HER indomitable spirit undimmed, Loretta Lynn recites the song she’s “carried in her heart” for decades.
“Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter, in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler,” she intones in a voice firm and true.
Loretta’s spoken-word rendition of Coal Miner’s Daughter, performed over sparse banjo, serves as the emotional centre-piece of her new album Still Woman Enough.
As she approaches her 89th birthday on April 14, the country music icon has never lost touch with her humble beginnings.
The eldest of eight children, her upbringing was one of extreme hardship tempered by the love she and her siblings received from devoted parents Ted and Clary.
Some of you may recall Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Loretta’s rags-to-riches story in the 1980 film named after the song.
The first verse of Coal Miner’s Daughter continues: “We were poor but we had love. That’s the one thing that my daddy made sure of. And he shovelled coal to make a poor man’s dollar.”
Relaying her reflections on those heartfelt lyrics to me via her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell, Loretta says today: “They mean the world to me because they’re my story . . . not just a story, but my real life.
“It was a lifetime ago but I can close my eyes and it feels like yesterday.”
She affirms: “I had the best parents in the world and this song is my tribute to them, to their hard work and the life that made me.
“You can’t ever forget where you come from and I carry the song in my heart everywhere I go.”
Despite being laid low with a stroke in 2017 and breaking a hip a year later, Loretta is a fighter — and her album kicks off with the defiant title track Still Woman Enough.
Featuring two of the country scene’s biggest current stars, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood, it’s a rousing and fitting sequel to the take-no-prisoners 1966 hit You Ain’t Woman Enough.
I ask Loretta if the album proves she really is Still Woman Enough. “Well, I think the main thing it proves is that my life IS music,” she replies.
“And, as long as I can, I want to keep putting music out there for my fans.”
The album includes rerecorded Loretta classics Honky Tonk Girl, One’s On The Way (with Margo Price) and I Wanna Be Free, along with country staples Keep On The Sunny Side, Old Kentucky Home and Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light.
Perfectly bookending the 13-track song cycle is an impassioned reboot of You Ain’t Woman Enough with guest vocals Tanya Tucker.
Sharing production duties were Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, son of the late, great first couple of country, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. So I’ve hooked up with both to talk all things Loretta Lynn.
After a year like no other because of Covid-19, Patsy gives an update on how her mother is faring right now.
“Mom’s actually doing great,” she says. “She recently received her Covid shot and was SO happy to get it.
“She’s been focused on the new album and is already dreaming up ideas of what she wants to do next.
“She loves working and loves being with people, so no one has been more eager for the pandemic to come to an end.”
With some choice words, John also sheds light on how Loretta’s getting along. “She has the same spit and vinegar and drive and clarity of communication as she ever had,” he says.
“When I talk to her, she still looks you right in the eye and she’s there, even if she’s fragile physically.
‘GRIT AND COMPASSION’
“I’ve seen that with my dad and mom. I watched my father in the face of sickness — diabetes, infirmity, pneumonia, everything — but he kept pursuing his dream.
“He never lost his love of music and Loretta’s the same. No matter what, she’s going to carry on. None of us will last for ever but the spirit does.
“I know that because my dad is still here today. And one thing I’ve learned is you never can count Loretta Lynn out!”
Patsy, who has a twin sister called Peggy, is named after Loretta’s old friend and fellow country legend Patsy Cline, the singer of Crazy and I Fall To Pieces, who died in a plane crash in 1963.
She is thrilled that she got to co-write Still Woman Enough with her mother and says: “It’s just perfect for my mom because she never stops.
“To me, she’s ‘Mom’ but sometimes I stop and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m writing a song with Loretta Lynn!’
“This song was fun because it flowed easily. I put together a part of it and she loved it and then she just took off with it.”
Patsy rattles off the qualities she most admires in Loretta: “Her grit, her honesty, her frankness, her authenticity, her compassion and her kindness. She’s genuinely a treasure and the greatest woman I know.”
For John, Loretta reminds him a lot of his mother June, who was born into The Carter Family, the ensemble who became country music trailblazers in the Thirties.
“My mother’s family was making the music Loretta was listening to when she was a little girl,” he says.
John talks of the “common blood” shared by the two women, describing them as descendants of “folks who came from across the sea and fought their way into the wilderness, surviving in the mountains”.
He adds: “They were people with no guarantee of food the next morning, no certainty Dad was coming home from work in the coal mine or the fields.”
In 1988, when John was still a teenager, he remembers watching his father induct Loretta into the Country Music Hall Of Fame.
“She touched our very deepest, most personal emotions and became an inspiration for millions,” Johnny Cash told the audience. “She was born a coal miner’s daughter but she has become a country music legend.”
John says: “It was thrilling to see Loretta run up and jump into my father’s arms. I remember looking back at my mom just to see her reaction, which was laughter because they were always such good friends.
‘GAVE ALL SHE HAD’
“When I work in the studio with Loretta, I look up and suddenly realise I’m talking to Loretta and not my mother.”
