally, after four hours, Dave Skepner, her manager, decides she’s had enough. He begins to move Loretta toward the back of the booth, where bus driver/bodyguard Jim Webb is waiting to take her to her bus, parked at the back of the auditorium. Jim takes the front, Skepner stands beside Loretta and a local policeman takes up the rear; like a convoy, the little group begins to move through the crowd as the fans attack the flanks.
“Hey Loretta, I’m over at the TraveLodge,” shouts a trailing fan. “Room 140. You come on over, I’ll give you a good time. That’s room 140, you hear?”
“Loretta Lynn!” barks a loud voice belonging to a man dressed in what could pass for lederhosen. “I have come from West Germany for you! Here is my wife Trude, my cousin Hans and my Uncle Jonas. Who can take a picture with this camera?” he pleads to the crowd as he assembles Trude, Jonas and Hans around Loretta.
Loretta obliges, the picture is taken and, with difficulty, Loretta’s group plows through the crowd, double time. A final sprint and the bus is achieved. Loretta collapses on a seat in the front section and just stares a little while, massaging her arm. She has to wait here another couple hours until time for the show. She still doesn’t scream.
LORETTA DOESN’T SCREAM because she’s not supposed to. In country music argot she’s what’s known as a “girl singer,” and there are a lot of unwritten rules for girl singers, one of the most important being that no matter how big a star you may be, you may never offend the fans. Unlike the rest of the pop-music world, the country performer-fan relationship is extraordinarily close. A country fan takes an active part in the star’s career — requesting radio stations to play the star’s latest single; showing up at every performance the star makes in the area; and when a journalist writes a story about the star, writing thank-you notes for the publicity. Loretta’s fans are especially zealous in this respect.
That’s because Loudilla, Loretta and Kay Johnson, the co-presidents of the Loretta Lynn Fan Club, are hard taskmasters. The Johnson sisters met Loretta when she was still making the club rounds on a Greyhound bus. They formed her first fan club 14 years ago and have made it their career; the only reason there is still a post office in Wild Horse, Colorado, is because the Johnson sisters get so much mail for Loretta. There are now branches of the Loretta Lynn Fan Club all over the world, and the payoff for all the work is that a hard-working fan has a good chance of getting to be a personal friend of Loretta Lynn. Loretta is especially close to the Johnson sisters and often visits them on their ranch. People who get to be fan club presidents are allowed to visit with Loretta when she comes to their area.
The fact that Loretta’s booth was mobbed is good — that, after all, is what the Johnson sisters have been working toward for 14 years. They and their club have played a crucial role in making Loretta Lynn a star. And Loretta knows it.
“When I look out over the crowd and I see the same faces year after year, I think I owe ’em more than just sayin’ hello. I owe ’em a hit record. I owe ’em everything I’ve got to give. They vote for me, they go out and buy records, they request the records. I been hungry too many times. These people have fed me, and I won’t ever forget it.”
There is a fear in her eyes as she speaks and when this is mentioned to her she explains, “I think there’s fear there because I’m afraid they won’t know.”
Loretta knows that she made a narrow escape from permanent hunger. Born in either 1935 or 1936 (she doesn’t know which) in Johnson County, Kentucky, Loretta was the daughter of a Depression-era coal miner. She spent her early years in Butcher Hollow, which is a place, not a town, in one of the most isolated areas of Appalachia. Her family lived in a shack, Loretta attended a one-room school through the eighth grade, and meeting Oliver Vanetta Lynn at a pie social when she was 13 years old was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. Loretta and “Doo” (who’s also nicknamed Mooney) were married that same year. She was 13, he was 19.
In the normal course of affairs in Appalachia, Mooney would have gotten a job in the mines and Loretta would have settled down to having babies and getting old before her time. But Mooney had been in the Army and learned about the world outside the hollow, and when Loretta was 14 and pregnant with her first child, he moved her to Washington State, where he eventually got a job in the timber business and Loretta cooked and cleaned at the main house on the ranch where they lived.
