'Singing Was Easy': 'Mountain Girl' Loretta Lynn Looks Back On Life And Music
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Loretta Lynn landed her first top-10 hit on the country charts in 1962. Her 1970s song and record "Coal Miner’s Daughter" was made into a movie starring Sissy Spacek as Loretta. After she recorded that song, Loretta Lynn spent a decade making records with Conway Twitty, then resumed a long and popular solo career. Terry Gross interviewed Loretta Lynn on the occasion of a tribute album devoted to her in 2010. They started with Loretta Lynn’s first recording from 1960.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A HONKY TONK GIRL")
LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Ever since you left me I've done nothing but wrong. Many nights I've laid awake and cried. We once were happy, my heart was in a whirl. But now I'm a honky tonk girl. So turn that jukebox way up high and fill my glass up while I cry. I've lost everything in this world. And now I'm a honky tonk girl.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Loretta Lynn, what a great pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming.
LYNN: Thank you, Terry. It's really nice to be on your show.
GROSS: Now, the song we just heard, that's the first song you wrote. It was your first record, released in 1960.
GROSS: You say you wrote it in 20 minutes on a $17 guitar that your husband bought for you…
LYNN: That's true.
GROSS: …Because he thought you sang well. And you wrote a song because he told you to. Do you think you ever would have written or performed if your husband didn't say that's what you should do?
LYNN: No, I wouldn't have because I was too bashful. I wouldn't get out in front of people. I wouldn't - you know, I was really bashful, and I would've never sang in front of anybody.
GROSS: So when you wrote "Honky Tonk Girl" with absolutely no songwriting experience, how did you approach writing a song?
LYNN: You know, I just sat down with my guitar. It was outside. In fact, I was leaning up against the old toilet out there on the West Coast, in Washington state. And...
GROSS: Did you say the toilet?
LYNN: The old toilet, yeah.
LYNN: And I sat there and wrote "Honky Tonk Girl" and "Whispering Sea."
GROSS: So when you recorded your first single, "Honky Tonk Girl," you were 24. You'd already been married for 11 years because you got married when you were 13. And you already had four children. Do I have that right?
LYNN: I had four kids, uh-huh.
GROSS: And the twins came a little bit later.
LYNN: Yeah, the twins come later.
GROSS: What was your life like, as a wife and mother, before you started recording?
LYNN: It wasn't easy. Me and my husband both worked. I took care of the farmhouse. I cleaned and cooked for 36 ranch hands and...
LYNN: Yeah, before I started singing. And so singing was easy. I thought gee whiz, this was an easy job.
GROSS: Wait, so you cooked and cleaned for 36 ranch hands and had four children?
LYNN: Uh-huh, sure did. Paid the rent on the old house that we lived in, and that's what I did to make the rent, yeah.
LYNN: It wasn't easy, let me tell you. Life was hard (laughter).
GROSS: So when you made your first appearance on the Opry, which was the same year that you recorded "Honky Tonk Girl..."
GROSS: …You weren't used to performing on such a prestigious stage in front of…
LYNN: Oh, no.
GROSS: …An audience like that. Did you know how to perform onstage in a place like the Opry?
LYNN: Not really. I just got out there with my guitar, and I sang. I mean, I just did it just like I was doing it at home, you know? I never thought about it being the Grand Ole Opry because if I had, I wouldn't have been able to have done it. You just pretty well got to figure, well, you know, this is something I could do every day.
GROSS: It's so much like what you do every day.
GROSS: So the next song we're going to hear is a song that you first recorded in 1966, "Don't Come Home A-Drinking (With Lovin' On Your Mind)." And this is a great song. But first, I want to hear the story of how you wrote it. You'd already had about six years of songwriting experience behind you. You probably were no longer leaning against the toilet when you wrote this.
LYNN: I was probably - Doo had fixed me a little writing room at this time, out in Goodliesfield(ph).
GROSS: Doo is your husband - was your late husband, yes.
