By Paul Zollo:
Some people are just born with it. With the gift for writing songs.
Songs come to them, and they just need to write them down. It doesnt
take any agony or even much thought, it just takes time with a guitar
alone to capture them as they fly by. Thats the case with Loretta Lynn.
Right out of the gate, she wrote songs richer and deeper than the
finest songs emerging out of Nashville. And she sang them with robust
bravado, this little girl dressed up like Annie Oakley, and ascended
swiftly to Nashville royalty as one of country musics greatest singers
Born in 1932 in Kentucky, she married her beloved Doolittle (Oliver
Vanetta Lynn) when she was only 13, and had four of her six kids before
she was an adult. He gave her a guitar for her 24th birthday, and she
started playing and singing as if shed done it her whole life. Her
first two songs, Whispering Sea and Im A Honky Tonk Girl were also
the twin sides of her first single. And when people heard that voice
with those songs, songs that reflected country life as it was really
lived, they fell in love.
After those two, the songs kept coming. When the Nashville crowd
first heard her music, they were stunned. Roy Acuff said he couldnt
fathom how she could write such astounding songs every one a little
movie after never writing before. Gradually she created a bounty of
work, a deep well of country music splendor from which singers have
drawn for years. A new tribute album, Coal Miners Daughter, A Tribute to Loretta Lynn,
has just been released, featuring Steve Earle, The White Stripes,
Carrie Underwood, Kid Rock, Lucinda Williams and others, to coincide
with the 50th anniversary of her debut.
Lynn attributes it all to telling the truth. But sometimes the truth
wasnt what the good ol boys in Nashville wanted to hear, because it
reflected too closely the reality of the changes America went through in
the 60s, such as The Pill and Rated X, both of which were promptly
banned from radio, and both which went to Number 1, sparked by
Today shes home in her sun-dappled writing room, tending, as she
often must, to the business of being Loretta Lynn. But as anyone who
knows her will attest, she is no diva, quite the opposite. When told
that its an honor for this writer to interview her, she just laughs,
and says, Honey, dont say that. You can interview me anytime.
You once said you would rather be remembered as a songwriter than a singer.
I would. Way before I started singing, I was trying to write. I lived
out in the state of Washington and I had my four babies out there. I
was trying to write everyday and I didnt know how. So I looked at the
songbooks and thought that anyone could do that, so I just started
writing. Whispering Sea was my first song and then Honky Tonk Girl
was my second song.
Did songwriting come easy to you?
Yes. When I started writing, my husband was out on the ocean fishing,
and I wrote Whispering Sea. Whispering sea, roll on by, dont you
listen to me cry.
Honky Tonk Girl came from a lady who kept coming into the little
club. Doo got me a job working for five dollars on Saturday nights, a
little club. She came every time I worked. She told me that her husband
had left her for another woman. Shed sit there and cry. She picked
strawberries with me during the time when strawberries were ripe. And
when strawberry picking was over, she kept coming to the club and
crying. And I wrote Honky Tonk Girl from that.
So you have an idea first before you start writing?
Yes. I had to have a real reason to write a song. I wrote them about
true things. And I just kind of kept that up. Id write the words by
thinking and watching.
Do you write a whole lyric before the music?
No, I start the music on guitar with the first two or three lines.
Many of your songs are in odd keys, not normal guitar keys. Honky Tonk Girl is in C#.
Yeah, I know it. I dont know why. They told me in Nashville they
couldnt believe it, what youre writing! All your keys are funny.
Cause they wrote D, G and A, you know. I was going out on a limb a
little bit, but I didnt realize that. I started playing rhythm guitar
with my brother and a steel player when I first started singing. And I
played barre chord rhythm. I had all sorts of notes on the guitar at
that time, now I probably wouldnt remember all of them.
Since I learned all the keys, I just thought everybody did it that
way. And evidently I was different. I was so far away from country
music. I was a long way from Nashville, Tennessee.
I never knew another songwriter until I came to Nashville and met
Harlan Howard. And he said, Who in the heck taught you to play rhythm
guitar like that? I said, I taught myself. He said, I cant believe
youre the writer you are and taught yourself to play rhythm guitar like
that. But I did.
