She heard the voice loud and clear: “Get out of the damn bed!” A year before, singer Loretta Lynn’s beloved husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, had died, and now it was as if he were standing there in her room. In any case, it was a message she desperately needed to hear. Shortly after Doolittle’s 1996 death, Lynn moved out of her family compound in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, and holed up in her house in Nashville.
She stayed under the covers, staring at the television, living in her nightgown. Her life had turned upside down. “Have I been in town for about two months?” she finally asked a friend.
“No, Loretta,” the woman replied. “You’ve been here a year.”
Then came the voice from beyond. Says Lynn, “I got up and I dressed for the first time in a year.”
What happened next was one of the most remarkable comebacks in show business history, even by the good-times, bad-times standards of country music. At age 69, Lynn has released the most critically acclaimed album of her life, Van Lear Rose, a collaboration with Jack White, the 29-year-old lead singer and guitarist of red-hot garage-rock band The White Stripes. This new release has earned five Grammy nominations, a clutch of lesser music industry awards — and a whole new audience for Lynn. When she learned that one of L.A.’s hippest radio stations was playing Van Lear Rose, she called daughter Patsy and exclaimed, “Honey, your mommy is a rock star!”
Despite their age difference, she and White get along “like brother and sister,” says Lynn with a bounce in her voice, sitting in her living room in Nashville. White’s aim was to capture the essence of what makes Lynn the greatest songwriter of the last century, as he has called her.
For Van Lear Rose, for the first time since her debut, she wrote all the material, drawing on her imagination and Gothic stories mined deep from her extraordinary life.
Lynn (born Loretta Webb) was raised in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, and remembers at age seven crying her eyes out when the family hog chewed the only dress she owned that wasn’t made from flour sacks. Her parents struggled to put food on the table — once a week, says Lynn, they ate possum,
rabbit or raccoon caught in traps her mother set. When Loretta was 13, she dropped out of the sixth grade to marry Doolittle, the man she calls her “everything,” an Army soldier who was eight years her senior. Her parents were heartbroken — Doolittle was also her third cousin.
“Mommy and Daddy liked to died — they cried all night long,” she remembers. But by introducing her to the music business and pushing her to perform, Doolittle led Lynn to fame and fortune.
The journey began when Doolittle bought his wife “a little $17 git-tar” when she was 27 and a mother of four. “Doo would come in while I was rocking the babies to sleep, and he’d hear me sing,” she recalls. “One day he said, ‘I’ve been listening to all of these girl singers on the radio. None of ’em can sing as good as you.’ ” With the guitar, Lynn wrote “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” and Doolittle told her, “I’m gonna put you on the road.”
At first Lynn thought he was threatening to send her back to her parents, something he had done before. Bickering, and the occasional knock-down, drag-out, was just a way of life for Loretta and Doolittle. One night when he turned abusive over dinner, she slapped an entire skillet of hot creamed corn on his head. “He went around three days like that,” she says with a laugh, her blue eyes dancing. “His face was pulled this a-way, and his hair was all stuck up, but he wanted everybody to see what I’d done to him.”
With a shrug, she attributes much of his behavior to alcoholism, citing a long line of hard drinkers in his family. What she can’t excuse, however, is his unfaithfulness. Being Loretta Lynn called for nearly endless touring — Lynn launched a six-week USO show to Germany in 1964, when the last of her six children, twins Patsy and Peggy (“they started coming in pairs!”), were only three weeks old. Her long absences gave Doolittle nearly endless opportunities to stray.
But word of his indiscretions would inevitably catch up with her. She was once onstage in Las Vegas, introducing “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man),” when a female voice cried out in the audience, “Well, I’ll have to tell you, I was with your old man!” The singer didn’t say a word; she merely unplugged her microphone and started walking on tables, spilling drinks as she made her way toward the woman. “They drug her out the side door, and it’s a good thing,” she says, shaking her head. “I was gonna use that microphone on her.”
Still, she stayed married, for 48 years. In the early days, after they’d moved to Washington State, where Doolittle had family, she’d wanted to leave him, but had no money for the bus fare back to Kentucky. And she believed the children needed their father. But as the years went by, she stayed for a bigger reason: She loved him. The woman who had gone from the house of her father to the house of her husband saw her mate as her daddy, husband and lover, all rolled into one. “I loved this man because I thought that was all there was,” she explains.
On the album White produced, Lynn comes through as an irresistible mix of innocence, steely resolve and mountain sagacity. Her songs, which she pares down from prose stories she first writes out in longhand, bear out what people who know her always say — that at this point she seems somehow sprung from American mythology, as magical as Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. It’s part of her intrinsic nature, probably, but it’s also a product of all she’s seen and done, the people she’s lost, Doolittle and son Jack Benny Lynn included, and several decades in the bubble of a touring country road show.
“Because she married so young,” her daughter Patsy, 40, explains, “she’s so childlike in so many ways.” She fills her home with families of dolls, some 40 inches tall and elaborately dressed in the kind of beaded, sequined gowns she wears onstage. “She relives so many memories,” Patsy says, even though most are not idyllic. In the wake of her mom’s creative resurgence, Patsy recently asked Lynn what makes her happy. She answered, “Honey, I can’t have what makes me happy. I want your daddy back and all my kids back home.”
While Loretta wishes she had been more available and focused on her children, in the long run, she says she regrets very little — not even her painful childhood in the hollers of Kentucky, sleeping four to a bed and hunting possum by flashlight.
“I wouldn’t trade that life for nothing I’ve done since I’ve been married,” she sums up. “That was a great life. Even though I’ve been to bed hungry, I wouldn’t trade it. The way I was raised made me what I am.”