By the time Loretta was 18, she had four children and Butcher Hollow was long gone from her life. Again, in the normal course of events, Loretta would probably have had a couple more children, Mooney would have moved up in his job, and they would have lived a more or less ordinary life — better than Butcher Hollow to be sure, but ordinary by most standards. Here again, Mooney Lynn stepped in. Sometimes homesick for Kentucky, sometimes just lonely, Loretta made up songs and sang as she rocked her babies. Mooney thought his wife was good enough to be a real singer — a star. He started urging her to sing in public, and eventually they got a small band together, playing little local clubs in Washington. Loretta Lynn found herself in the music business, and she admits that, at first, it was against her will.
“I was pushed into the music business,” she says. “I didn’t really want to get into it; Doo was the one who wanted me to do it. He thought that I could so I had to show him that I could. I had to go along because my husband expected me to do it. I had to do it. I didn’t have no second thought about it.”
Loretta cut her first record, “Honky Tonk Girl,” for the Zero label in California. The single reached Number 14 on the national country & western charts, and within the year she and Mooney were making their way toward Nashville in an old station wagon, measuring the miles by stops at radio stations, where Loretta would plug her record and make friends with the DJs. At a station in Tucson, Arizona, Loretta says she met “a disc jockey (who) was a little boy, same age as me, pimples on his face, greasy hair. He was so nice to me that we used to write letters back and forth until he got into singing too.” His name was Waylon Jennings.
So it went across the country, Loretta and Mooney living in the back of the station wagon, subsisting on bologna sandwiches, Loretta making a quick change from jeans to dress whenever they hit a town with a country station. Finally in Music City, Loretta and Mooney did the routine: knocking on doors, being turned away, knocking on more doors. The first opened when Loretta met (she says “pestered”) Ott Devine, the late manager of the Grand Ole Opry. Her first appearance there came on October 15th, 1960. She sang “Honky Tonk Girl,” the audience loved it, and Loretta was invited back.
Finally deciding they needed business advice, Loretta and Mooney went to the Wilburn Brothers, Doyle and Teddy, who were a hot act at the time. Although they thought Loretta sounded too much like Kitty Wells — which she did in her very early songs — they signed her to a long-term publishing and booking contract and agreed to try to get her onto a major label. Through a trade-off with Decca’s Owen Bradley (he thought Loretta sounded like Kitty Wells too), the Wilburns persuaded Bradley to give Loretta a six-month contract with Decca. Bradley has been Loretta Lynn’s producer ever since.
Her first hit on Decca was “Success” in 1962. In 1964, she won just about every “best female vocalist” award. Then came a string of Number One country singles: “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” in 1966; “Fist City” in 1968; “Woman of the World,” 1969; “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the autobiographical song with which she now opens all her shows, in 1970 (the album of the same name went to 82 on the pop charts in 1971); “One’s on the Way” in 1971; and on and on until, in 1972, Loretta Lynn became the first woman to be named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, its highest award. The next year Loretta was featured on the cover of Newsweek. And she’s still going strong: she had two Number One country hits last year—”When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” and “Somebody Somewhere.”
By 1970 her relationship with the Wilburn Brothers had deteriorated to the point where she felt she could not continue with them (although she was the hottest girl singer in Nashville, the Wilburns continued to manage her as if she were just another act), and so in 1971 she hired as her manager Dave Skepner, a former trouble-shooter for MCA, and formed the United Talent booking agency with Conway Twitty, her sometime singing partner. Lawsuits naturally ensued; the booking dispute was settled only recently, and since the Wilburns still own part of Loretta’s publishing, she has not written more than two songs for her albums since 1971.
Although Loretta is probably the most successful woman in country music, her life of touring one-night stands in her bus continues. Once a year she takes off six weeks to go to Mexico with her family. That, with the exception of four weeks in June (a week of it occupied with Fan Fair) and two weeks in the fall, has been her schedule.
“I was pushed into the music business. I had to go along because my husband expected me to. I didn’t have no second thought about it.”