How old were you when you started playing?
24. Well, I had four kids, one right after the other. And when all
four kids were in school, I started writing. My husband got me a job
making $5 on a Saturday night and I thought I was gonna get rich. I
saved my money up and bought me a black skirt with fringe, and these
cowboy boots they were $14 and, well, I looked like Annie Oakley. I
didnt know that people didnt look like that. I come to Nashville and
Im the only one who walked in looking like a country singer, with my
boots and my guitar round my neck, Ive come to sing.
When I first started singing, although I was writing songs, I did
other peoples songs, like I Walked Away From The Wreck. Owen Bradley
told me, You start doing your own stuff. But I was afraid they
wouldnt go over. I put out records, but they didnt do nothing until I
started doing my own songs. And they went to Number 1. I was hitting
home with them, I guess, with the honky tonk music.
Your songs are so rich in detail. Did that come naturally to you?
Yeah, it just come naturally. I think anyone could do it. I think a
lot of people try to write songs that are a little out of reach. And
they should just sit down and write what they know. And what they see.
Coal Miners Daughter is such a vivid picture of your childhood.
I had more verses. Owen Bradley said, Loretta, theres already been
one El Paso and well never have another one. Get in that room and
start taking some of those verses off. Yeah, I took six verses off.
Six? It has four we know, so it had 10 verses altogether?
Yeah, I had a whole story going. I wished Id never thrown them away.
If Id kept them, I could record them now and put them back in the
You dont remember them at all?
No, but I should sit down and start rewriting on that song, and come
up with some more verses. I threw them away and I should never have done
Its amazing to think of you writing a song like that so
easily not only is it richly detailed, but you have great craft in
there, like rhyming Butcher Holler with poor mans dollar.
Well, that was the truth. Everything that I put in that song was
true. I lived all of it. Ive lived a lot of stuff that I wrote. Of
course Doo, my husband, wouldnt have wanted to heard that. But I did. I
never had to lie about anything I was writing about. That was my
problem. I didnt lie. And sometimes Owen would say, I dont know
whether you should put that out there now. Doo might divorce you. And
Id say, Let him divorce me, its the truth.
And he never did.
No, he never did. He knew they were true.
Would you always play new songs for him?
Oh yeah. I let him hear it first.
Was he honest in his response?
Yeah, he never denied any of it. He was always honest. If he liked
it, he liked it. If he didnt, hed say, I dont think thats so good.
And Id throw it away and start again.
Were you there when they shot the movie about your life, Coal Miners Daughter?
Id seen some of it. I would fly into a place if Sissy [Spacek]
needed me. Sometimes theyd call me and say, Loretta, can you fly in?
Shes been crying all day. Id fly in and thered be part of the movie
that bothered her, and shed be crying, and Id try to shut her up. Id
say, Im here, why are you crying?
But she did such a good job. For the first year, I was doing two
shows a night. And Id bring her onstage. I took her on the Opry with me
four times before the movie started. It was so hard on me, but we made
What inspired You Aint Woman Enough For My Man?
You Aint Woman Enough come to me when a little girl come back
stage and said her husband didnt bring her to the show, he brought his
girlfriend. This was before the show started, and she wanted me to look
out the curtain and see what this girl looked like. I peaked out and
there she was, painted up like you wouldnt believe. I looked round at
the little girl that was talking to me. And she didnt have no makeup at
all. And I said, Honey, she aint woman enough to take your man.
I went right straight to my dressing room and wrote it in ten
minutes. Ten minutes and a lot of money I made on that song. A lot of
people have recorded it.
Is writing a song in ten minutes unusual for you?
Sometimes they work, and sometimes they just wont. Sometimes you get
hung up on them. When that happens, you just throw it back, and maybe
come back to it two or three weeks later.
Some of your songs were quite controversial, and even banned, such as The Pill, about birth control.
