hit songs and hard losses, Loretta Lynn has retained her distinctive voice
Loretta Lynn wasn’t ready for retirement when her husband Mooney took sick eight years ago. Not by a long shot. She had just recorded the Honky Tonk Angels album with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. She also was working on the sequel to her best-selling autobiography, playing loads of road dates, and getting ready to make a new album of her own. But then her husband started having heart problems. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1992, at which time doctors also discovered he was diabetic, a condition that caused him to have both of his feet amputated and, eventually, both of his legs up to his knees.
The Lynns had known their share of hard times, many of them brought on by Mooney’s bouts with drinking, jealousy, and insecurity. But they also were fiercely loyal to each other. Faced with what seemed life’s ultimate challenge, Loretta did the only thing she could do: She took to Mooney’s bedside, where she nursed him for four years until he died of congestive heart failure in August 1996.
Watching her husband wither away was agonizing enough, but it would prove to be just one of several shattering losses Loretta would suffer during this period. Her son, two of her brothers, and her dear friend and longtime duet partner Conway Twitty all would die while Mooney was slipping away.
“I just got numb,” Lynn explains, dressed in jeans and a plaid Western shirt, sitting in her manager’s office near the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. “Three days after my husband died, I left Hurricane Mills and come to Nashville. After bein’ here awhile, I said to a friend of mine, ‘It seems like I been here a couple months already.’ And she said, ‘You been here a year.’ That’s when I knew I’d flipped out,” she says, laughing. “Of course I wasn’t gonna admit it to anyone, but that’s when I knew I’d lost track of time.”
Meanwhile, two more people in Lynn’s inner circle died: Owen Bradley, her mentor and the producer of her six dozen or so chart hits, and close friend and contemporary Tammy Wynette. It was only then that Lynn realized that if she didn’t get out of the house she would risk withering away herself. “I called Lane [Cross], my manager, and said, ‘Get me out of here! Get me out on the road!’ And I ain’t stopped since. Of course you never get over losin’ people like that. You just learn to live with it. But I think it helps if you stay busy.”
This pluck, this resilience in the face of hardship, has been one of the hallmarks of Loretta Lynn’s life and career, a Cinderella story that began in the harsh coal-mining country of Eastern Kentucky and saw her go on to become one of the greatest songwriters and recording artists in country music history. In the process she also became a cultural icon, an avatar of hillbilly pride anddespite the fact that she won’t wear the mantleof working-class feminism.
Much of Lynn’s story is widely known. Her marriage at age 13, the way she started having babies when she was still a baby, her rise to stardom, her ups and downs with Mooney: All have been chronicled in her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and in the Oscar-winning biopic of the same name. Recently, however, the Country Music Hall of Famer revisited some of these events in light of what she’s been through while out of the limelight these past few years. Not surprisingly, her epic, 48-year marriage to Mooney figured prominently in the conversation, just as it does in the songs on Still Country, her new album for Audium Records.
Still Country is a fairly down-home-sounding affair, what with Stuart Duncan on fiddle, banjoist Earl Scruggs on one track, and Lloyd Maines tearing things up on steel guitar. But as with Lynn’s classic work with Owen Bradley, the record also evinces considerable stylistic reach, from the contemporary pop-country of “Working Girl” to the banjo-and-fiddle romp of “God’s Country.” Loretta is in fine, if somewhat weathered, voice throughout, the album’s main drawbacks being a couple or three sub-par songs and Randy Scruggs’ at times clinical production.
Mooney’s ghost haunts the record, showing up directly or indirectly in a number of songs, among them the sobbing “Table for Two.” “I think of you and cry like a baby / At a table for two, party of one,” Loretta wails while Maines’ steel blubbers away behind her. “On My Own Again” confronts Mooney’s absence as well. “Oh sometimes I feel so sad inside / Sometimes I’m angry too, yeah,” she admits. “If I could only bring him back he’d know just what to do.”
But nowhere is the void left by Mooney’s death felt more than in “I Can’t Hear the Music,” a song cowritten by Lynn after a wrenching discovery she made during the couple’s final month together. “Shortly before Doo passed away, he told me he couldn’t hear the music anymore,” she explains. (“Doo,” which is short for “Doolittle,” is what Lynn always called her husband.) “At first I thought he just didn’t want to hear music any longer, but it got to where he really couldn’t hear it anymore. So I took him, two weeks before he passed away, and got him some little tiny hearing aids.
