Country Icon Loretta Lynn Is Still a Mountain Girl
We sat down with the coal miner's daughter herself to talk about her new album, her new American Masters documentary, stick'n'poke tattoos, and heartbreak.
Loretta Lynn once got a stick’n’poke tattoo. She can't give me a straight answer on her longtime friend Dolly Parton’s alleged collection of secret tattoos (“I don’t think she does. I'll ask her. 'Dolly, where's your tattoo?’) but the surprisingly impish legend was more than happy to tell me about her own.
“I had one, I got a tattoo,” she pipes up, eyes twinkling.” I was picking strawberries and boys from Mexico come up and was picking berries with me. And this Mexican boy put a tattoo on me. I was putting my husband's name on me. I didn't get it all done because it hurt too bad. He did it with stick pins and ink! And I said, ‘Let's wait till tomorrow and do the rest of it.’ Well, my husband raised such a fuss that I didn't let him finish it. So I said, ‘Well, I'll have it taken off one day,’ and when I had it taken off, he really got mad, my husband did. But he raised hell because it was on there. So yeah. How do you please them?”
After the usual how-do-you-dos, that's the first story she tells me when I sit down to interview her, and a fine indicator of how the rest of our nearly hour-long chat would play out. As we settle into the overstuffed couch of her swank Manhattan hotel room, her publicist drops off a couple bottles of Evian before retreating back into the wings, leaving the country music icon and I alone to natter away. She's in town to promote her new album, Full Circle, a lush collection of old Appalachian favorites, re-recorded standards and a few brand-new tunes (including a pair of gorgeous, soul-stirring duets with Elvis Costello and her old pal, Willie Nelson) as well as her new two-hour American Masters documentary, Loretta Lynn: Still A Mountain Girl, which airs March 4 on PBS. Even though she she was operating on a tightly packed schedule, the 83-year-old Queen of Country Music is in fine fettle.
Despite her icon status, talking to Loretta feels as easy and natural as sitting around with my own Aunt Loretta (Miss Lynn’s namesake) and sharing family gossip at Christmas. The honky-tonk girl’s thick, honeyed Kentucky drawl makes you want to lean in closer to catch every word, especially when she graces you with a grin, or a giggle. She's clad in a lavender top that for all the world looked like a vintage Nudie shirt, her mischievous blue eyes peering out from behind a neat pair of reading glasses and a precise slash of posey-pink lipstick. When we first meet, she looks up at my face and tells me matter-of-factly that she likes my piercings; I blush, thank her, and confide that my own grandma hates them. “Really? She’s a little more traditional, huh?” she drawls sympathetically, with the air of someone who’s used to having her choices questioned. “I had one one time.” She taps her right nostril. “But you could hardly see it. It was a little diamond. I said I want a bigger one!”
Loretta Lynn’s always loved her sparkles, as her reams of sequined stagewear and elegant baroque ballgowns make clear, but it tickles me to know that we had something in common—and as for Loretta, she's well past the point where she has to worry about pleasing anybody but herself. After all, she’s the famed coal miner’s daughter who, at 15, married a man eight years her senior and moved across the country to Washington State at his behest. She traded her hardscrabble but emotionally rich life in Butcher Holler, Kentucky that provided fodder for so many of her most beloved songs (“I remember well, the well where I drew water…”) for a lonesome existence as the wife of a hard-drinking man, a young mother who barely knew how to cook more than cornbread and beans but had four children to raise by the time she reached her eighteenth birthday.
She's from a musical family, and always liked to sing, but never thought about getting up onstage until 1953, when, as the story goes, her husband, Doolittle Lynn (forever known as “Doo”) bought her a $17 guitar and forced her out onstage to sing for their supper. She went on to become the most awarded female country artist of all time, the soulful voice behind hits like “Fist City,” “Don’t Come Home A’Drinking With Lovin’ on Your Mind,” “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” “Rated X,” “The Pill,” and, of course, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
The story of her life was turned into Coal Miner’s Daughter, an Oscar-winning movie starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. Her critically acclaimed last album, 2004’s Van Lear Rose, was produced by Jack White, and nabbed Loretta her first Grammy (discounting the one she shared with longtime duet partner Conway Twitty in 1971). Loretta Lynn's Ranch, the tourist attraction, museum, and dude ranch empire she started with her late husband and now runs with her children is going strong. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor—which ain’t bad for a girl from Butcher Holler. She even charmed Reddit with a delightful AMA last night. Now, her new album is already being hailed as a triumph, and her new documentary—chock full of archival footage and interviews with her friends, family, and collaborators—is set to further enshrine Loretta Lynn’s hallowed place in our country’s musical legacy.
