“I’m Not Changing For Nothing”
Are You Ready For Loretta Lynn?
“Are you ready for me?” Loretta Lynn asks.
Then, lickety-split, she supplies the answer along with a teasing laugh.
“You’re not ready for me,” she says.
The 76-year-old country music icon is calling from Nashville, Tennessee, her home for the past 50 years.
But Butcher Holler, Kentucky is still deep in Lynn’s lilting voice and wistful memories.
It’s where she was born, got married at 13, and started having babies with her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. It’s the place she made famous in her song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Later, a book and Hollywood movie made it even more famous.
“I was born in the Depression,” Lynn says. “I don’t know how mommy and daddy made it. You know, 1935 had to be bad. That was hard work in the hills of Kentucky.”
Lynn wrote her first song in 1960, while she and “Doo” and their four children (she later had two more) were living far from Butcher Holler in Washington State, where she worked as a ranch cook.
“Let me tell you, they had no music out there for me to listen to,” Lynn remembers. “They finally started playing country music on a Seattle station for an hour a day. And you were lucky you got to hear it. But I was cooking for 36 ranch hands every day, so I didn’t have time to sing.”
As the story goes, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” was written in 20 minutes on a $17 guitar Doo bought her. Lynn recorded it as a single, with another song she wrote at the same time, “Whispering Sea,” as the B-side. And then she and Doo drove to radio stations all over the country to promote it, with Lynn dressed in a fringed cowgirl suit she made.
“I was amazed that it took off like it did,” Lynn says. “It hit No. 9 across the nation and nobody could get it. It was on that little label, Zero Records. But the DJs played the dickens out of it. And it’s still going today. It’s one of the songs they still holler for at my shows.”
Lynn went on to record 16 No. 1 country singles and win walls full of awards and honors over the course of her career, including a Kennedy Center award in 2003, and two Grammy awards in 2004 for Van Lear Rose, a surprising album collaboration with Jack White.
Last year, she was the subject of a tribute album, Coal Miner’s Daughter, with tracks from the likes of Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, the White Stripes and Lucinda Williams. And the Recording Academy finally granted her its Lifetime Achievement Award.
This year, Lynn is marking 50 years in the music business with a string of concerts that stretch through the summer and take her to venues from Pigeon Forge to Bonnaroo to the Ohio State Fair and back to her own Loretta Lynn Ranch.
Here’s more of a delightfully rambling conversation that touched on various moments in Lynn’s life.
Was it exciting or a little nerve-wracking hearing other people recording new versions of your songs for the Coal Miner’s Daughter tribute?
I thought it was great that so many of them wanted to jump in there and do it. We had to cut it off because everybody was wanting to do it. It was kind of a surprise at first. I thought, “What a deal. People really still love you.” That felt good. Me and Miranda [Lambert] and Sheryl Crow cut the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” down here at the house and the three of us had a great time. I love Miranda. She’s such a country girl. She’s as country as they come. You can’t take that away from her.
You’ve written so many great songs. But I think the thing that people get the biggest kick out of is the way you’ve written things that are so honest and topical and just plain real. I’m thinking of songs like “Don’t Come Home A-Drinking,” “Fist City,” “The Pill,” “Rated X” and even “Dear Uncle Sam.”
The way I write a song is however I feel right then. I’ll sit down with my guitar and a pencil and paper. If I’m sad, I’m going to write a sad song. If I’m happy, there’s a happy song. I’ve got to get back to writing again. I had my knee operated on so I played off sick long enough now. I got to get back to writing. I’d rather write than sing.
You’re so sweet but you’re obviously pretty tough, too. Where did that tough side come from?
You have to be tough. It probably came from my mommy. She had to be tough to have all these kids and take care of them in the hills of Kentucky. I was thinking about this during the tornadoes. I could almost hear mommy out hollerin’ and gatherin’ all the kids in, cause it was a comin’ a storm. She’d gather us all in.