“I cried the whole time we were recordin’ that song,” Lynn says. “To get my mind off my lines”which find her longing to hear the sound of Mooney’s voice“Randy [Scruggs] told me to think of something I really wanted. Well, I hadn’t eaten all day, and I thought, ‘A Snickers candy bar.’ I told myself that I’d get that Snickers candy bar as soon as I got through with the chorus. So I kept my mind on that candy bar, and if you listen to me hit that last chorus, you’ll hear that I come in more solid than I did on the first one.”
That final chorus goes like this: “Oh each word is like a note, like a beautiful tune / The kind that inspires and helps you get through / Oh if I said ‘I can’t,’ he’d say ‘You can’ / He was my toughest critic, oh, and my biggest fan / Now he’s gone to a distant shore and I can’t hear the music anymore.” On paper, these lines might look like a bunch of Music Row ready-mades, but you won’t think so after hearing Loretta’s gasp-inducing sob as she summons the nerve to utter them.
Though he pained her plenty during their many years together, Mooney had been Loretta’s greatest source of encouragement ever since the couple left rural Kentucky for Washington State in the late 1950s. Knocked out by how well she sang while doing chores around the house, he bought her her first guitar. He also started bringing home copies of Country Song Roundup, a popular magazine that included the words and chords to many of the latest jukebox hits. It wouldn’t be long, though, before Loretta was writing her own material, an undertaking made all the more remarkable by the fact that there weren’t any female country songwriters to serve as role models for her back then.
“I didn’t know any songs, and you didn’t hear much country music out where we lived, at least not at that time,” she explains. “There was a little station in Seattle that played 30 minutes of country music on Saturday, but we couldn’t get it from where we were [in Custer, Wash.]. So when Doo brought me the songbook, I looked at it and I thought, ‘Well, anybody can do that. I’ve been rhymin’ lines ever since I was a little girl.’ In fact, the first spankin’ Doo ever give me was for rhymin’ a line that I shouldn’ta rhymed: [blank] and door. And you know what rhymes with door. Oh I’d heard the word, but I didn’t know what it meant. That was the next morning after I got married, and here Doo’d already broken his promise to my daddy that he’d never spank me.”
As this anecdote suggests, while often supportive, Mooney’s relationship with Loretta also at times took on an odd, even abusive, cast: More than just her husband, he was something of a father figure to her as well. Loretta’s dependency on Mooney, and his control of her, didn’t stop there, though. He also managed her budding singing career, dragging her out to sing in honky-tonks and at radio stations, a role that further clouded the nature of a relationship that soon would provide fodder for Loretta’s indelible, three-minute morality plays.
“You Ain’t Woman Enough,” for example, was based on her encounter with a would-be rival she caught Mooney cozying up to one night. And the impetus for “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” were those times when Mooney, fresh from a night out boozing with the boys, would stumble in expecting Loretta to roll over for a tumble in the sheets. By the time she and her sister Peggy Sue wrote “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’,” Loretta, then a mother of sixand, at 29, a grandmother!had had enough. “You never take me anywhere,” she griped in her feistiest back-holler drawl. Love without tenderness and a certain give-and-take, she was saying, was no love at all.
“Doo would always try to figure out which line was for him, and 90 percent of the time every line in there was for him,” Lynn says, cracking a smile. “But usually I’d say, ‘Maybe one line was for you, honey.’ He never knew that all of ’em was. Those songs was true to life. We fought hard and we loved hard. I never knew what I was comin’ home to. I didn’t know if I was comin’ home to fightin’ or what. It was pretty rough. Doo drank a lot. There was a lot of times I’d have rather not come home. And if it hadn’t have been for my babies I wouldn’t have.
“Back when I started singing, Doo said, ‘You can sing for two years and we’ll buy us a new home and we’ll get out of the business.’ Why, two years from the time I started singin’, I was eatin’ one hamburger a day on the road. I remember how hard it was. I rode in a carmy little brother [Jay Lee], the one I just lost, drove me when I got my first little band together. I rode in that car for eight years and slept sittin’ up, but we hit them clubs every night. One a night. Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, they put me in the clubs. They fed my kids.”
Meanwhile, success, or at least at this point the pursuit of it, had made something of a failure of the Lynn’s homea turn of events foreshadowed by the lyrics of “Success,” her first hit for Decca.