Throughout it all, she’s stayed true to herself and her roots. As I'm finding out, she really is that same warm, funny, humble Kentucky girl. In her own words, Loretta Lynn’s still “as country as cornbread.”
Noisey: When I was trying to think about what I should ask you today, I kept getting stumped, because there's just so much there. You've done more than anybody, really.
Loretta Lynn: And you know, I do, because nobody else will do stuff like this. I mean, they're lazy. Most of 'em are lazy. They want fame, they want the record. They put that record out and think, "Well, this is a big hit." Well. so it's a big hit. But the next one may not do as well because you didn't work that record, you know? You have to put yourself in the middle of your job and whatever you're selling. That's how I always felt.
I've read both your books, and the one thing that really stood out is just how hard you've worked. People don't realize that in the early days, you were out there with four other singers in a car, driving 400 miles a day, doing hundreds of shows a year.
Yeah, and finally I got a bus! We've got two buses now. But we finally went from a car to a bus. In a car, with four in a car, going 400 miles a day, night and day, to the next show. It's rough. I did a bunch of that before I ever got my bus. But I had to do it. I had kids to feed and it was my job as Conway would say. It was my job. [singing] 'That's my job'. Remember the record?
I do! And you had to work extra hard because you're a woman, and when you were first coming out it was unheard of to be doing the things you were doing. And you're still doing it.
And you know what? I couldn't stay home. If I was home, I'd be working. Or doing something harder than what I'm doing now.
In your documentary, Sissy Spacek talks about how you were an inspiration for feminists, because you were out there fighting for the working women and the moms—people that didn't have a voice.
That's right. And you know how I got the idea for "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)"? I was gettin' ready backstage at one of these auditoriums, I think it was a high school auditorium. And this girl comes backstage and she was crying; I had my hair in curlers and headscarf on, but I went to her and asked her what was wrong. And she said, "My husband wouldn't bring me to the show but he's sitting out there in the second row with a girlfriend." And we kinda peeked out the curtain, and she pointed him out to me. And his wife was a sweet little thing, she wasn't all painted up. I looked out there and this girl was painted up like a street walker. And I looked at her and I said, "Honey, she ain't woman enough to take your man." I went backstage right then and wrote it - "You ain't woman enough to take my man." And it was a hit for me.
It encapsulates the Loretta Lynn fighting spirit that comes through in so many of your best songs. It’s so crazy to think that the things you were singing about forty years ago are still a problem for so many women. Take your song “The Pill”—decades after you caused a stir by singing about birth control, women are still fighting to take charge of our own bodies.
I never understood why they made a big deal out of it, the disk jockeys, of "The Pill." I thought everybody was taking it but me, because all the women was talking to me about the pill—and I had the kids to prove that I hadn't taken it! So I wrote "The Pill." Found out that everybody was hollerin' about it and the disk jockey, they wrote to me and said, "So and so wrote and said we better not play this." And I said, "I'm gonna write you and tell you you better play it or I'm coming to get you!" But I kept in touch with all the disk jockeys, too. And that was a good thing.
Right, you needed that to get the hits played then. You had to go and put in tons of work. You couldn't just email.
That's right, because I would be in the corner writing cards to the disk jockey about the record. “What is it that you like about this record? What is it you don't like?” Some of them would say, “Oh, I don't know if I'm gonna be able to play this or not.” It's just the title most of the time. “What Kind of a Girl Do You Think I Am” was a song that really I wrote for the good girls. This preacher comes back stage and he had a whole stack of these records; he went and bought every record he could get of 'What Kind of a Girl Do You Think I Am'. And I asked him why, and he said he was giving them out to the girls in his congregation. I said “How come?” and he said “There's some that need to listen to it.” I wish that I had it, I'd give it to you, but I don't have it.
