Loretta Lynn: Honky Tonk Girl

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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 doesn’t take any agony or even much thought, it just takes time with a guitar alone to capture them as they fly by. That’s 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 music’s greatest singers and songwriters.

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 she’d done it her whole life. Her first two songs, “Whispering Sea” and “I’m 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 couldn’t 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 Miner’s 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 wasn’t 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 controversy.

Today she’s 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 it’s an honor for this writer to interview her, she just laughs, and says, “Honey, don’t 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 didn’t 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, don’t 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. She’d 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. I’d 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 don’t know why. They told me in Nashville they couldn’t believe it, what you’re 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 can’t believe you’re 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 didn’t know that people didn’t look like that. I come to Nashville and I’m the only one who walked in looking like a country singer, with my boots and my guitar round my neck, I’ve come to sing.

When I first started singing, although I was writing songs, I did other people’s songs, like “I Walked Away From The Wreck.” Owen Bradley told me, “You start doing your own stuff.” But I was afraid they wouldn’t go over. I put out records, but they didn’t 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.


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