Mooney Lynn now spends most of his time on the 3,500-acre combination farm and dude ranch at their home in Hurricane Mills, actually a town they own about 70 miles from Nashville. He and Loretta seldom even see one another; he seems to have wrapped himself up in his land, where he raises purebred mules and Belgian draft horses. A solitary, taciturn man built like a banty rooster (and sometimes acting like one: the sweatband on his ever-present cowboy hat reads, “Like hell it’s yours”), Mooney Lynn is a bit puzzling. He can be rough, as Loretta shows in her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter:
“I think I need love and affection more than I need people telling me what to do. I just get all torn up by harsh words and violence. Like one time Doo got mad at a dog that was barking too much. So right in front of me, he just hit it once with a club and killed it. I just went to bed and stared at the ceiling for 24 hours, I felt so bad.”
Mooney has not been portrayed sympathetically by journalists, and perhaps he shouldn’t be. But he did spend a good part of his time diapering babies and raising the children while their mother was on the road — an unusual task for a man from East Kentucky, where that would be considered “women’s work.” His upbringing, after all, did no more to prepare him for the life he leads than Loretta’s did for hers. Their present relationship bears more similarities to a father-daughter attachment than to that of a husband and wife.
Yet Loretta’s songwriting mainstay is in stories about marriage and families. Her songs speak up for women, and she shows an unnerving understanding of how women feel about men, about themselves, about their lives. Musically, Loretta’s arrangements are standard country, but what make her songs special are her voice, which can express any emotion, and her lyrics. While country music is supposed to be honest, Loretta’s own songs are blunt. “Wings upon Your Horns,” from 1970, reflects the anger, the shame and the sadness of a woman who has been seduced — perhaps raped:
You hung my wings upon your horns
And turned my halo into thorns
And turned me to a woman I can’t stand.
You were the first to ever make me
Fall in love and then not take me,
The night I let you hang my wings upon your horns.
“When I get an idea about a woman — how women ‘do’ — maybe I will see a woman go through a bad situation and I will live that woman’s life while I’m writing that song. And it’s torment. If my husband comes into the room I will tell him to not stay because I know that — really, even the expression on my face — I am living that person. I know if I could look in the mirror and I could see myself while I was writin’ a story about a woman that is goin’ through torment I would look like that person. Because I would be livin’ every minute of what that woman lives.”
And, many of Loretta’s songs come from personal experience. “Fist City” was written for a woman who was making a play for Mooney: “I wrote ‘Fist City’ for her and she knows who she is,” says Loretta. “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” means just that. But Loretta hasn’t lived a normal married life for years. Since most of her time is spent on the road, Loretta has drawn material for her personal songs from the time when she was a housewife, before she came to Nashville.
“Most people don’t know this,” she says, “but 99% of this happened before I became an adult. Before I became the age of 21, most of my life was written. After I became 21, there’s nothin’ been wrote except ‘The Pill,’ really. And I think I did that to kinda update the thing.”
I ask her if perhaps she thinks she hasn’t really lived her life yet, and she answers, “Well, I haven’t, that’s the whole deal.”
Much of the life that Loretta has lived for the past 15 years has been spent on her touring bus, which is used to take her and her band from town to town in the United States and Canada. In her autobiography, Loretta says:
“It’s a strange deal. I’m supposed to be a country singer, writing songs about marriage and family and the way normal folks live. But mostly I’m living in motel rooms and traveling on my special bus … I don’t even open the shades in my bus anymore. I’ve seen every highway in the United States and they all look alike to me.”
Her present bus, a GMC Challenger, is organized into three sections. In the back, over the engine, is Loretta’s room, which contains two easy chairs, a couch which makes into a bed, a combination sink/makeup table and a tape deck. In front of Loretta’s room are the bunks for the band members — three bunks on each side of the aisle, stacked floor to ceiling. The front of the bus is a small lounge. There is a table and bench for playing cards, a long couch and two more easy chairs. Jim Webb, her driver of eight years, sits in front of this amid instrument panels which control the lights, power and heating for the rest of the bus and a CB radio (Loretta’s handle is “Coal Miner”). Beside Jim’s seat is a jump seat which folds down when the doors are closed. There is a refrigerator, separate tape decks for Jim and the band and a color television in the front, so that Loretta can close herself off in the back of the bus, which is exactly what she does most of the time.