I'll look for it! But that's brilliant. It must be wild seeing how much the music industry has changed from back when you were a young mom with a $17 guitar in Washington up until now.
I say the music changed. Some of the music now is really... there's country music, and then there's this music. I think that to stay with it you're gonna have to join it. I think the way you sing your songs should be good enough to join that bunch that are playing in the pop-oriented stuff. I think you have to do that. And if you don't want to do it, well, you keep doing what you're doing... Like me, they don't have to play my record anymore. They do anyway, though. They'll play my records and then they'll laugh. “Boy, she said that straight, didn't she?” And at the time when I was writing all these songs, I never dreamed that I was doing anything different.
They used to say you sounded like Kitty Wells, but really, you just wanted to be Loretta Lynn. You’ve always kept people on their toes. Your last record before this one, the one you did with Jack White, had this very different vibe, and I think people really picked up on that. I mean, it won the Grammy...
Jack White's one of the greatest people you'd ever wanna meet. I love him. He's like my brother. If I do something he thinks is not good, he'll say so. "Don’t say it that way, say it this way," he'll tell me. I say, 'Why?", and he tells me,''Well, that's just not good, don't say it that way.'
Takes a lot of balls to say that to you! Why did you decide not to have him on this new record?
Well, my daughter, Patsy, I left things to her. She's doing such a good job with everything that I wouldn't take that away from her for nothing. She manages everything I do and she's good at it. I just sit there and watch. Wherever it needs to be helped, I help, but I don't get in the middle of it. I will say, “It should be done this way, honey.” And she's doing great.
Full Circle feels like such a family affair—you’re down at Cash Cabin recording with your old friend John Carter Cash, you’ve got Patsy there with you. When it came time to pick the songs for the album, how did you go about deciding which songs you wanted to do?
This one I had 90 songs cut. 90. I went in the studio last week for two days and we cut 11 more.
So there's 100 new Loretta Lynn songs in the world right now.
That MCA don't have. We own 'em. That makes me feel good, because that's for the kids.
That's wonderful. What's your favorite song on the new record?
On the new record, let me see, what's on that new record?
Well, there's "In The Pines,” that one’s my favorite.
That was my first song to learn when I was a little girl! That's why it's on there.
And "Whispering Sea," which was your first song ever.
"Whispering Sea" is the oldest song, the first song I ever wrote, and that's Jack's favorite. And that's why I cut it, because Jack said that was his favorite song and I said,"I'm gonna sing that for you," and I cut it on this album.
I was surprised to see your duet with Elvis Costello. How did that come about?
Well, I went to the studio and I heard him playing this girl singer, and it was me and somebody singing with me. I said, "Who in the devil is that?" and they said it was Elvis Costello. I knew Elvis Costello because we wrote together before. Me and Elvis had gotten close from being down there with Johnny [Carter Cash], and he knows Johnny real well, so me and him would get in a room and try and write. Some of it would turn out, some of it wouldn't, but he's a different writer than I am. I'm about as country as cornbread, and he's everything but country.
But it still worked out. After all, Conway Twitty was more of a rock’n’roll guy, and that worked out great.
That's right! Conway started out preachin,' did you know that?
Conway preached when he was 17 years old.
I'm sure that added to your connection, you both being religious.
That's right. Conway was a good man, you know. He never drank, never took a drink in his life. But he loved my husband. My husband was an alcoholic. He couldn't help it. When he wanted to drink, he'd drink, but he'd never get out in front of people to do that. I felt sorry for people like that. It's a bad disease.
Tammy may have sang the song, but you're the one who really stood by your man through everything.
Yep. If he was here I'd still be standin' by him. I lost him 21 years ago.
Does it ever get easier?
Yeah, it gets easier, you just learn to live with it. I lost two kids, too, and these are things you have to learn to live with or you will go crazy. And I know that. So I start to worry about it and I stop right then. Just think of something else.