LYNN: Doo was my husband, yes. And he's the only one I've ever had. And so he fixed me this little writing room. And I'd go out there, and I'd write. And this was one of the songs that I wrote was "Don't Come Home A'Drinking (With Lovin' On Your Mind)."
GROSS: And at this point, did you feel like, I know how to write a song?
LYNN: Oh, yeah. When I wrote "Don't Come Home A-Drinking," I knew I could write because I'd had quite a few on the charts by that time.
GROSS: Now, you've said that your husband is in every song that you've written, in a large way or in a small way.
LYNN: Still is. I mean, if I write a song, he's in there somewhere.
GROSS: Were you thinking of him when you wrote this song?
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Would he come home after drinking like that?
LYNN: Why, sure. If a man drinks, he's going to come home drinking. He liked to drink.
GROSS: Was this song intended to send him a message at all?
LYNN: Not really. I probably told him many times. I didn't have to sing about it.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, well, let's hear the song.
LYNN: All right.
GROSS: This is "Don't Come Home A-Drinking," recorded in 1966 by Loretta Lynn, and it was a number one country music chart hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T COME HOME A-DRINKING - WITH LOVING ON YOUR MIND")
LYNN: (Singing) Well, you thought I'd be waiting up when you came home last night. You'd been out with all the boys, and you ended up half-tied. But liquor and love, they just don't mix. Leave the bottle or me behind, and don't come home a-drinking with loving on your mind.
No, don't come home a-drinking with loving on your mind. Just stay out there on the town and see what you can find 'cause if you want that kind of love, well you don't need none of mine. So don't come home a-drinking with loving on your mind.
BIANCULLI: Loretta Lynn, recorded in 1966. After a quick break, we’ll continue with Terry’s interview with Loretta Lynn from 2010. This FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to our interview with Loretta Lynn. Her new album is called full circle. Terry Gross spoke with Loretta Lynn in 2010, after a tribute album of her songs was released.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Well, I want to play another song.
GROSS: And this is a song that’s covered on the new tribute album. But we’ll hear your version. And this is "After the Fire Has Gone." And it's one of the hit duets that you recorded with Conway Twitty. So this song is attributed to L.E. White, a songwriter I'm not familiar with.
LYNN: Yeah. L.E. White wrote this song. It was one of Conway's writers.
GROSS: Oh, I see.
GROSS: And so they brought the song to you.
GROSS: How did you start recording with Conway Twitty? These duets are so good.
LYNN: Me and Conway went overseas. There was a whole crew of people went overseas to, you know, perform. And me and Conway started singing in the dressing rooms. So we thought, well, when we get home, we'll sing to Owen Bradley and see what he thinks. So we went home...
GROSS: Owen Bradley was your producer.
LYNN: Our producer, yeah.
GROSS: And obviously, he liked it.
LYNN: He loved it. He says, ya'll get in the studio and let's record, so that's what we did.
GROSS: Some of the songs are like, oh, we're so attracted to each other but it's wrong so we really shouldn't, and then...
LYNN: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: And this one is "After the Fire Has Gone."
LYNN: "After the Fire Has Gone."
GROSS: So this was recorded in 1970. It went to number one on the country charts. And...
LYNN: Yeah, everybody thought me and Conway had a thing going, you know?
GROSS: Oh, oh, but you didn't?
LYNN: Because of the songs we recorded. But me and Conway were friends. We wasn't lovers.
GROSS: Right. So on the tribute album, on the Loretta Lynn tribute album "Coal Miner's Daughter," this duet is covered by Steve Earle and Allison Moorer - who are, in fact, married. But we're going hear your version with Conway Twitty. So here it is.
GROSS: This is Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER THE FIRE HAS GONE")
LORETTA LYNN AND CONWAY TWITTY: (Singing) Love is where you find it.
LYNN: (Singing) When you find no love at home.
LORETTA LYNN AND CONWAY TWITTY: (Singing) And there's nothing cold as ashes after the fire is gone.