THE BUS IS WAITING outside the auditorium as Loretta leaves the Fan Fair autograph session. There’s only a moment of privacy once she’s aboard, however, for word spreads that she’s on the bus, and soon she’s surrounded by people again. First comes a friend who works in the front office of the Cincinnati Reds, along with several of his friends. The wives of two of the band members are on board, as is an ex-employee of her dude ranch. Dave Skepner is taking dinner orders, and Dave Brokaw, her publicist, is shepherding a magazine writer around the premises. Dr. John Turner, Loretta’s old doctor from Johnson County, stops by with his wife, Gwen, and soon there are five or six different conversations going on.
There is a show to be done that night, however — Loretta is supposed to appear once more before the Fan Fair audience — and she finally retires to her room at the back, leaving most of the party to watch the Reds play the Pirates on the television in the front. It’s a hot day, and Loretta strips to bra and panties, wets her hair at the sink and rolls it on pink sponge curlers. For the first time all day she looks like a real person instead of a celebrity. She talks like a real person, too.
“Hey, did you see Lady Sings the Blues?” shouts Loretta over the roar of the blow dryer. “I thought Diana Ross was real good, especially when they put her in that room with her hair stickin’ out all over.”
“Well, I liked the music,” I reply at a similar decibel level, “but I liked Billie Holiday better.”
“Who’s Billie Holiday?” asks Loretta.
“She’s the one the movie was about! She’s a real person.”
“Well, is she really dead?”
“Yes, she died just like in the movie.”
“You mean she took drugs? Could she sing good?”
The talk turns elsewhere. Loretta has heard about Alive, the book by Piers Paul Read about the survivors of the Andes airplane crash. She wants to know about the cannibalism part.
“Well, there was a soccer team and their plane crashed on top of the Andes,” I yell, “and nobody could find them for weeks and weeks. So when they ran out of food, they just cut the meat off the dead people and put it on the plane to dry and …”
“Hey, Sue,” Loretta calls to a passing fan club president. “Go out and get me some of them pork skins. You all want any?”
Finally we find a subject Loretta knows about.
“I read this book about Marilyn Monroe,” Loretta shouts. “I guess I must be a lot like her because I wish people didn’t have to wear underwear either. It’s kinda sad in a way ’cause of the way she was brought up, but you know people can only do so much for anybody.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll end up like Marilyn, Loretta,” I reply.
“No,” she says, switching off the blow dryer and turning to face me, “but I could have very easily.” Her voice is almost inaudible and her face is serious.
“I was just about that depressed, you know. The way I got to thinkin’ was that I was bein’ used on every — every time I moved. My family used me, my kids, my husband, everybody. I was just like a piece of machinery. I’d come in, I was treated like a stranger. I’d come in home and I was just like somebody visitin’ the house. Maybe I’d come in one day a month and when I’d come in, why they would try to do things my way for that one day, me knowin’ it was just that one day. When I was gone, everything was gonna be their way, not the way I wanted it. So I could have been endin’ up like Marilyn because I did try it. I was scared.
“I don’t think I’ll try it again because I think, what am I a’gonna be doin’? All I’m doin’ is benefitin’ somebody else. It’s these men. They put you way up here, see, and if you feel like you can’t hold up to that, then you feel like you’re lettin’ ’em down. Women are human, just exactly like a man. But they all put you on a pedestal and hope — I think they put you on a spot.”
Before I can say anything, there’s a knock on the door.
“Loretta, you got ten minutes.”
Loretta rips the curlers out of her hair, surrounds herself with a cloud of hair spray and slips into a filmy pink evening gown. Outside, Skepner and Webb are waiting to march her back through the crowd and onto the stage as Bill Anderson introduces her.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here she is, Miss Loretta Lynn, the coal miner’s daughter!”
The folks whoop and holler as Loretta moves into the spot, her pink dress floating about her. She doesn’t look one bit like a coal miner’s daughter. She looks like a pro, a Nashville version of glamour. She once told Lorene Allen, her office manager, that the only place she’s ever really happy is onstage. Seeing her here, I believe it. Pink chiffon flying, rhinestones shining, she’s singing, “Well I was born a coal miner’s daughter, in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.”
