Sad news out of Nashville today: Country legend Loretta Lynn has died at age 90. In a statement, her family said she died at home in Tennessee. “Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, Oct. 4, in her sleep at home in her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills,” the statement reads. I was lucky enough to interview the coal miner’s daughter twice. Our first conversation was a phoner in 2012; then I spoke to her in person in 2016, while she ate fried chicken on her tour bus parked out back of the Grand Ole Opry. You really can’t get more country than that, I reckon. And you can’t get more country than Loretta Lynn. Here’s the story I wrote after our first chat. Enjoy. And RIP Loretta.
Loretta Lynn is making up for lost time. Still.
“I’m a late bloomer,” laughs the country music legend down the line from Tennessee. “I was way up in my 20s when I started singing. I sang and rocked my babies to sleep, but that’s about as far as that ever got. I never sang onstage until I was about 27 or 28 in 1960 or ’61. But I wouldn’t change that; it’s one of the reasons I worked so hard. If I hadn’t been as old as I was, I probably wouldn’t have been as determined. I had four kids in school, so I knew I had to make it or else.”
Half a century later, Lynn is just as determined. And just as busy. At the time of our chat, she was celebrating her 50th year in the Grand Ole Opry. She was preparing to team up with famed roots producer T-Bone Burnett on the long-awaited followup to her Grammy-winning 2004 album Van Lear Rose. She had scores of recordings stockpiled for other upcoming albums. She was about to return to Canada for a series of gigs. Her autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter — you may remember the 1980 film with Sissy Spacek — was bound for Broadway with Zooey Deschanel in the lead. And she had just became a great-grandmother again (or so she was told). Even with all that on her plate, the lively Lynn was gracious enough to spend some time on the phone talking about her life and music. Here are the highlights:
I hear you’re a great-grandmama again. Congratulations. What’s the tally now?
Lord have mercy, I don’t know. I’ve got 21 grandkids, and they’re scattered all over. They could be having dozens. I didn’t even know there was a new one. I can’t keep track of it anymore.
Do you spoil them all?
Oh, I think I spoil them pretty well. Yeah, I’m bad about that. But that’s my job.
What can you tell me about the record you’re going to make with T-Bone Burnett?
It’s going to be a real hill record, you know. It’s going to be real country. I mean, I’m already as country as cornbread. But he wants to do the real old hill records; the kind of stuff I heard when I was a little girl. There wasn’t no country music before that. I think the Carters was the first. And I remember an old song Roy Acuff come out with — I guess it might have been his first record — called Way Back in the Hills. That happened when I was about six or seven. But we haven’t got down to it yet, because I’ve been working so hard.
What else have you been working on?
I’ve got a lot of things recorded — about 60-some songs. I have a Christmas album ready to go. I’ve got two hymn albums cut. I’m always thinking about things to write, you know. So I’ll have one or two verses wrote before I ever sit down to finish something. Now, I’ve got so many written, I couldn’t tell you. I’m busy cutting them and getting them all down.
And you’re busy touring. Tell me what we’re going to see when you come back to Canada.
I can’t do that because I never know what I’m going to do until I hit that stage. I ain’t got nothing planned. I just do what people wanna hear if I know it. Every crowd is different. And I just react to them and to how I feel at the time. All I want to do is please the crowd. As an entertainer, that’s your job. People pay to get in and you sneak in the back, so it’s not right to go onstage and not give them everything you’ve got. So you see, I can’t tell you one thing about my show. But then, I’ve never seen my show.
Where do you get the stamina to maintain this schedule?
I work. I get on my bus and I ride my bus to the next date. And then I get back on the bus after the show and ride to the next date. Simple as that.
I understand you chose Zooey Deschanel to play you on Broadway. What made you pick her?
Well, we’re about the same size. And our eyes are the same colour. There were a lot of little things like that. And I’ve heard her sing and she’s got a heck of a voice on her. Not to keep up with me, mind you, but I really think she’s good. I think she’s going to do a great job. I told her anytime she needs me, I’m there to help. That’s the way I was with Sissy Spacek. I was with her a year before that movie came out. When I went on the road, she went with me. When I went on the Grand Ole Opry, she went with me. I’d sing a verse of the song and she’d take over. So I had her pretty prepared. And I’ll be there the first night on Broadway. I’ll give Zooey a standing ovation whether anybody else stands up or not.
George Jones is about the same age as you, and he recently announced his farewell tour. When it’s time, will you do something like that?
No, I’ll just probably come in one day and say ‘I quit.’ That’s it. When I was a girl, I was out picking wild greens back in the hills of Kentucky and mommy said something to me about my little boyfriend. I said, ‘We have Quee-I-T.’ That’ll be me. I’ll just say, ‘I have Quee-I-T.’
At this stage of your career, is there anything on your bucket list?
I think me and Merle Haggard are going to cut a song. We’ve been planning on it, and he’s coming back here to work my ranch in about three or four weeks and I plan on getting in the studio with him and cutting a record. He’s a great singer and he hasn’t lost any of his voice. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ll keep your number — if that’s OK with you — and I’ll call you and let you know what me and him do. I will, honey.