ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
Loretta Lynn was leaning in, pushing back, and doubling down decades before folks who use such phrases were in short pants. By the time she released her best-selling memoir, Coal Miner’s Daughter, in 1976, the Kentucky-born singer had released 29 albums, charted several hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and penned a dozen-odd songs whose titles are still quoted from barstools everywhere: “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and the homewrecker warning “Fist City” (“I’m here to tell you gal to lay off my man, if you don’t want to go to Fist City”), which The A.V. Club called the “single greatest song title of all time.” It’s no coincidence that Lynn did most of these things while working full-time, keeping house, and raising six kids.
This month, Lynn, who turns 88 on April 14, releases another memoir, Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust, about her formative friendship with fellow country pioneer Patsy Cline. Despite the powerful scenes and juicy details woven throughout, the deepest impression the book leaves is just how hard these women had to work for their spotlight. Lynn recalls her come-to-Jesus moment being Cline’s national TV debut on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which Lynn caught with her husband, kids, and a few friends who came by to sit on their bare wood floor and watch on the leased black-and-white TV she paid for by working at a dairy farm. “I cleaned, washed, ironed, and cooked for the 36 ranch hands,” she writes. When Cline sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” Lynn continues, “I felt real proud of her somehow, like we were connected.” That’s because Lynn, after nearly 10 years of marriage, with four kids, had also begun making music. Three years later, she was singing her own hits at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where she met Cline and kicked off a brief (Cline died in 1963) yet life-changing friendship. When the call to Hemispheres comes through from Lynn’s home in Tennessee, it’s Patsy—Lynn’s 55-year-old daughter—who first says hi, then: “I’m going to put Mom on the phone for you.”
Hi, Loretta Lynn! It’s so nice to talk to you!
Well, y’all were doing good until you got me on the telephone.
Uh-oh. Best get into it.
You met Patsy Cline shortly after finding your own success in Nashville, but it was tragedy that brought you together. You were singing on the radio after news of her near-fatal car accident shook Nashville.
That’s right. I was performing live on air from Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop. Patsy meant so much to me that I decided to sing a song to her.
[Laughs.] Out of all songs, I sang her song, “I Fall to Pieces.” Just think about that: “I fall to pieces”—her just having been in a car accident. You know, I was young. I didn’t know any better.
Sounds like she took it well. She requested that you make a hospital visit. A strange way to meet your idol.
It was, and it wasn’t. When I walked in the room, I could see that she was in pain. Her leg was fixed to the ceiling, and she was all wrapped up—I mean, her head was all bandaged up, she was quite a sight—and when I saw her I began hurting myself. But she just said, “Well, sit down,” and I sat down, and we just began talking. Just like we’d been friends forever.
This after first seeing her thousands of miles away on TV.
It was all TV, because I lived out in the state of Washington. If I heard anything or seen anything, it had to be on TV, because I had my kids, and I was homebound. You know, I didn’t get to go nowhere, so I seen it on TV.
In the book, it almost sounds as if you and Patsy were each a big sister to the other.
It’s strange, but we were like that from the start. Right from when I met her, we were so close it felt like we were sisters, even though we’d just met. We just loved each other.
You had a lot in common: poor backgrounds, forced to grow up way too soon. You were married and having babies when you were barely old enough to drive.
I think we were little girls together. I think we grew up together—didn’t even know each other, but we grew up together.
It sounds like empathy was crucial to your songwriting from the beginning.
It was. My first song, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” came from a lady who used to come out to the little place where I was working and singing at nighttime. She had … I forget how many kids, but her husband had left her, and she’d cry. Sit and cry all the time, and she told me her story, and I wrote the song about her. The people in the songs have to come alive or else the song’s no good. If you can’t sing it to make other people believe it, the song is no good. I wrote “Honky Tonk Girl” and “Whispering Sea.” Then I wrote the whole Zero [Records] album. I was by myself, and I was 3,000 miles away from country music.
Yet you cracked the code. What’s the first step in writing a song?