Loretta has paid for that pink chiffon. Two of her children dropped out of high school to get married; two more married as soon as they graduated. A mother at 14, she was a grandmother at 29. When she is with Mooney on their Tennessee ranch, there are always tourists hanging over her front gate. She seldom sees her 12-year-old twins. And Loretta herself now finds her bus more comfortable than her house.
“I’m never by myself unless I’m in this bus,” she says. “That’s the only time I’m ever by myself. So I get to wishin’ that I’m on this bus. It’s terrible.”
PERHAPS THAT’S WHY, when the chance came to take the bus out the next day, Loretta jumped for it. Her schedule called for four more hours of signing autographs at the auditorium and then for an appearance on the eight o’clock show at the Opry. We were to be followed by a television crew filming for a People magazine television special. A man named Fred, down from Boston, was the producer, and he intended to take the crew up to Butcher Hollow the next day. When he asked us to go along on what was supposed to be Loretta’s day off, she planned a party on the spot. We could take the bus and some friends — a holiday. By nine that night, Skepner had stocked the bus refrigerator with bologna, cheese and onions, the TV crew had stowed their gear and Jim Webb had pulled the Loretta Lynn bus onto I-65 heading north. It was a relief to be getting away from Nashville and double knit and Instamatics.
“I don’t even open the shades in my bus anymore. I’ve seen every highway in the United States and they all look alike to me.”
When the television crew finally scattered into the bunks in the middle of the bus, Loretta and four friends moved to her room. One had brought along some vodka and grapefruit juice, but had forgotten cups and ice, so we made do with cups from the trash can and no ice, and soon there was a first-rate party going on. What made it even more fun was that Loretta almost never drinks — the fans don’t approve, for one thing — and so not only were we having a party, we were having a forbidden party.
Spirits were high, and soon we fell to making up tremendous country songs — “You’re So Cold I’m Turnin’ Blue,” “I Feel So Bad I Want to Go to Bed with a Nurse” — when the bus pulled into a truck stop in Bowling Green and one of the party hopped out to get more grapefruit juice. He was back in five minutes, looking like he’d seen a ghost. And he had.
You never guess who I saw in there,” he said. “Conway!”
“Conway” means Conway Twitty. Conway Twitty never, never, never takes a drink. It was as if you were making out in the basement and somebody yelled, “Here comes your dad!”
“Oh my god! Hide the stuff!” ordered another party-goer. “He’ll come on the bus for sure. What’s he doin’ here?”
“They got some date up in Virginia. They must’a left right after we did and followed us. I had to turn my face away from him; I was afraid he’d smell my breath.”
“Oh hell, you been drinkin’ vodka. Vodka don’t smell.”
“Somebody call Jim and tell him to get this bus out of here,” ordered Loretta.
Back on the road. Caught red-handed by Conway Twitty. Spirits were sagging — as if everyone in the room were thinking, “Won’t we ever get away from Nashville?” Loretta fell silent, and giving in to the inevitable, the rest of us started talking shop — besides me, there were two songwriters along. The customary topic of conversation in Nashville is songs, songwriters, publishing, and we were talking about a song from last year called “Where the Good Love Has Gone,” when Loretta interrupted.
“You know where I think it goes?” said Loretta, coming out of a funk to answer a question that wasn’t asked. “It blows away. What is love? You know what love is? When you hold your little baby in your arms for the first time. That’s it. That is love. After that, forget it friends. After your little baby grows and got a mind of its own, when you’ve done all you can do, your love is gone. Martha, do you know where it goes? Where love goes?”
“Well, maybe it goes to heaven or wherever people go when they die. Maybe that’s what heaven is.”
“Ha!” said Loretta. “Where people go when they’re gone is the same place where love goes when it’s gone — nowhere! It just keeps goin’ and goin! Where’s it gonna go? No place. It never stops. It just keeps driftin’. You have to keep reachin’, but you never touch it. Almost get to it and then it slips away. Ain’t no way, you never get to it. Now that’s the darnedest thing you ever had ahold of — somethin’ just out of reach. You might as well forget it. There ain’t no place for it.”