Stories of Lynn’s willingness to stand up to her husband, her refusal to take guff from him or anyone, are legion, but to hear her tell it, it wasn’t until she moved to Nashville in the early ’60s and fell in with Patsy Cline that Loretta started getting tougher. “After I met Patsy, life got better for me because I fought back,” she explains. “Before that, I just took it. I had to. I was 3,000 miles away from my mom and dad and had four little kids. There was nothin’ I could do about it. But later on I starting speakin’ my mind when things weren’t right.”
On occasion she did more than just talk. Once while out touring with Cline, Lorettawho was then being managed by the Wilburn Brotherswore makeup onstage against Mooney’s wishes. When he dressed her down for it, she bucked back and the coupled exchanged blows.
It was no coincidence that Lynn’s growing assertiveness coincided with the first stirrings of the Women’s Movement: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out just as Loretta’s career was taking off, and the National Organization for Women came into being three years later, right as “Don’t Come A-Drinkin’ ” was climbing to the top of the country charts.
Lynn has always rejected the feminist tag in interviews. (She once nodded off while sharing a couch with, and listening to, Friedan on The David Frost Show.) Yet there’s no denying that many of her records tapped the heady spirit of the early Women’s Movement, notably that of her working-class sisters who played such a crucial, if unsung, role in its development. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a roomful of sociologists saying as much about issues of class and gender as Lynn does in her 1971 chart-topper “One’s on the Way,” and with such a righteous mix of vinegar, humor, and economy to boot.
The alternately biting and playful licks with which guitarist Grady Martin and steel player Hal Rugg open the record set an appropriately tragicomic tone. Pregnant and bewildered at the sight of kids crawling the walls and housework piling up, Lynn is laughing in the face of hardship, but she’s also mad as hell. First she bemoans the way that glamour gals like Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis are free to jet around the globe while she’s stuck in Topeka, where, among other things, the screen door’s slamming, the faucet’s dripping, the baby’s crying, and the wash needs hanging.
But it’s more than just the disparity between her domestic servitude and Liz and Jackie’s champagne-and-caviar lives that’s oppressing Loretta. Her husband’s just phoned from a bar to announcesurprise!that he’s bringing some old Army buddies to dinner. Adding insult to injury, he doesn’t even bother to ask if he can pick up anything from the market on his way home. And then there’s the mix of guilt and outrage Loretta feels when she turns on the TV and sees all those “girls in New York City,” doubtless free of the drudgery she shoulders, marching “for women’s lib.” It wasn’t like holding a rally was going to scrub the floor for her, and that new pill they were pushing wasn’t going to do anything about the baby that was already on the way.
The fact that Lynn was a big star when she recorded “One’s on the Way”and that it was written by a man, Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein, no lessin no way undermines the song’s nascent working-class feminism. Loretta knew the harried life she laments here only too well. She’d earned the right to sing “One’s on the Way,” all right, and its message wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband and kids, or even appreciate the aims of the Women’s Movement, but that she was sick and tired of trying to be all things to all people.
Lynn’s sexual politics took a more proactive turn with “The Pill,” a song she recorded around the same time that “One’s on the Way” was released. Perhaps out of fear that its plug for the reproductive rights of women would rankle male radio programmers, though, her record label didn’t release the single until 1975. It’s easy to see why: Rather than just fending off a licentious lover, Lynn is seizing control in the bedroom. Bemoaning all those years she had to sit home with the kids while her man was out running wild, she tells him, “There’s gonna be some changes made, right here on nursery hill / You’ve set this chicken your last time, ’cause now I’ve got the pill.”
As might be expected, the record bred loads of discord when it came out, most notably among Bible-thumpers. “When I did ‘The Pill’ I didn’t realize it was gonna be such a big deal because everybody was takin’ the pill,” Lynn remembers. “Everybody, that is, except me, and I had the kids to prove it,” she laughs. “Every woman I talked to was takin’ the pill. So they would preach about the record on Sunday and the women would go out on Monday and buy it. I tell you, it was those women who made it a hit. They went out and bought the record to see what I had to say because a preacher had told ’em what a bad thing I’d done. But it wasn’t bad at all. It was just about the pill.”
True enough, but doubtless what riled up right-wingers was how “The Pill” found Loretta exulting not just in her new freedom from raising babies, but in the prospect of having worry-free sexand enjoying it. Of course, as Lynn admits in Coal Miner’s Daughter, she didn’t start taking the pill until after Mooney got “clipped” (her term for his vasectomy), and then just to regulate her periods. But when she clucks, “The feeling good comes easy now,” you can bet she knew the release of which she sings, and you can bet that it was the abandon in her voice here that set so many of those preachers on edge.