CONWAY TWITTY: (Singing) The bottle is almost empty, the clock just now struck 10. Darling, I had to call you to our favorite place again.
LYNN: (Singing) We know it's wrong for us to meet but the fire's gone out at home.
LORETTA LYNN AND CONWAY TWITTY: (Singing) And there's nothing cold as ashes after the fire is gone. Love is where you find it...
LYNN: (Singing) ...When you find no love at home.
LORETTA LYNN AND CONWAY TWITTY: (Singing) And there's nothing cold as ashes after the fire is gone.
GROSS: That's Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, recorded in 1970, a song that went to number one on the country charts. And that song is covered by Steve Earle and Allison Moorer on the new Loretta Lynn tribute CD, "Coal Miner's Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn."
Now, there's one kind of song you've written that I haven't asked you about, and that is the I-am-so-angry-you’d-better-be-careful-'cause-if-you-take-my-man-I-will-actually-hit-you kind of song (laughter).
LYNN: Is that "Fist City"?
GROSS: I'm thinking of "Fist City," yeah.
GROSS: And it's not exactly a sisterhood-is-powerful kind of song. The lyric is - if you don't want to go to Fist City, you'd better detour around my town...
GROSS: ...Or else I'll grab you by the hair of your head and lift you off the ground (laughter).
GROSS: So tell me about writing a lyric like this where, I mean, it's, like, real physical anger.
LYNN: Well, there was an ol' gal that tried to take Doolittle away from me and...
GROSS: There was somebody who tried that?
LYNN: Yeah, there was somebody and - but she didn't make it.
GROSS: Did you threaten her?
LYNN: Yes, I did.
LYNN: With more than a song.
GROSS: And not in rhyme.
LYNN: That's right. It didn't rhyme at all.
GROSS: What did you tell her?
LYNN: I just told her back off. She's playing with the wrong Bill.
GROSS: You know, what's amazing to me, like, why would somebody think that they could compete with you? And also, maybe I'm speaking out of turn here, but like, why would your husband...
LYNN: Well, that's how - women take your husband away from you all the time, so they all think that, you know?
GROSS: Yeah, right.
LYNN: Are you married?
LYNN: Oh, Lord...
LYNN: He'll kill us. He'll kill us.
LYNN: Don't let him hear this.
GROSS: We're OK.
GROSS: So was it right after this incident that you sat down and wrote the song?
LYNN: You know, I don't know exactly when I wrote the song, but I'm pretty sure that I had some things in mind when I wrote it. I won't talk about it.
GROSS: That's fine. But do you think she knew that it was about her?
LYNN: I just imagine.
GROSS: You imagine that she did?
LYNN: I imagine she did.
LYNN: I probably told her.
GROSS: Oh, nice (laughter).
BIANCULLI: Loretta Lynn, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. Her new album is called “Full Circle.” We’ll hear more of their interview after a break, and we’ll also hear Questlove talking about his father, soul a doo-wop singer Lee Andrews, who died this week. And David Edelstein will review the new movie “Krisha.” I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FIST CITY”)
LYNN: (Singing) Oh, you’ve been making your brag around town that you’ve been loving my man. But the man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can. That’s what you look like to me, and what I see’s a pity. You better close your face and stay out of my way if you don’t want to go to fist city.
If you don’t want to go to fist city, you better detour around my town ‘cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head, and I’ll lift you off the ground. I’m not saying my baby’s a saint ‘cause he ain’t and that he won’t cat around with a kitty. I’m here to tell you gal lay off my man if you don’t want to go to fist city. Come on and tell what you told my friends if you think you’re brave enough. And I’ll show you what a real woman is since you think you’re hot stuff.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Terry’s interview with Loretta Lynn. She’s just released her first new studio album in a decade. It’s called “Full Circle.” Terry interviewed her in 2010, when a tribute of her songs came out.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, when you started performing, Patsy Cline was your mentor until she died.
