The list of popular musicians awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom since the prestigious award was established 50 years ago, by then-President John F. Kennedy, is short and glorious. Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin are part of this select group; Bob Dylan received a Medal of Freedom last year.
Loretta Lynn, just named as one of this year’s 16 recipients (on a roster that also includes Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Gloria Steinem), is only the second country music singer to be awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, after Tennessee Ernie Ford. Now 81, the Country Music Hall of Famer behind “Fist City,” “Rated X” and “The Pill” is still feisty. “I feel better than I did when I was 40,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Isn’t that something?
This one kind of takes you by surprise, I would imagine. You’re no stranger to getting awards in the music world, but the Medal of Freedom is something else entirely.
Well, I think it’s fantastic. I have a museum, and hundreds of people come by all the time. I live between Graceland, where Elvis lived, and Nashville, so we get the same crowd. They’re gonna be happy to see that.
I was going to ask if you’re an Obama supporter. Does the fact that you don’t like to talk about politics come straight from your parents – that they were members of opposing parties?
I think so. On voting day, us kids would all hide to watch ’em holler, you know. Mommy would go down to vote, and she’d vote Democrat, and Daddy would go down and vote Republican. And they’d meet and just holler at each other [laughs].
Well, that’s kind of like the country itself, isn’t it?
That’s right. I really vote for the man. You oughta vote for who you think’s gonna do the best job, whether he’s Democrat or Republican.
You have plenty of history of going to the White House. Can you tell me about the first time you were invited, by Nixon?
Well, I was supposed to get up and do a song at a supper. Everybody got through eating and I was supposed to play three or four songs. Remember the guy that shot all these people in Vietnam – Calley [Army officer William Calley, who was convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre]? Anyway, my little girl told me to tell the president, “Mommy, you tell the president to turn Calley loose. He was over there for fighting, and that’s what he did.” So I got up onstage and I said, “Richard, I want to tell you what my little girl said.” Everybody laughed, and I didn’t know what they were laughing about.
I got off a plane in Chicago the next morning, and I said to my husband, “Oh, there must be a star on this plane.” Here come these cameras – three or four cameras come running. I just knew there was star, and I was gonna find out who it was. They run up to me and they say, “Ms. Lynn, can you tell me why you called the president by his name?” That burnt me up [laughs]. They took off on a dead run.
Well, in those days you were a hot ticket. I’d think the Nixon administration would’ve been a little nervous about inviting you to the White House, considering all the conversation that was going on about your hits at the time.
Oh, yeah [laughs]. You know, I didn’t pay any attention to what people thought. I sung my songs. I thought everybody took the pill. I didn’t, and I had the kids to prove I didn’t. And “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” – I sung that for women.
Have you been to the White House under every administration since?
I don’t believe for Bill [Clinton]. [Pauses] Now I’m not sure. I’ve been so many times, I can’t remember. Everybody ought to get a chance to go to the White House.
The musicians who’ve been awarded the Medal of Freedom are like a Mount Rushmore of music – Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dylan last year.
I know. I think they told me last night there have been 11 since ’63. That’s – that’s something. I’m all excited about it, and I’ll be excited to go get it [laughs].
Did you have interactions with any of those performers over the years?
Well, Sinatra had me on his show, and Dean Martin had me on his show. So I’ve known them a long time. I loved Dean Martin and Ol’ Blue Eyes.
How is your health?
Great. I feel better than I did when I was 40. I was working six or seven days a week, two shows a day. It was a little rough on me. I work when I want to now. I go out for a weekend, come in and don’t work for two more weeks. They’re calling for me all the time, but I got lazy [laughs]. But when I do a show, when people pay their way in, I give ’em everything I’ve got.
Why no more records since the Jack White record [2004’s Van Lear Rose]?
We’ve got 80 things already cut. We’re coming out with a religious album and a Christmas album later this year. . . . Jack is such a good boy, you know? In fact, I’m gonna call him today and tell him how lazy he is [laughs].