Lynn’s records never shied away from issues of sexuality, as any number of her duets with Conway Twitty attest. These recordsas well as those pairing contemporaries George Jones and Tammy Wynette or Porter Wagoner and Dolly Partonweren’t just cross-promotional ploys like the dreaded “vocal event” is today. Rather, they were a chance to expand country’s sonic and emotional palette, and on “After the Fire is Gone,” Conway and Loretta’s first No. 1 together, things certainly got steamy enough, giving rise to speculation as to whether or not art indeed imitated life.
The word on Conway and Loretta has always been that they were just friends, albeit close enough friends to make Mooney jealous from time to time, and to prompt Conway’s fans to blame Loretta for the breakup of his first marriage. If any one of their dozen or so hits gave listeners reason to believe the rumor was true, it had to be “Lead Me On,” a smoldering ember that could very well have had the two singers wondering themselves.
The record starts tentatively, as do most of Twitty’s records, leaving plenty of room for crescendo and climax. As he comes in, promising that he’d never lead Lynn on or cause her to cheat, you’d hardly suspect things could go anywhere at all. They start heating up, though, when Loretta enters, her anxious tremolo telling Conway he’ll have to help her if she’s going to cross over. With Tommy Markham’s drums and Harold Bradley’s bass pounding in her breast, it’s as if she hasn’t heard him pledge that he won’t let things get out of hand. “Lead me on and take con-TROL of how I feel / I can’t do this on my own ’cause it’s against my will,” Loretta moans on the first chorus. Then, as John Hughey’s steel fans the flames, Conway echoes her desire in a burning croon and they breathlessly repeat the swelling chorus, redoubling their resolve to lead each other on.
“Those records got pretty feisty, didn’t they,” Lynn admits. “You know, I didn’t realize that till Doo was sick and I said, ‘I wanna put that Conway Twitty album on, honey, do you care?’ And he said, ‘No,’ ’cause Doo loved Conway and Conway loved Doo. So I put that album on, and I looked over at Doo when it got through, and I said, ‘If that ain’t the dirtiest album I’ve ever heard.’ And Doo said, ‘Tell me about it.’ ” She cracks up. “That’s all he had to say. ‘Tell me about it.’ So I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me these songs was that dirty?’ And he said, ‘You oughta been able to hear.’ ”
Lynn says that sometimes when she and Twitty felt a little bashful about the heat their duets generated, they would resort to humor to diffuse the tension. “I remember one time when we were singin’ ‘Lead Me On’ together,” she says. “I was wearin’ a dress and had hot pants on underneath. The hot pants and the top was together [in one piece]. A long skirt come over them and had Velcro on it. Well Conway, he didn’t know I had these hot pants on underneath that skirt. So he was up there singin’, and when it came to my part, I stepped up and I went “Lead me on,” and I jerked that skirt right off and threw it across the stage. Conway turned red and headed for the wings. He got enough nerve up to come back a few minutes later, but only after I had to go offstage and get him.
“Conway loved to sing. He was one of the greatest. I can’t tell you how much I miss him.”
But as much as Lynn misses Twittyor, for that matter, her other loved ones who’ve died recentlyno one’s absence has left a greater void in her life than her husband’s. “Somebody asked me how hard it was, and I said it was harder to lose him than it was to be sittin’ beside his bed, because at least I’d be doin’ everything I could, you know,” she explains. “But when God takes a notion to take someone, believe me, you’re gonna find out then that God don’t ever give you nothin’. Nothin’. He loans everything to you, just for a time, ’cause he’s gonna take it. He’s taken one of my boys, he’s taken Doo, he’s taken two of my brothers, and I mean way before they got to live.
“Me and Doo was always hopin’ that I would slow down, and we were gettin’ to the place where we were doin’ that. In fact, we’d taken two trips out West in our motor home before he got real, real sick. The last trip, his feet had gotten so bad that he couldn’t get out and hook up and go in and pay the bill for the place where we’d parked. So I did it and it just tickled him to death that I was doin’ that for him, you know. He’d just look at me and smile, and that smile was worth the whole trip, you know.”
The same, it seems, was true of the Lynns’ life togethera life that informed Loretta’s art so profoundly that the two were often indistinguishable. “We had a lot of hard times,” she admits. “But the thing of it was I still loved Doo, and that’s the main thing. If he was here today I’d be sittin’ by his bed right now.”
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