By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Years before Loretta Lynn finally signed with Audium/Koch and began recording Still Country, her first album in more than a decade, a series of personal tragedies had left her reeling. First, her son Jack drowned. Then her husband of almost 50 years, Oliver Mooney "Doolittle" Lynn, passed away. Soon after, her older brother and then her younger brother died. And former musical partner Conway Twitty died as well. These are all very good reasons why Loretta Lynn--who claims she's never wanted to do anything but sing--stopped writing and performing for more than a decade.
"We looked at each other and got scared," Lynn says, referring to her remaining family and friends. "Who would be next? That's why, when I care about somebody, I always tell 'em, 'I love you,' before I leave 'em. And sometimes it's just if I have a good time with somebody, if they make me laugh, I'll tell 'em. They'll look at me strange. But I don't know if I'll see 'em again."
These days, Lynn is joyous to see her shows sell out, as most of the dates on her current tour have. But Lynn the businesswoman had to stand tall where today's major-label country fools stumbled. MCA, her longtime label, didn't want to sign another deal in an era where the youth audience rules country as much as it does on the dance and pop charts. Financially secure and determined to be selective, Loretta doesn't give a shit about ruling the charts, as she did 30 years ago. Her next album, she swears, will include pure honky tonk songs, including one randy number about a lover's forceful touch called "Don't Rescue Me" (just cause "he's got his hands all over me").
These days, she sounds just as playful. On the phone, Lynn utterly lacks PR polish, exuding a mercurial interest in the right-now rather than the publicity at hand. She doesn't wait for you to ask questions about Still Country, her return to the studio after an arduous 12-year absence, and sometimes skips right over them when you do. Instead, her East Kentucky slur charges forward cheerfully with a question: How is the weather in Dallas?
It's practical: Last year, Lynn tumbled down a staircase and injured her knee. She still hasn't shaken the injury; recently in St. Petersburg, Florida, she performed before thousands of fans while seated in a green lawn chair pushed right up to the edge of the stage for the entire 90-minute set. When the weather's chilly, her knee hurts more. This isn't a complaint, nor a warning of any upcoming cancellations in her first major tour in well over a decade. "The only problem'll be with me," twangs Lynn, who eschews prescription painkillers for Tylenol.
"[Back in Butcher's Hollow], my mama told us to chew the soft branches from the willow trees when we hurt ourselves," Lynn free-associates. "She was half-Cherokee and half-Irish, and daddy was half-Cherokee and half-Irish. Later on, I found out it was the same stuff they put in Tylenol. And when I used to eat green apples, I'd get a stomach full of worms; I was a wormy girl. Momma fed us a tablespoon of sugar with three drops of turpentine [to kill the worms]. I collected all her remedies, but the publisher said if somebody accidentally died after they took one, they'd sue me for everything I got."
The 66-year-old Loretta Lynn enjoys a position of popular appeal and artistic freedom for reasons you can find in that home-remedy story. Nor has she ever abandoned the clear-eyed hillbilly soul that occasionally affronts country-music impresarios, who talk down-home but expect a modicum of what Lynn calls "up-town" sophistication from their major artists, lest potential consumers be turned off. Unlike her much-missed friend and mentor Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn didn't appeal instantly to mainstream fans of soul and pop. But Lynn did enchant early purists who understood why a woman with such a sensual, slow-step rhythmic way with lyrics would pause to pronounce "wire" as "war" and "pair" as "par." Longtime fans have noted two phases in her long career: earnest as a girl singer-songwriter, honest as a woman musician.
"I've always sung about true life," Lynn says. "And sometimes, they couldn't stand that. But tell me, when was the last time you remembered that fantasy song that was a hit 10 or 15 years ago?" In the same breath, she declares, "I like most of the female singers in country today. I love to hear Martina [McBride] sing. But when I watch the videos, I think, 'That's too extreme for country, and they know it.' You never woulda caught me kicking around naked underneath a sheet in a video. I love Faith [Hill], but I could kick her hind end for that video ['Breathe']. She had short hair before, and suddenly, she had long hair."
Lynn has scored 51 Top 10 singles (half of them sailing to No. 1) with precisely the kind of unscrubbed persona that'd be moussed to within an inch of its life were she to enter the industry today as a young woman. But the brains behind that beautiful mountain-woman face have always been all-business. As she chronicled in her best-seller Coal Miner's Daughter and the Sissy Spacek flick that turned non-country fans into devotees, her husband didn't only buy Loretta her first acoustic guitar (for $17 from Sears), but chaperoned her through the music-business shark tank. He saw to it that she formed and controlled her own publishing company, helping her retain her royalties. Doolittle, who died five years ago, also sat back as an increasingly fearless Loretta racked up self-penned hits through the '60s and '70s that chronicled his drinking and womanizing--among them, "You Ain't Woman Enough," "Don't Come Home Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)," "Fist City," and "Your Squaw's On the War Path."