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Loretta Lynn eases herself into a comfortable chair in one of the Grand Ole Opry House’s new dressing rooms, recently refurbished following the damage from the Nashville floods in May. The room carries a special theme, as it’s dedicated to the great duos in country music history and features vintage photos of Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette and others. Loretta checks out one wall and, feisty as ever at age 75, declares with typical candor, “Well, they don’t have me up there! We’re gonna have to work on that.” But upon second glance, the ever-gracious legend stands corrected. “They do have me and Conway [Twitty] up there, but I didn’t know it was us,” she admits with a cackling laugh and a bit of embarrassment. “It doesn’t look like either one of us, but I guess it was so long ago. Conway looks sort of heavy in this but he got real thin later.”
In her 50 remarkable years of show business—she scored her first country hit, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” in 1960—there’s little that Loretta hasn’t done. She has recorded 16 No. 1 hits, most of them as a solo artist, including “Fist City,” signature tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “One’s on the Way.” Loretta shattered female stereotypes by writing songs that were aggressive and sexually charged, such as “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath.” Loretta enjoyed five No. 1s with Conway Twitty and the popular pair copped four straight Country Music Association Vocal Duo of the Year awards from 1972 through 1975. In 1972, she broke a significant barrier when she became the first female to win the CMA’s highest honor, Entertainer of the Year. The movie of her life story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, was nominated for Best Picture and spurred Sissy Spacek to an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Loretta.
And Loretta still loves to do what she does best, getting in front of an audience and belting out the Lynn litany of classics. On this particular night, Loretta, clad in an elegant blue dress, is set to play the Opry Country Classics show, where she’ll close the night with a nearly 30-minute set. She still cherishes the Grand Ole Opry, which she joined in 1962, and especially welcomes the changes and improvements made to the Grand Ole Opry House. “It looks better than it did the first time I saw it,” Loretta raves. “It’s beautiful and I love it!”
This special performance at the Opry is just one more nugget in what has been a truly golden year. In September, Loretta’s best-selling autobiography, Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter, was reissued with a new foreword by Loretta. She recently celebrated her 50th year in country music with a party and concert at her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. (See sidebar for more on the big bash), and was also honored at the Oct. 12 Grammy Salute to Country Music. On Nov. 9, the crowning achievement arrives with the release of an all-star CD, Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn, featuring Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Gretchen Wilson and many other stars. The album includes the collaboration between Loretta, Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow on “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which was released as a single.
Loretta allows that she’s “honored” by the tribute CD but somewhat surprised at the same time. “I couldn’t believe that so many wanted to sing on it,” she laughs. “I wish now that we were gonna do 10 albums because we couldn’t get everybody who said that they wanted to be on here.” One of the stars who got away, Loretta points out, was the singularly-named rock star Pink. “She loves ‘Fist City’ and that’s the one she wanted to do,” Loretta says. “She does it in her shows, I’ve heard. But she couldn’t be on it because her label is putting out something on her the same time mine is coming out. But I love Pink—she’s not country, but she’s a good singer. It never has mattered to me if someone was rock or country or whatever, as long as they’re good.”
That open-minded attitude certainly shines through on the new tribute album. In addition to Carrie Underwood’s version of “You’re Lookin’ at Country” and Faith Hill’s cover of “Love Is the Foundation,” the album features rockers The White Stripes on “Rated X” and a soulful, howling performance by Kid Rock on “I Know How.” The White Stripes, as many fans know, are led by Jack White, who produced Loretta’s Grammy-winning 2004 album, Van Lear Rose. That album led to a resurgence in Loretta’s popularity and introduced her to an entirely new generation of fans.
“I love Jack White,” she says with particular fondness. “He is such a good guy.” Then, in her own inimitable manner, she recalls their first meeting and their eventual collaboration. “You know, he is such a little old thing and he looks like a kid,” Loretta says with a laugh. “He told me he was nine years old when he first saw the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, and he stayed and watched it over and over. When he got older, he said that he wanted to meet me and work with me. I told him that I was working on some songs for a new album and he goes, ‘Well, why don’t I just produce it?’ And I just kind of figured, well, why not. And you know, we won a Grammy. That’s how good he is. And he has got a heart of gold.”
That’s an especially revealing observation. More than anything, Loretta has always been one to look for the heart and the character in a person. “That’s just how Mommy raised me, I guess,” she recalls, in wistful, little-girl fashion. “You should be good to people. That’s why I just never could hurt anybody. I couldn’t even whip the kids,” she adds with a playful laugh. “It was always, ‘You just wait ’til your daddy gets home,’ but then I would end up not telling my husband what they did. But that is just me. Another thing about me is I worry about everything. I worry about people that I like. I told Martina McBride one time that I worried about her because she worked so hard. My husband used to get so mad at me for being like that. He would say, ‘You can’t take care of the whole world,’ but that was the mother in me coming out. And you know what—it don’t hurt nobody to help somebody.”
Family remains an important part of her life. One of her twins, Patsy, helps manage Loretta and takes care of her scheduling and other business matters. The other twin, Peggy, lives on a farm in Goodlettsville, Tenn., in the first house that Loretta and Mooney ever bought. Patsy and Peggy cut a couple of singles in the late 1990s as The Lynns with only minimal chart success, but they often perform with their mom in her rare concert appearances. “I get to see them quite a bit and that’s good for me,” Loretta says. “To me, they still have great voices. But they did not like the road. Peggy really did not care about the music business that much. She loved the family life and being out in the garden and cooking. Peggy has two kids and Patsy has got six, so they’re busy.”
And asked why she’s lasted for nearly six decades, Loretta uncharacteristically has to search for words. “I think maybe I’m just the one who hung in there,” she answers after a thoughtful pause. “There have been so many great singers over the years, but they just didn’t hang in. They want somebody to hand it to them, but it don’t work that way.” She pauses once more and her voice lights up. “I just did my best,” she says. “That’s all anybody can do.”