Songwriter Interviews

Loretta Lynn

by Roger Catlin

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Loretta Lynn, the First Lady of Country Music, has been singing professionally for more than 60 years and recording since 1960. Most of her biggest hits have been her own autobiographical tales of growing up in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, or outspoken singles "(The Pill," "Fist City") that broke new ground in country. After recording an album (Van Lear Rose) and touring with Jack White in 2004, she's back at age 83 with, Full Circle, which features a surprise appearance by Willie Nelson - at least it was a surprise to Lynn, as she explains.

Lynn, who is the subject of a public television American Masters special ("Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl"), spoke with us about songwriting, her famous gowns, and the reaction to groundbreaking songs like "The Pill" and "One's on the Way."
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): Ms. Lynn, I'm pleased to hear that you have a new album coming out. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Loretta Lynn: Yes, I got a new album coming out on Sony, and it will be out the 4th of March. I'm waiting for it.

Songfacts: Is Jack White producing it again?

Loretta: Johnny Cash produced it - Johnny Cash's son [John Carter Cash], he produced it, and my daughter [Patsy Lynn Russell].

Songfacts: Are you going to be touring as well?

Loretta: Oh, honey, I ain't never stopped touring. I work all the time. I couldn't sit down and quit working if I wanted to.

Songfacts: You're redoing some of your oldest songs, such as "Whispering Sea," the first song you ever wrote, and "Fist City." Some artists do that in order to get mechanical rights of the recording. Is that the reason you're doing it, or what made you revisit some of these songs?

Loretta: Well, I've got a whole house full of kids and grandkids, and I'm doing a lot of this for them. Of course, I ain't going nowhere for a long time. I feel good. I feel great. I thank God every day that I'm in good condition.

I've never drank or smoked, you know. Never mistreated my body in any way, so I'm in great shape.

Songfacts: I understand you're playing South by Southwest music festival this month as well.

Loretta: Right.

Songfacts: Have you ever gone to that before?

Loretta: Yes, I have. It's been a while.

Songfacts: It must be gratifying to have a lot of young people coming to your shows.

Loretta: You know, at times there will be middle-aged people, and there will be quite a few older people. But mostly my crowds are mixed, and they're from 3 years old to 90. And I treat them all the same because all of us knows how old I am, and we all get together and talk about our age. Even onstage, we holler backwards and forwards, "Well, you ain't as old as I am," and blah, blah, blah. So we have a good time with every show.

There's nothing to be ashamed of. Your age sure ain't nothing to be ashamed of.

Loretta Lynn is one of country's great unsung female songwriters. Asked about her process at the TV Critics Association winter press tour, she said what inspires her is "usually something that I'm going through that day, or that week, or that month, or somebody that I know that's going through that problem. Like, when I wrote 'You Ain't Woman Enough [to Take My Man],' this little woman come backstage, and she said, 'Loretta, my husband didn't bring me to the show tonight.' She said, 'He's got a girlfriend, and he brought her. She's sitting out in that second row with my husband.' And we kind of pulled the curtain back and looked at him. I looked around at that lady that came backstage, and I said, 'Honey, she ain't woman enough to take your man.' I went in the dressing room right then and wrote that song before the show ever started."

It became the title song of her 1966 album and was recorded by many others in subsequent years, from Martina McBride and the Grateful Dead to Paramore.
Songfacts: I wonder if you could talk about writing some of your songs like "Fist City," or maybe "The Pill." That seemed like such a big song at the time.

Loretta: Yeah. "The Pill," and "One's on the Way." They were the ones that really gave me a rough time. And I didn't understand that, because everybody was taking the pill. I didn't have the money to take it when they put it out, but I couldn't understand why they were raising such a fuss over taking the pill.

"One's On The Way" was written by Shel Silverstein, best known for his books Where The Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree, but also a very clever songwriter. He also wrote the Johnny Cash classic "A Boy Named Sue."
And with "One's on the Way," I thought everybody had a baby. I sure did. I didn't think anybody else was too good to.

Songfacts: How was that reaction? I mean, did radio stations not play it, or what kind of negative reaction did you get to those songs?

Loretta: Well, some of the disc jockeys were afraid to play it, because there would be somebody telling them, "Oh, they'll ban her record. Somebody else will ban it," and a disk jockey wouldn't play it. But they got to where they found out that everybody was playing it, and so they all started playing it.

Songfacts: Do you write your songs pretty quickly?

Loretta: Sometimes I can write them real fast, and other times, I get hung up on them. I got hung up on a song not long ago, and Shawn Camp - he is the little writer that I've been writing with and I love this kid - he can write a song in five seconds. I just handed it to him, and he had it finished in just a minute. So I thought, well, my goodness. And here I've been writing on this thing forever, and I just handed it to him, and he finished it.