I usually remember the title. If I think of a good title, then I remember it, and when I get in my room, that’s what I write. The one I just got through writing is called “Last Call for Alcohol.” “Wake up and walk home, because you’re too drunk to drive.” Drinking songs. You know, it’s country. It’s a lyin’, cheatin’, honky-tonkin’, whiskey-drinkin’ music.
Your songs also came straight from a blue-collar woman’s experience. Lying, cheating, and drinking, yes, but also facing double standards (“Rated ‘X’”), becoming a war widow (“Dear Uncle Sam”), enduring repeated pregnancies (“One’s on the Way”), and discovering birth control (“The Pill”). How did you make your songs so universal?
Whatever I’m feeling right at the moment is how I write. And no matter who I write about, I’m in that song. I write every song about myself.
What else do you need to write?
Well, quiet. But I never had that when I was starting out. I just imagined myself being alone when I was writing, since my kids were right there in the other room. See, I had to know where they were at and had to hear them half the time. One time, I was cooking and cleaning up in the kitchen while Jack, Betty, Ernest, and Cissie were sitting out in the yard playing in a little pile of dirt. And I heard Cissie start to cry, and then I heard little Ernest Ray say, “Step aside, little girl”—he never could talk plain—“and I’ll kill it with me bare hands!” I said, “Oh my God! It has to be a snake!” And I run out there, fell on the porch like to kill myself and get out in the yard, and he’s holding this little ol’ earthworm. “Step aside, little girl, and I’ll kill it with these bare hands!” I coulda killed him.
That’s not the kind of scene people expect when they hear “Grammy-winning
singer-songwriter.” But you didn’t think you were a singer, either.
No. But [my husband] Doo would come in and catch me rocking the babies to sleep, singing “White Christmas” or something like that to them, you know? And he just thought I could sing good, and he said, “I want people to hear you, because you are a good singer.” But growing up in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, we all—everybody in my family—sang, and none of us thought we were good. We just sang. It was just something everybody did.
In the book, you write that Patsy sang best when she was a little mad, but she has one of the friendliest voices in pop music.
Well, yes, but it’s a powerful voice. And Patsy mostly got mad knowing that there was a little something that she wanted to do and didn’t get to. When she’d get mad like that, then she could really sing.
Did she really record “Crazy” in one take? Just physically, that’s a major feat.
She did. And she did “She’s Got You” like that, too. Patsy didn’t have to go over her songs a dozen times. She just sung them through.
And she had cracked ribs on “Crazy.” You both sound like superheroes.
Well, you do what you have to do. When you’re trying to make it, that’s the way it is. And that’s what she was trying to do. We were just getting going, trying to make it. We were just trying to get another spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Get work somewhere. Make a little money to buy groceries with. We weren’t trying to make it as a star. We were just trying to make a living.
Your book begins with you sitting alone with Patsy’s body at her home, after her death. Feeling a chill, you say, “Dadgum, it’s cold in here!” and then you hear Patsy’s voice: “Well, turn on the damn heat!” From then on, you always felt Patsy was still with you.
That’s true. Did I ever tell you about the time that I first worked in Vegas? I was on stage, and I thought, “Oh, gosh, Patsy, you’re not here.” And Patsy had been gone for a long time. And I looked up when I started to sing, and Patsy was sitting, squatted down in her little red elastic pants—or whatever kind of pants that you would call them—and her little gold boots, and she was looking at me, and I thought, “You’re here. I’ll make it.” She was with me.
When did you last speak with her?
Oh, I talk with her all the time.
BY THE NUMBERS
Studio albums Lynn has recorded
Rank of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” on the National Endowment for the Arts and Recording Industry Association of America’s Songs of the Century list
Oscar nominations for the 1980 bio Coal Miner’s Daughter (Sissy Spacek won Best Actress for her portrayal of Lynn)
Year Lynn became the first woman to be named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year
Year Lynn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Songs, by Lynn’s count, that have been banned from country radio, including the 1975 ode to birth control “The Pill”
Price of her first guitar, a Harmony