LYNN: But, you know, she hadn't been in the business that long when I’d come to Nashville. She'd only been singing two or three years. And yeah...
GROSS: So she must have really related to what you were going through.
LYNN: Oh, yeah. We talked a lot (laughter).
GROSS: What were some of the things that she taught you, that really helped you a lot - things relating to, you know, from clothing to performing style to dealing with the music industry - yeah, go ahead.
LYNN: Well, she kind of helped me - you know, with the style and everything that I was - you know, I was in blue jeans and a T-shirt, or blue jeans and just a Western shirt. And she taught me a lot - how to dress and...
GROSS: What did she tell you about how to dress?
LYNN: Well, she told me to get out of the jeans, you know? Of course, I would wear them until we'd get to the radio station, and then I'd get in the backseat and put on my dress. And I'd take the dress off and go back into my jeans and wait until the next radio station.
LYNN: And then I'd go back into my dress again.
GROSS: And did she give you any advice about performing?
LYNN: Not really. I think she wanted me to learn that on my own, and I think it's best for every artist to learn on their own what they're going to do on stage and how they act. And I don't think anybody else can teach you that.
GROSS: I want to play another song that you wrote, and this was a song that was, actually pretty controversial at the time it came out. And it's called "Rated X."
GROSS: And I'm going to let you describe what the song's about.
LYNN: Well, it's about a woman that's been married and divorced, and I'll just let you listen to it.
GROSS: OK, and what I want to do, I want to go to the tribute CD. The White Stripes have a really good reworked - like, reinterpreted version of this.
GROSS: And I know you've worked with Jack White before. He produced a terrific album…
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: …Of yours in 2004, called "Van Lear Rose."
GROSS: So do you want to say anything about the White Stripes' version of your song?
LYNN: Well, I think whatever Jack does is good. I mean, you can't - I mean, he's good. You have to love him. So this is good.
GROSS: OK, so this is the song Loretta Lynn wrote. She recorded it in 1971. It's called "Rated X," and here's the White Stripes from the Loretta Lynn tribute album "Coal Miner's Daughter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RATED X")
THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Well, if you've been a married woman, and things didn't seem to work out, divorce is the key to being loose and free, but you're going to be talked about.
Everybody knows that you've loved once. They think you'll love again. You can't have a male friend when you're a has-been of a woman you're rated X. And if you're rated X, you're some kind of goal that even men turned civil try to make. But I think it's wrong to judge every picture if a cheap camera makes a mistake. So if your best friend's husband says to you that you've started looking good, you should've known he would, and he would if he could. And he will if you're rated X. Well…
GROSS: That's the White Stripes from the new Loretta Lynn tribute album, "Coal Miner's Daughter," and also Loretta Lynn's famous memoir, "Coal Miner's Daughter," has been published in a new edition. Now, we were talking before about writing from a woman's point of view, which "Rated X" most certainly is - you know, about what it's like to be a divorced woman, when men think that you're available and try to take advantage of you and you have a reputation. So why was the song controversial?
LYNN: I think it was because, you know, you've been a married woman. I think when you write about it, they take it to heart, too, you know? They - people do. So I think that was it. It just starts out, if you've been a married woman, things didn't seem to work out, divorce is the key to being loose and free. So you're going to be talked about. So that's exactly how it is, you know?
GROSS: When you called it "Rated X" - I mean, do you think some people thought, oh, this is going to be a very provocative, sexy song…
LYNN: Oh, yeah, no - a lot of…
GROSS: …Because it's called "Rated X"?
LYNN: Yeah, a lot of the disc jockeys, you know, banned it before they even listened to it. And, you know, after it got way up in the charts and they all flipped the record, started listening to it and playing it - but, you know, another old dirty record from Loretta Lynn.
GROSS: Now, something that was even more controversial than "Rated X" was your song "The Pill," which is about...
LYNN: That's right. The pill was on the way and, you know, we have a lot of them that says it like it is. So that's really, I guess we're not to talk about the way it is.
