QUEEN OF THE ROAD

Story by Wendy Newcomer - Photo by Larry Hill

A pink Prevost tour bus rolls into the parking lot of the Executive Inn Rivermont, an Owensboro, Ky., resort. Even though it's three hours before show time, a crowd gathers around the home-on-wheels. With loretta lynn emblazoned on the side in purple script, there's no question who's inside - it's the Coal Miner's Daughter herself.

Sitting in the front room of her new tour bus, Loretta Lynn reminisces about the early days on the road. She's come a long way in 40 years.

"At first, Doolittle threw me out there and said, 'You're a big girl now - take care of yourself,' " says Loretta of her beloved husband, who died in 1996 of diabetes and heart complications. "I was going on Greyhound buses all across the country. I'd take my bus ticket and sit right behind the bus driver. I couldn't read well enough and I knew I'd get lost, so each one of them would help me get on the next bus."

On the wall behind her is a publicity photo of a young, innocent Loretta, taken by Doo in the kitchen of their Washington state home. She'd only been singing for six months. "I was 27, but I hadn't been out of the house," she explains. "In one year, I went to the grocery store one time. I didn't know what I was doing out on the road or how to act."

In 1961 Loretta toured with brothers Teddy and Doyle Wilburn as their "girl singer." "My first trip out with Doyle and Teddy, they sat in the front," says Loretta, recalling how out of place she felt. "I sat in the back between two of their band members and they began cracking jokes. I knew they were telling jokes about me, but I couldn't understand one thing they were talking about. I was never so embarrassed."

Soon the joke was on everybody else. Loretta quickly became a star, writing and singing her way to the top with a string of No. 1s, including "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind) and her signature tune, "Coal Miner's Daughter." She also had chart-topping duets with Conway Twitty.

Loretta earned CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards in 1967, 1972 and 1973; ACM Female Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and in 1972 the CMA made her the first female Entertainer of the Year. And in 1988 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

As Loretta looks around at the soothing mauve leather interior of her new bus, the years roll back. "I got my first bus from Tom T. Hall and he'd gotten it from George Jones, who'd shot a hole in it when he was shooting at the driver," recalls Loretta, laughing.

She strolls down the bus corridor. Lining the hallway are photos of family members, friends and some guy named George Bush - the former president - giving her a bear hug. "George writes me letters all the time," confides Loretta, "because he just likes to write. But the other day, I got a letter from Barbara. When you get a letter from Barbara, you know it's really special. I like to hear from them."

Loretta's stylist and personal assistant, Tim Cobb, designs her trademark southern belle-style stage dresses. He also designed the bus interior, making sure it had all of Loretta's must-have features.

"My bedroom and my kitchen are my favorite places," explains Loretta, sitting on her bed, adorned with a handmade "Coal Miner's Daughter" quilt - a gift from a fan. Across from the bed is a TV and VCR, with stacks of videos for Loretta to view while rolling down the road. "I like to watch scary movies," she declares, eyes gleaming. "I watched one the other night that liked to have scared me to death. All these movies are scarier than the devil!"

When she watches movies, Loretta sometimes makes popcorn. But she does it the old-fashioned way, on the stove top. While the burner heats up, Loretta talks about her recent near-deadly bout with bacterial pneumonia. "For six days, the doctor thought I was going to die," she admits. "They took a picture of my lungs and vocal chords. You would not believe it! I have three coal spots on my vocal chords. It looked like somebody had sprinkled black paint on my lungs.

"The doctor, who'd seen Coal Miner's Daughter, said, 'For 13 years you lived with your daddy and went back in those mines with him, and all that dust got into your lungs. If you would have kept on doing that, you'd have gotten black lung disease.'"

Now back on the road, Loretta's busier than ever. She's even putting the finishing touches on her second autobiography. "I wrote enough for 10 books while Doo was sick," she reveals. "Now I just need to edit it. This one starts with my first memory. Coal Miner's Daughter only covered ages 13 to 30."

Loretta sits in the driver's seat. It's a fitting place for the woman who, against all odds, made her dreams come true and, along the way, became a country legend. Her shiny new bus is a reminder of just how far she's come.

"I wasn't making any money when I first started - $50 a day," she says. "When you've got six kids, it's really tough. I thought, 'I'll never make it.' "

How wrong she was.

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