Loretta looked angry and agitated. Talking to no one in particular, she seemed to have slipped back into her everyday world of being alone in the back of the bus with the curtains closed.
“Well, I don’t care,” she continued. “I’m from the hills and I’m a Bill Monroe female. And I don’t want you messin’ around in my hills, ’cause if you get in my hills you try to make me pop. Hills do not go pop. Hills stay hills. I just want to be behind ’em all the time. Them that’s out in front of ’em is what’s got to worry about ’em.”
The rest of us began to get edgy when Loretta started talking this way. We all knew she’d had a breakdown in the spring, and this sounded alarmingly like the way she talked then. Someone changed the subject.
“Loretta? You know the only man-made thing in heaven? The scars on Jesus’ hands.”
Loretta looked up — almost woke up — and gave the speaker a long stare. “Yeah,” she said. “But them scars can’t heal a broken heart.”
LORETTA’S HILLS ARE beautiful. High and green, from a distance it looks as if no one lives there; but they do, by the thousands, and Butcher Hollow is just one of the tiny settlements that riddle the Cumberland Mountains in this part of Appalachia. To get to Butcher Hollow, you must take U.S. 23 to Paintsville and from there drive to Van Lear, an abandoned mining camp. From Van Lear the dirt road leads up into the hills and, after several branches onto rutted dirt roads, there is Butcher Hollow. It’s hard to get there and it’s just as hard to get out. The mountains of Kentucky have always served to keep people in, and the further back into the hollow you go, the older the people get. Loretta hasn’t been back to Butcher Hollow in three years, but going back with her is like going back 40 years; the hollow that she sees doesn’t have much to do with the hollow that is there.
It was about noon when we reached Van Lear. We’d left the bus at Doc Turner’s house early in the morning and transferred everything into the cars. Van Lear was once one of the largest company towns in Kentucky. At the height of the coal boom in the late Thirties and early Forties, 10,000 people lived in and around the town. Now there is only the shell of the two-story company headquarters surrounded by straggling lines of wood-frame company houses. Once painted a uniform white with dark trim, the presence of pink or green asbestos siding on the houses shows the absence of the company that was sole employer, landlord and patriarch. It’s obvious that people still live here, but few are to be seen, and those keep their distance.
After Van Lear, the road continued for about a mile past a few old company houses and changed to dirt at the old company store. The store is a large two-story building with a concrete porch painted dark green. Once called Store Five (after Mine Five, which is nearby), it is now called Webb’s Grocery and is run by Herman Webb, Loretta’s younger brother. This store was the center of Loretta’s “neighborhood.” Miners could trade their scrip money for dry goods and staples here and their kids could buy candy.
We stopped to visit Herman and sit on the porch, which has a view of a wide and dusty road, a dried tip creek bed and some junk cars. It had become infernally hot and the road ahead looked like the Gobi Desert. Nothing was stirring except the sweat bees and two dusty boys on motor scooters. Not far away was the mouth of the mine where Loretta’s father worked and across from that was a dump, where two mangy bitches were fighting for possession of an old easy chair. Summertime in East Kentucky is unpleasant. It’s hot, humid and dead.
The group was still cheerful, but Loretta had become distracted. At the mine mouth, which looked like a bricked up door into the hillside, she climbed all around looking for something that might have belonged to her father. Finally she found a “No Smoking” sign screwed into the rock and settled for that. A bit further up the road, past the place where it branched into the hollow, Loretta was out of the car again, running across a flat place toward the foot of a hill. On the side of the hill was the house where she grew up. Made of unpainted wood, the house was covered with rambling roses and surrounded by japonica bushes. Loretta headed straight for the pigpen; it turned out that the pen used to be a cabin and that she and Mooney had lived there when they were first married. Later she told me that as she looked at the pigpen, she saw her grandmother’s coffin being carried out the door. Loretta believes she is psychic.