GROSS: This has some lyrics that I think, you know, really were controversial in some country music circles at the time. And the lyrics include - this old maternity dress I've got is going in the garbage, and you've set this chicken your last time because now I've got the pill. I'm tearing down this brooder house 'cause now I've got the pill.
GROSS: So the song sounds autobiographical in some ways. I'm not saying that you are necessarily angry in the way that the character in the song is angry, but you had six children.
LYNN: I had six kids. I lost three.
GROSS: You lost three?
LYNN: I lost three.
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that.
LYNN: I was about five and six - well, it wasn't - you know, I lost them before they were born.
GROSS: Oh, so you had six and lost three others? Wow.
GROSS: That's a lot of pregnancies.
GROSS: Right, OK, stating the obvious. Did you share the song's anger?
LYNN: Well, I sure didn't like it when I got pregnant a few times. You know, it's hard for a woman to have so many kids. And, well, at the time, I guess I had four. And then I got pregnant and had - you know, with the twins. But yeah, I was a little angry.
GROSS: Let's hear it, and this was released in 1975…
LYNN: All right.
GROSS: …Recorded in 1972. This is Loretta Lynn, "The Pill."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PILL")
LYNN: (Singing) You wined me and dined me when I was your girl, promised if I'd be your wife, you'd show me the world. But all I've seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill. I'm tearin' down your brooder house 'cause now I've got the pill.
All these years I've stayed at home while you had all your fun, and every year that's gone by another baby's come. There's going to be some changes made right here on nursery hill. You've set this chicken your last time 'cause now I've got the pill.
This old maternity dress I've got is going in the garbage. The clothes I'm wearin' from now on won't take up so much yardage. Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills - yeah, I'm making up for all those years since I've got the pill.
GROSS: (Singing) That's Loretta Lynn, recorded in 1972. It was released in '75. The song is called "The Pill." Now, you've said that you never even used the pill as birth control (laughter).
LYNN: Well, if I'd had it, I'd have used it.
GROSS: I see.
LYNN: At the time that - yeah.
LYNN: Yeah because, even - back when I was having all the kids, we didn't have birth control pills. Or if they did, I didn't know anything about them.
GROSS: Well, it’s how you write that there's a lot you didn't know about, that - you were 13 when you got married in 1947, and you say you didn't...
LYNN: I didn't know anything about sex either, did I?
GROSS: No, you say you didn't know anything about sex…
GROSS: …Or even pregnancy. You say when you got pregnant, you didn't even know the word. Is that right?
LYNN: Well, I don't know. I guess we just called it having a baby. We didn't call it pregnant. Back in Butcher Holler, there was a lot of things we didn't know - a lot of things they still don't know back there.
GROSS: When I think of you getting married at 13, it just seems so young.
LYNN: Well, it is. It is way too young, you know?
GROSS: What made you think that you were ready?
LYNN: Don't ask me. I was 13.
GROSS: So when you got married, about a year afterwards, you moved to the state of Washington.
LYNN: Washington state.
GROSS: Far away. Did you feel lost for a while when you moved away…
LYNN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: …From your family and everything you knew?
LYNN: Yeah, daddy said - he told me he wouldn't take you away where I couldn't see you. And here I was, 3,000 miles away two months after he married me.
GROSS: Wow, I was thinking what it must have been like for you to be, you know, so far away from home at the age of like 13, 14, 15 having…
GROSS: …Children already. You probably had no idea you were ever going to become famous.
LYNN: No, never. And I still don't. I'm not famous (laughter). I'm just me.
GROSS: Well, Loretta Lynn, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so very much.
LYNN: It's been nice to talk to you, honey.
BIANCULLI: Loretta Lynn, speaking with Terry Gross in 2010. Coming up, to remember Lee Andrews, the Philadelphia doo-wop singer who died this week, we listen back to a 2013 interview with his son, Questlove, talking about growing up with his father. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.