Songfacts: This is Shawn Camp?

Loretta: He is a songwriter. He writes for just about everybody. He wrote that "Two Piña Coladas," or whatever you want to call it, for Garth Brooks. He's written many songs.

Songfacts: At first I thought you said Sean Penn, like the actor.

Loretta: Shawn Camp. They all laugh at me still yet, how I talk. And they ought to get over it, because I'm not going to change.

Songfacts: You do a song with Elvis Costello, "Everything it Takes," on the new album.

Loretta: Oh, yeah. Many of us have known each other for a long time, and everybody got a bang out of us. Me and Elvis sat down to write a song at Johnny Cash's studio, so we went back in the kitchen. Me and him was going to write a song, so everybody was nosy - they had to come in and see what we were doing. I was sitting there with a pencil and paper, and he was on the computer, so they started laughing. I wanted to know what they was laughing about, and they told me. I said, "Well, heck, I always write with pencil and paper." I couldn't even turn on a computer. I don't want one. Don't need it.

Songfacts: Do you have some other artists that you sing with on the new album?

Loretta: Willie Nelson is on the album. I didn't even know he was on there, and I was listening to it, and here was Willie. Me and Willie ended up in Nashville the same year.

Songfacts: They snuck him right on that album without telling you?

Loretta: Yeah. I didn't know it.

Songfacts: Let me ask you about your gowns. You have such beautiful gowns that you come on stage with. Those must be heavy. They're so beaded and jeweled. Does that make performances more difficult?

Loretta: I wouldn't go on the stage without my gowns, for nothing. Tim, he is my assistant, and he makes all my gowns. He gets upset with me because I won't dress in anything else. No matter what, I have new gowns.

And you wouldn't believe my museum. I make him put them over in my museum and let people see them when I quit wearing them. But I love my gowns, and I ain't about to not wear them. I love them.

Loretta Lynn's story may be best known through the portrayal by Sissy Spacek in the 1980 movie Coal Miner's Daughter, based on Lynn's hit single from a decade earlier. But screenwriters may have had more to work with if the singer had recorded the full version of her autobiographical song. "I had four more verses to it," Lynn told reporters at the TV Critics Association winter press tour. She blames her famed producer. "Owen Bradley said, 'Loretta, take some of them verses off.' He said, 'There's already been one 'El Paso,' and there's never going to be another one.' So I fiddled around and fiddled around, and finally I got four verses that I took off of 'Coal Miner's Daughter.' I wished I hadn't, but I did."

The whereabouts of these missing verses is not known, she said. "I left them in the studio."
Songfacts: Are they heavy to wear?

Loretta: Well, they're heavy, but, hey, work ain't easy.

Songfacts: Do you actually have a museum now?

Loretta: I do.

Songfacts: Where is that at?

Loretta: It's in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. We have I don't know how many people come to my museum, and they go through the big old home. We give them a lot to see when they come to Hurricane Mills.

Songfacts: Do you stop in and say "hello" to them sometimes, surprise them?

Loretta: Yeah, I do. I surprise them every now and then.

Songfacts: I wanted to ask you about your friendship with Patsy Cline so many years ago. At the time, you two were just about the only female country singers around.

Loretta: I was brand new, you know. I just walked in to Nashville. Ernest Tubb let me sing at his record shop, and I was there when I found out that Patsy had been in a wreck, and she was in the hospital. So while I was in the record shop, I sang, "I Fall to Pieces" for Patsy.

Now, if I had any sense, I wouldn't have sung that song, because she's laying in the hospital, and it looked like she fell all to pieces. She had been in that wreck. I wouldn't have sung that song if I had any sense - I would have sung another one. But, of course, I didn't have much sense at that time.

But Patsy sent her husband to find me, and he found me coming out of the record shop and said, "Patsy wants to see you." The relationship started right then, and we were together until she passed away, which wasn't very long, you know. Patsy wasn't around too long, maybe a year or two years, something like that. But she was the only girlfriend I had at the time. And then I had to start getting girlfriends, because I didn't have any friends at that time. I had to make friends.

March 4, 2016
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Comments: 2

  • Randy Tenor from SomewhereI grew up just north of Pittsburgh, near West Virginia. It is amazing that just south of Morgantown not only dialects change but also the culture. It is like night and day. Life is still hard in Eastern Kentucky and much of West Virginia. Bless the Appalachian people and Loretta too.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaHoly Cow, Loretta Lynn? That's a huge get for you guys. Great job, too, you always seem to ask questions that are different and always seem to get real honest answers back. Always a great read.
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