It’s fitting that Loretta’s new album includes Carter Family favourite Keep On The Sunny Side and that the sessions mostly took place at Cash Cabin Studio, where Johnny used to record, run today by John and his wife Ana Cristina.
He says: “Loretta told me the first song she ever remembers hearing is a Carter Family song: Wildwood Flower, I think.”
Patsy explains that her mother “was deeply impacted by her raising”, adding: “She loved her parents and siblings and the life they had. She has always been proud, never ashamed, of where she came from and she’s always held on to that.
“Lots of people in the industry tried to make her into someone else but she could only be Loretta. She’s different to the rest and we thank God for that.”
When Loretta cracked the big time in the Sixties, scoring hit after hit on the country charts, she became known as a strong, independent-minded woman in what was largely a man’s world.
She performed unvarnished songs about ordinary lives, tackling birth control on controversial The Pill and lack of it on One’s On The Way.
She wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves for a fight with a love rival on the emphatic Fist City or call out her man for boozing on Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).
Loretta drew on experience of her turbulent marriage to the late husband she called Doo, Doolittle Lynn, the father of her six children.
If she remains modest about her impact on popular culture, daughter Patsy steps in and says: “I’ll say what she won’t! She was the barrier-breaker and way-maker for so many.
“She gave voice to what women across the country were thinking as they dealt with their own challenges in life.
“They could finally turn on their radios and relate to what they heard. She says she was just singing what she lived and felt but in fact she was changing the landscape of country music.”
So, I ask Patsy, what was it like growing up with Loretta and Doo as parents?
“It was life on the ranch and my parents worked hard to make it seem as normal as possible for us,” she answers.
“Dad was a hard worker and Mom gave us all she had when she was home from being on the road. Of course, they had some epic fights, as you’d imagine, but they loved each other and loved us.”
When success came Loretta’s way, so too did the fabulous sequined dresses.
On the cover of Still Woman Enough, she looks every inch the country queen on her throne, regally attired in a cream creation inspired by the flowing outfit she wore on the cover of 1971’s Coal Miner’s Daughter album.
Patsy says: “I think her style has become so iconic. She took to the motto that you ought to put on your best for your fans.
“If they paid to see you perform, then give them the best you’ve got.
“She always looks so beautiful, just like a queen to us. In the early days, Mom made all her own stage outfits and tried so hard to look the part, just for the honour of going on stage.
“Her style tells the secret of how much she loves the fans and how much she values working in the industry.
“Music IS a special occasion for Loretta Lynn — one worth dressing up for.”
With Cherokee and Irish blood running in her veins, Loretta is the living embodi-ment of America’s roots and its pioneering spirit.
“How do you get your hands into American soil and feel those roots?” asks John Carter Cash.
“You go back and listen to artists like Loretta, like my dad and my mom, who helped establish American recorded music and culture.”
The last word is with the singer herself, one of country music’s greatest survivors along with Willie Nelson.
“I love music, so I don’t see any reason to stop,” she declares.
Still Woman Enough? You betcha!
STILL WOMAN ENOUGH
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MARGO PRICE ON LORETTA
MARGO PRICE is among a new breed of country singers who tell it like it is. It goes without saying Loretta Lynn is a huge inspiration to her and she is thrilled with their new duet One’s On The Way.
Margo recorded two albums for Third Man Records – founded by another Loretta collaborator, Jack White (on 2004 album Van Lear Rose) – before releasing the Sturgill Simpson-produced That’s How Rumors Get Started last year. She gives Simon Cosyns her perspective on the Coal Miner’s Daughter.
WHAT did it mean to you to sing a duet with Loretta Lynn?
It was very surreal to get the call.
One’s On The Way is a brilliant snapshot of life in Topeka, Kansas. Was it fun to sing?
It paints a perfect vignette of what it’s like to be a woman and feel helpless in America without birth control. It’s empowering and entertaining all at once.
What about Loretta do you most admire?
Her ability to turn a phrase with meaning. She was willing to write about topics others wouldn’t dare touch. Loretta broke down a lot of doors in the music business.
Did you get to meet her?
Yes, several years ago. We hung out in the green room of the Ryman (original home of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville). She was full of great stories and sassy as ever. Best of all, she asked me to sit in and sing with her – Coal Miner’s Daughter and Everybody Goes To Heaven. I was on cloud nine.
How important is Loretta as a female voice with songs like The Pill and Fist City?
She was a pioneer and a voice for women who had none.
She’s stayed true to her roots.
Remaining grounded in this business is next to impossible but she’s done it. Folks like her and Willie Nelson show you can remain down-to-earth and be wildly successful.
Country was a man’s world when she broke through. Is it more equal today because of her?
It’s more equal, for sure. But we still got a long, long way to go, not only in gender disparities but also racism and sexism.
Which Loretta songs are your favourites?
Rated X and Fist City are two. The writing is unapologetically truthful.
Her spirit is undimmed. Is that an inspiration for your future life in music?
I sure as hell hope so!
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