Oh yeah. The Pill. Also Ones On The Way. They started hollering
about some of the songs and banned them from the radio. But immediately,
when people would hear theyd been banned from the radio, theyd hit
Number 1 in a hurry. And then [radio] would have to play them. If they
had listeners, theyd have to play the one that was banned.
Did you enjoy making the album Van Lear Rose with Jack White?
Thats the country-est album Ive ever done. I told [Jack] that and
he said, Well, thank you. And hes not a country guy, hes rock and
roll. But when my movie came out, he was nine years old and he said, I
sat in the theater and watched it all day long. It just kept coming
back on and he kept watching it. Hes a good guy, Jack White is.
I didnt know he was gonna sing with me on Portland, Oregon. I
walked in the studio and I said, Who is that man singing it with me,
Jack? and he said, Thats me. I like Jack. Anything he did I thought
Do you write the music for a song before you finish the words?
Yes. I write the melody as soon as I finish the first verse. Its got
to fit the song. If it dont fit the song, I dont think itll come
easy. But I think if it comes easy, then the melody is gonna be okay.
How do you create melodies yourself?
When I write a song, the melody just comes in my mind to fit that
song. And if its a slow tempo, I think of a slow melody to get in that
mood. I let the song come to me. I just gotta get by myself and get that
song. And if it dont come easy, I lay it down. And sometimes Ill pick
it up, and sometimes I wont ever go back to it.
Can you write at any time of day?
Night is best.
When you come up with an idea, do you always write it down right away?
If I dont, Ill never remember it. Ive got to write it down right then, or Ill lose it.
Do you remember writing Miss Being Mrs.?
Oh yeah. You know, that just came, to be truthful with you, from one
of those things where I just thought, I miss being Mrs. tonight. When
youre not married anymore which Im not, my husband passed away 14
years ago naturally, youre gonna feel that way. And you just miss
Youre good with wordplay like that. Like in Coal Miners
Daughter, when you say I remember well the well where I drew water. A
beautiful use of language.
Well, when I thought of that I felt it was a good line to use. And
then I got to thinking maybe nobody will really understand that line, so
maybe I shouldnt use it. But I let it go anyway and thought, yeah, Im
gonna use it.
And we understand.
You knew it was good, didnt you? Well, bless your heart. Boy, Ive
drawn a lot of water out of that old well back in Kentucky. That was my
job. To go and get the water.
Do you remember writing Rated X?
Yeah, that was about a married woman. Things didnt work out and she
was divorced. I probably sat down and talked to her. She told me the
story and I just wrote it.
I love your song Van Lear Rose.
I had to talk about Mommy in there. She had the biggest bluest eyes I
ever seen. She was a beautiful woman. I remember back when she was 32,
33 years old. Mommy was so beautiful. I always wanted to be as beautiful
as Mommy. Never made it. She had long black hair, beautiful blue eyes
and a dark complexion. She was Indian and Irish. My father was Indian
and Irish. And the Irish have great personalities you know. And most of
them sing. People from Ireland, you know, they come into this country
singing. Theres a couple of them in Branson right now singing. And
Indians are in touch with nature. Thats me. I wrote about things that
have happened. I probably took after the Indian part on that.
Do you remember writing Youre Looking At Country?
Yeah. I remember we came home. Weve got about 12 or 1300 acres. I
was out riding around and I looked over towards the field. Doo and
Hattie all planted some corn, and I thought, Now youre looking at
country. And immediately I come into the house and went to the writing
room and wrote it.
Are there songs you start that you cant finish?
Oh yeah. Ive had a lot of them. I dont know why I dont go back and
finish them. I just kind of quit writing. I havent written a song in a
Lazy. But Im gonna get back to it.
Youve written so many classics that you have nothing left to prove.
True, I dont have a thing to prove, but if I write, Im gonna prove
something. Dont do anything that you cant do best. I dont believe in
doing something that I dont know is good. If I go back to writing, I
bet there will be a good song out of it. If I write ten songs, there
will be three good ones out of it. I wont dedicate my life to something
thats not good.
What advice would you give songwriters?
Write about the truth. If you write about the truth, somebodys living that. Not just somebody, theres a lot of people.