There is no mistaking that you’re on your way to Loretta Lynn’s spread in middle Tennessee as you travel along the one freeway that bisects the Volunteer State from east to west.
At five-mile intervals, there are folksy billboards showing the Queen of Country Music in a red checkered cowboy shirt, head tilted to one side, her well-appointed brown curls grazing her collarbone, with an impish Mona Lisa smile, that suggests — no, downright demands — that you “Visit the Legend Loretta Lynn in Hurricane Mills.”
And people do, to the tune of almost a half million a year. They come to tour the antebellum mansion that captured Lynn’s heart one Sunday afternoon in 1966 when she and her late husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn got lost in the back roads of Humphreys County, Tennessee, and spotted the down-in-the-mouth mansion high on a hill.
“I seen that house, and I said, ‘Doo, I want that house right there’.” Lynn tells me as she sits down beside me in an oversized red leather sectional.
The trouble was it came with a whole town that also had a working mill, a post office, a waterfall, a general store, and a gas station.
But what Loretta wants, Loretta generally gets, if the magnet on her restaurant quality refrigerator in her airy open kitchen, is to be believed: “When Mama ain’t happy, nobody is happy.”
Is it true?
Lynn takes off her rhinestone encrusted reading glasses and gives me a sideways look under her turned up cat’s eyes, and says with a throaty chuckle, “What do you think?”
From the Hills of Kentucky to the Spotlight
The couple didn’t waste much time putting a down payment on the 3,500-acre town. Money wasn’t really an object anymore for the singer who grew up poor in Paintsville, Kentucky. When they found the house Lynn had released two albums that year, I Like ‘Em Country, which soared to No. 2 on the Billboard charts, and the brazenly autobiographical You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man), which topped out at No. 1; the title song became Lynn’s biggest hit up to that point.
With the release of “Ain’t Woman Enough,” Lynn kicked open a door with her white pointed kitten heels and true-to-life lyrics that crackled with female empowerment and righteous indignation — it was something unheard of in country music in those less unenlightened days.
Lynn’s tell-it-like-it-is candor seemed ripped from her own life, and she was using her tumultuous marriage as grist for her songwriting mill
It wouldn’t even be going too far to say that she created a whole genre of music where women didn’t just stand by their man, but stood up to them with songs such as “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your mind),” “Your Squaw Is on the Warparth,” “Rated X,” “Fist City,” and perhaps most revolutionary of all, “The Pill,” which intimated that with birth control, a woman had the same philandering rights as a man and damn that age-old double standard.
Women initially weren’t fans of female country music singers in the early ‘60s, but they began to realize Lynn was telling their stories, taking their side and giving them license to stand up for themselves.
Lynn’s tell-it-like-it-is candor seemed ripped from her own life, and she was using her tumultuous marriage as grist for her songwriting mill. With those songs, she built an immutable bond with her female fans more powerful than the ‘60s feminism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
Poor Doo, he couldn’t get away with nothing. If he did anything, I’d write a song about it and the world knew what he’d been up to. Good thing for most men their wives aren’t songwriters.
While she was forging an unofficial kind of sisterhood with her fans, there were some that clearly didn’t have her interests at heart — the ones who found her coal-mining-moonshine-running-sometimes-mechanic husband irresistible. But Lynn wasn’t beyond letting things come to a physical showdown when she felt she had to protect what she saw as rightfully hers. In “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” she stands up for her integrity and self-respect, while “Fist City” is a little more colorful and corporeal, inspired by a fling Doolittle had with a Tennessee bus driver.
“Did you actually hit someone?” Lynn nods almost imperceptibly, her cat’s eyes narrowing a little and said, “I wish I’d punched her more than once. I still get mad thinking about it, so let’s not talk about it anymore.”
But divorce was never in the cards for Lynn because she truly loved her husband, despite his flaws and shortcomings.
“Poor Doo, he couldn’t get away with nothing,” Lynn says. “If he did anything, I’d write a song about it and the world knew what he’d been up to. Good thing for most men their wives aren’t songwriters.”
Regal Queen of Country
At 83, in her sparkly pink shirt, tight velvet pants, and sequined black house slippers, she is more beautiful than she was when she was first stepped on that Grand Ole Opry stage in her short fringe skirts and cowgirl boots.
A couple people came right up to the door because they seen me out in the hall. They asked where Loretta Lynn was, and I told them she wasn’t here. I think they believed me.
Still as slender as a girl, with a rather enviously curvy figure (“Even after I got rid of those damn implants,” she laughs), she looks more like Sophia Loren than the reigning Queen of Country Music, with her perfectly appointed make up and elegantly teased hair.
When you look at photos of Lynn from the late ‘60s and ‘70s, she’s a hot little number in tight denims, white cowboy boots and John Lennon cap. In person, she is a far cry from how she looks on stage, every inch the proper lady in her Glenda the Good Witch sparkly princess gowns. Sitting across from you, you feel you’re with an old friend.
Which is what draws so many visitors to her ranch — like their favorite soap star, think they know her. While they may come to visit the museum, with its props and sets from The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lynn’s stage costumes, awards and ephemera, or even the Cadillac where she wrote all her hit songs, in the end they come to the Double L, Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch to catch a glimpse of her.
“I hate to exercise,” she laughs. “But even if I wanted to, it’s pretty hard for me to get out and walk because people start following me. They watch the house and if they see that I’m out, they start following me.”