Those were some scary storms, recently…
Don’t you think the weather has changed tremendously? It’s scary because it’s not just that way in one state, it’s going all over. It’s awful. That pastor who said the end of time was going to be on that Saturday, I’ll bet he thought he was right when he saw those storms. But the Bible says not even the angels in heaven know when the time is going to come. Only God knows the day. That pastor needs to go back to his Bible.
Are you still cooking?
Oh yeah. What did I cook the other night? I cooked big pot of beans. I was just hungry for beans. And I made some corn bread and fried potatoes. It’s country cooking from the South.
You’d been on the Opry and had a string of hits but the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” book and movie made you a much bigger, more mainstream star. What was that period like for you?
They found out who I was. It was probably rough for me, too, because I hadn’t met everybody in Hollywood. The William Morris agents, you know, that’s all Hollywood stuff. But I didn’t let that sway me. I kept thinking the way I’d always thought and didn’t let Hollywood creep in too much. I think that could hurt a person.
It seems like Sissy Spacek is pretty nice person, though.
Sissy is as country as corn bread. That helped. But she spent a whole year with it. It’d liked to kill me cause I was working every night of the week and then having to spend ’til four in the morning teaching her how to play the guitar and sing. I lost a lot of weight and I was only getting four hours of sleep a night. And if I was in Vegas I was playing two shows a night.
Did you like the movie?
I did. I love Sissy. And it worked out for her. But there’s only so much they could do. How can you get your whole life in a two-hour movie? I knew exactly what was left out. You know my daddy died at 51 years old, so I wish he could have lived to see me sing. The only time he heard me sing was when I’d be rocking the babies to sleep. He’d come out on the porch and he’d say, “Loretta, would you keep that big mouth shut. Everyone in this Holler can hear you.” And I’d say, “Daddy what difference does it make, cause everybody up here is our cousins anyway.”
You’ve talked about what a hard time you had after your husband Doo died. Did you ever think of just quitting the music business at that point?
After he passed away, I just said, what else is there? I’m just gonna stay on the road. If I quit, what would I do? Sit around and worry? I sold my houses over in Hawaii. I had two houses and four acres on the beach. You kind of go nutty after someone passes away. And I sold a lot of things. That’s really what you’re not supposed to do.
You didn’t want to start playing golf, like Willie?
I love to play golf, too. I never played until I moved to Hawaii. Me and a lady over there got to playing. And, shoot, I didn’t see anything so hard about it. I just picked it up and started hitting that ball. I haven’t played with Willie. But if he wants to play a game, I’ll play with him. I wouldn’t be afraid to play golf with him. I wonder what poor old Tiger Woods is thinking right now. He’s not doing too good, is he?
Picturing you on the golf course in one your long gowns is even more unlikely than your collaboration with Jack White…
Jack White is one of the sweetest, nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. He’s such a good kid. He moved to Nashville, you know. He and his wife and kids are supposed to come down and eat with me one night. I’m going to fix them some chicken and dumplings. Me and him was together the other night and I said, “Do you think we’ll ever win another Grammy?” And he said, “We will if you’ll ever get back in the studio with me.”
You’ve always had your hardcore fans but now you have lots of younger fans, too. Is that cool?
It is cool. I work these college places and they’re packed. And they want to hear hardcore country.
I think fans of all ages have always liked those duets you did with Conway Twitty…
I loved Conway. He was a great singer and a great person. We had 12 albums together. But I don’t think country music really done him right. They never put him on the Grand Old Opry. And they didn’t recognize him like they should have. It’s just too bad that he’s gone.
Will you do anything different for the crowd at Bonnaroo?
I’ve never played Bonnaroo before. But it will be the same show. I don’t change for nobody. If I had to change, that’s when I would quit. That’s when I’d walk of the stage and say it’s over. I’m not changing for nothing. They’ll get what I do at Bonnaroo just like they do everywhere else.