Do you think you need to have a little bit of heartbreak to make good country music?
I do. I do. But not that kind of a heartbreak. That's too much. But the heartbreak is like losing a lover or something like that. Wine, women and song, that's the kinda heartbreak you need. You don't need a death.
What kind of advice do you have for women that want to get into the music business now? What's the best thing someone can do to try and get even halfway to where you are?
I think everybody has to make it on their own. Everybody does it a different way. That's how I feel. I don't think anybody made it like I did. I haven't caught anybody doing that, but I just think that everybody does do it a different way.
Do you ever go back to Butcher Holler?
Yeah, and I could go right back to Butcher Holler and start livin' there right to this day. I could. I don't think my kids could do it, but I could. You have to be born and raised in Butcher Holler to really know what it's like to go back. And today they've got a paved highway up to that house because so many people was going up to that old house. That's how they make their money today, is people going up to that old house.
Is it tough to make close friends now that you're so well-known?
Yeah, it is tough to make friends. You know, after Tammy, I didn't really get that close to nobody else. I've kinda, you know, been a little scared. Because it hurts too bad, you know?
Yeah. And you've lost more than your fair share already.
Yeah. So I just kinda say hello and go on. I've got friends, but I don't get real close like me and Tammy had been. Me and Dolly's close, we're just about as close as I'm gonna get to her. It'll be a heartbreak if I ever lose her, but she'll probably lose me first. We tell each other that. "I will die before you." "No, you will die before me."
I read Tragic Country Queen, that book about Tammy, and It was amazing. Until you read a book like that, or like one of your books, you never really know what's really happening in an artist like that's life—you only see what's happening up on stage.
That's right. Tammy's my closest friend in show business. And then Dolly. Me and Dolly wasn't together as much as me and Tammy was. When Tammy'd get through with a date, I would look up, I'd be on stage somewhere, I'd look up and here'd come Tammy. "What're you doing here Tammy?" "Well, I got through with my show so I just come to visit you." And she'd stay with me til my shows was over. Ridin' my bus all the way home. She was somethin'. I loved her.
Does it still feel strange when fans come up to you like, "Oh my god, Loretta!"?
No, I don't get out very much. But when I do, I can't shop because they wanna talk. And I understand that, but there's no way for me to go shopping. If you put those sunglasses on they're gonna stand there and look at you, figure out why you have 'em on. It's rough, you just can't do it. And I love the junk stores, I love to go places like that.
I guess you don't really think about gaving to give up things like that once you get to a certain point of fame. What do you do when it's just Loretta, when you have some time off?
When I go home, I've probably got two or three days, I will watch TV. I get up late and have a late breakfast and I sit down and watch TV and I may sit up late to watch something I wanna watch, or I'll go to bed early and watch TV. And read, I like to read. Tim, he's always getting me his rag magazines to make sure to see if I'm in 'em.
That sounds so nice, though. You've lived enough for about four people by now.
I have, I have.
What's there left to do? What's your next goal?
Well, what's left to do is something I haven't done, which is lived, really. You know what I mean?
I just do what I know to do. But my God, I could work every day in the world. Every day of the year, I could work, they're calling for me all the time. You have to say I'm working this many days ,and I'm not working any more than this, and every place I go we turn 'em away. This is funny, because I have people from 3 to 80. Right on the front row, you can see kids 11 years old, and their grandma's sitting there beside them.
You have this profound impact on people.
You know what it is? I'm no better than they are. When anybody—I don't care who it is—thinks that they are, that's when you're no good.
Your story gives so many people so much hope, too. I'm speaking for myself a little here, too, 'cause I grew up in the woods and never really thought I'd make it out. For so many of us—the little girls who grew up poor in the middle of nowhere—hearing about what you've done, and where you've gone, and how you did it, it really makes you think, "Well, if Loretta can do it, maybe I can, too."
Anybody can do whatever they want to. You have to have your dreams come true, but you gotta dream to where you can make 'em come true!
You have to keep fighting.
Kim Kelly is a construction worker's daughter, and an Editor at Noisey. She's on Twitter.