It’s not unusual for someone to come right up to the front door of her home, which is adjacent to the old plantation house where the Lynn’s used to live.
“Yeah, a couple of people came right up to the door because they seen me out in the hall. They asked where Loretta Lynn was, and I told them she wasn’t here.” She laughs. “I think they believed me.”
Secret to Success
A true secret of Loretta Lynn’s enduring success is she is the missing link between the A-list gods of Country Music who reside in their own self-made Valhalla and the common people. She bridges the gap easily, making anyone who comes in contact feel like she’s just like they are.
Why do you think you’re just like your fans?
“Maybe coming from Kentucky has something to do with it. But I think I was born and raised this way. I think I was meant that I would be just plain old me. And I can’t be nothing else. I’ve always told my kids to always be good to people,” Lynn says solemnly. “Nobody is better than anybody else. No matter who they are.”
“My mom never thought the stardom would last,” explains her youngest daughter Patsy Lynn Russell as she walks me through the original Plantation House. “I think that’s why she and dad bought this place. If it all went away tomorrow, they’d still have a working farm. I don’t think she feels any different today about it.”
Which is so much of her appeal, beyond the world class-warble in her pure distinct mountain voice. Or the way her blue eyes crinkle up, when she’s about to deliver an a rather inappropriate line. Or the grin that pulls at the side of her mouth when she realizes you really do see her for who she really is: a shrewd judge of character, with an unerring sense of who and what is right for her.
Kind of like Jack White.
Her unlikely collaboration with White produced 2004’s Van Lear Rose, the finest Loretta Lynn album since 1977’s I Remember Patsy. The record, thoughtful and minimal, brought her to the attention of a whole new demographic and scored two Grammy’s, including Best Country Album.
White, who dedicated the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells to her, pushed Lynn to new heights and emotional depths, urging her to tap into a well of sass and sadness that colored her best works, and giving her the space and graceful platform to grieve Doo, who passed away in 1996.
There are tentative plans for the two close friends to work together in October, but for the past few years she’s been in the studio with long time family friend John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
The two worked together in 2007 on Anchored in Love, the tribute album Cash released in honor of his mother. He asked Lynn to record June’s “Wildwood Flower,” which she happily did. Afterward, Patsy got in touch with Carter Cash and asked if she and her mom could come by his recording studio with an eye to lay down some songs.
At one point I told her, ‘You’re pushing as many decibels today as it did in 1967,’ “Full Circle” producer John Carter Cash says
Some songs turned into over 100. Over the course of the last few years, Lynn has been in and out of Carter Cash’s studio, re-recording some of her earliest hits, and some hill music that never has seen the light of day.
“There was no real objective in our mind,” Patsy says. “We were going to go in and cut all of these songs. But once we were there, my mom kept saying ‘We can’t make this well too deep. While I’m singing, I want to get as much down as we can, because there’s going to come a day when I can’t sing anymore.’ That’s been her thing. She told me ‘When I start sounding bad, I’m gonna quit. I don’t want people to go oh, ‘Bless her heart, she used to sing so good.’ So that’s how this project started.”
“It was fun working together, making this music,” Carter Cash says. “Late in my father’s life, music became his only life’s blood therapy. The music is therapy for Loretta too. She has this strength and this vibrancy at this point. She has this amazing energy and booming voice. At one point I told her, ‘You’re pushing as many decibels today as it did in 1967’.”
“The first one coming out we called Full Circle,” Lynn says, paying no mind to Carter Cash’s compliment. “Then there’ll be a Christmas album and a religious album. I recorded some of the old hill songs that Mommy taught me. She was a great singer herself and she taught me all the songs that she knew that come out of the hills. So I’ve got some of them on this album. I’ve got another album cut of some of the biggest hits that I ever wrote for Decca and you can’t find anymore.”
And she isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon.
“Mom still writes all the time,” Patsy says. “Before we knew it there was almost 100 songs in the studio that we recorded, and we’re back out there in January. She just wants to keep on until she doesn’t want to do it anymore.”
So why do you work so hard? Do you do it from a sense of self- doubt? That you always feel that you need to prove yourself because you didn’t start singing until late and it wasn’t really your idea at all.
“I do. I do,” Lynn says, bobbing her well coiffed head. “It’s funny you’d say that, but I over-worked with everything I did. Everything. You know, I was doing the best I could. But I really believe why I made it was because I did work so hard. I noticed that none of the other girls in Nashville worked that hard. None of ‘em.”
On Full Circle, she has two rather stellar guests. Willie Nelson duets with Loretta on a song she wrote called “Lay Me Down,” and Elvis Costello on a track she wrote called “Everything It Takes.”
Costello had come down to Carter Cash’s studio in 2007 to write a couple of songs with Lynn — two which he has since recorded — “Pardon Me Madam, My Name is Eve” about Adam’s second wife, and “I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came.” While he was there Lynn and Carter Cash asked if he would mind singing with her on one of the tracks for her upcoming album. “I just learnt it that day and sang harmony on it and it was pretty cool,” Lynn says.
“Elvis is a funny guy,” she says. “He told somebody about our writing session. How he brought his computer out and was writing on it, and there I was sitting with a pencil in my hand and a piece of paper. But that was how it was.”
Sometimes the old ways are still the best.