“I look at someone’s eyes,” she said, “and I know what has really passed and I know what’s comin’. I was about 19 years old when I started feelin’ this power comin’ over me and I wondered what it was. I would be lookin’ in the mirror when I was in my bedroom cleanin’ and I would see a picture of my mother through the mirror and it would be me. And then, two or three weeks would go by and I would think, well, maybe this is gonna leave, but it never would. Ever mornin’ I would get up and I’d be a-cleanin’ my bedroom and I’d look tip in the mirror and see my mother and it would be me. People would say I was crazy if they knew the things that I do, but it’s not crazy. It’s knowin’ what I wish I didn’t really know because sometimes it hurts too much.”
From the hillside, Loretta ranged over the grassy space like a bird dog, looking for any traces of her mother or father, finding none. She petted the pigs in the pen, poked a stick down an abandoned spring, looked for rosebushes her father had planted. Once again, she looked like a mountain girl, young and graceful in the tall grass. As she ran through the meadow with Herman behind her, warning of snakes, she strayed onto her Uncle Corman’s place. Corman Webb, a shy man, has lived alone in the one-room cabin down the hollow for 26 years. He keeps bees and raises a beautiful garden, but seldom talks to anyone. Loretta went into his cabin while the rest of us waited on the road, and in a minute, we could hear her singing through the open window. It was pretty. A weathered wooden cabin surrounded by gardens and trailing rosebushes, set against tall green hills — it looked the embodiment of peace, undisturbed by the process of time. When the sound of Loretta’s voice came from the window, it was lovely enough to make Dave Skepner cry. Then we heard the words to the song. It was Loretta’s latest single, “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill”:
You’re so contented, but for me it’s all gone.
And though I pretend, you just don’t turn me on.
The body performs, but the soul has no will,
When the tingle becomes a chill.
While it may have been rather strong for Uncle Corman, who hadn’t been out of the hollow in 26 years, he seemed to appreciate Loretta coming to sing for him. When we left, he dug up a rosebush for her and, lacking a newspaper, took off his T-shirt to wrap around the roots.
The rest of the day passed like a dream. We went on up the hollow to another shack, this one where Loretta was born. It was another wooden cabin and it was built by Loretta’s father and pregnant mother. Loretta remembered only images from this place: sitting on the floor stuffing string beans into her mouth until she was sick because she was hungry; hiding her cousins under the roof because the law was after them; the same cousins coming up the hill in the middle of the night with a chicken they had stolen and her mother getting up to fry it on the spot; crawling in the dirt yard; pictures of movie stars papering the walls. She was named after Loretta Young.
By the end of the day the party was exhausted, covered with a slimy coat of dirt and sweat. Some of the people, like Dave Skepner, who is from Los Angeles, were dazed by the trip. He knew Loretta had been poor, but not this poor. He knew that she had been isolated, but not this isolated. And no one could see how she ever got out. As we drove back toward Herman Webb’s store, past little cabins, choking with dust, a few more people appeared, drawn out by the approaching evening. A few of the younger ones came up to the cars and Loretta unerringly named their families by looking at their faces. Most of them were related to her in one way or another. For most of them, Loretta was no big deal. Nashville is too far away from Butcher Hollow, and coal miners’ daughters are the rule in their part of the world.
We stopped again at the store on our way out of the hollow. It was almost Saturday night, and the local teenagers were gathering around the porch and behind the store, their minds more occupied with each other than with Loretta Lynn. She had left the hollow years ago, after all, and while their parents might still listen to her songs, the kids were looking forward to the evening ahead. Instead of tuning in the Grand Ole Opry, this generation of mountain children would stoke themselves up on beer, drive their pickups at breakneck speed over the curving roads and maybe park awhile in the woods where they could make out and try to find a rock station on the radio. Unless it was very late, they would get only static.
Loretta was standing by Skepner, still clutching her “No Smoking” sign; when a pickup truck carrying a man, a woman and a boy screeched up beside her.
“Hey Loretta, you ever seen a four-wheel drive?” the man asked.
She smiled and looked confused.
“I mean a four-wheel drive,” he repeated. “Want to see it?”
Before she answered, the man backed up the truck, stopped, and then laid rubber all the way down the dirt road, throwing gravel and sand all over Loretta. He didn’t stop until he reached the kids behind the store.
Loretta didn’t scream.