Loretta Lynn’s life has been a book and a movie, and the newest chapter is “kinda laid out” on Still Country, her first solo album in 12 years, says the Country Music Hall of Fame member.
Several highly personal songs, including one she wrote and one written by her producer, Randy Scruggs, have direct bearing on the emotional devastation she endured after the death of her husband, Mooney Lynn (“Doo” to Loretta), in August 1996 from diabetes-related health problems.
“I didn’t realize I was picking out the type of songs that I was picking,” Lynn admitted during a news conference this week. But in songs such as Scruggs’ “On My Own Again,” her own “I Can’t Hear the Music” and the Vince Gill-Max D. Barnes composition “Table for Two,” the image of a woman dealing with deep loss and trying to gain her equilibrium comes through again and again.
This year marks Lynn’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist, but her last solo album of new material, Who Was That Stranger?, appeared in 1988. In the interim she joined Dolly Parton and the late Tammy Wynette as the Honky Tonk Angels in 1993 and she released a sacred collection, All Time Gospel Favorites, in 1997.
Scruggs, son of Earl Scruggs (who appears twice on the new record), has known Lynn since he was around 10 years old. On the new album, he let her find her own direction creatively. “Randy didn’t say much to me,” she explains. “It’s a wonder he [didn't say], ‘Loretta, maybe you shouldn’t pick all this stuff where you’re all alone all the time.’
“He’d wrote one of ‘em,” she continues in her inimitable Eastern Kentucky brogue. “He couldn’t say much to it. He wrote the one that I love the most, ‘On My Own Again.’ I cried all the way through that, cried all the way through ‘I Can’t Hear the Music.’ I had a crying dadgum good time by myself. I think I had half the people crying that was in [the studio].”
The inspiration for her own song, “I Can’t Hear the Music” — co-written with Cody James and Kendal Franceschi — Lynn says, came from Doo himself, who “kept telling me he couldn’t hear the music anymore, and I thought he didn’t want me singing anymore,” she says. “It was kind of a sad thing, that I didn’t know you couldn’t hear when you got sugar diabetes. I didn’t know, right up at the last, that he couldn’t hear at all.”
The song describes a mate who “always told me the truth/No matter how hard it was to hear,” who “was my toughest critic and my biggest fan.” As she finishes the second verse, Lynn chokes up briefly on the recording.
From a different but no less basic side of her personality comes the proud declaration, “Lord, I’ve got country in my genes.” Her latest single, “Country in My Genes,” echoes the theme of her first, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” in 1960. Her new label, Koch-distributed Audium, has released a single with both songs on it. A video for “Country in My Genes” features Lynn and special guests Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Chely Wright, Brad Paisley, John Anderson and Randy and Earl Scruggs.
Lynn will promote her new album the same way she promoted her 50 or 60 previous albums — through hard work. Her touring schedule through the balance of the year includes dates from Pennsylvania to California. She will be part of the Grand Ole Opry’s 75th anniversary celebration Oct. 14. She has plans to visit radio stations in support of her single, and she will appear on The Late Show With David Letterman and The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
Her approach to touring hasn’t changed, Lynn says. “You just get out there and give ‘em everything you’ve got.” But the mode of travel has. “For 10 years I sat in the back seat between two people, with the instruments between your legs and anywhere you could put ‘em,” she recalls. “I love the big bass that you play. We had it on top of the car. It looked like the Beverly Hillbillies going to Hollywood.”
Now Lynn goes by bus — her own. She appeared on stage recently with George Jones. In the hardscrabble early years of her career they traveled and worked together, and Doo would drive them around.
“We were in the back seat singing to each other,” she recalls. “I would sing him ‘World of Forgotten People’ and he would cry. He’d sing me ‘The Color of the Blues’ and I would cry. Doo would say, ‘Damn you all, if you don’t quit crying, I’m gonna stop this car and put you out right here.’ A couple of times he stopped and put us out, then come back and picked us up. We give him a hard time. Poor little George, if he was drinking, he’d cry. I didn’t have to be drunk to cry.”
Lynn continues to mix things up — for herself and the people who work with her. “Working Girl,” a song on the new album co-written by Scruggs and Matraca Berg, has a pop feel, musically, though the lyrics will connect with real women working for a living wage in contrast to the idealized images portrayed in the media.
“I always pick something different for me to sing,” Lynn says of the song. “I think I do it just to shock people, and I shocked my manager [Lane Cross] real bad. He kept saying ‘That’s not a Loretta Lynn song. That’s not a Loretta Lynn song.’ He stomped outta the studio two or three times and come back in. I had to laugh at him. After I got it [recorded], I think that was one of his favorite songs. He’d take it home and let his wife listen to it and that’s the one she picked out, ’cause she’s a working girl.”
A sequel to Lynn’s autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, is slated for release later this year. “I’ve lived, hard and good,” she says, “and it was time for me to write another book.” She also is building a new, “million-dollar museum” near her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., slated to open next year.
In the meantime, she has begun writing songs for her next album. “I’m a honky-tonk writer and I can’t get out of that too much,” she concedes. “I’m a gospel writer, I can write gospel music, but when it comes to just lovey-dovey songs, I’m having the awfulest time there ever was.”
Larry Shell and Larry Cordle, co-writers with Betty Key of “Country in My Genes,” also are co-writers of “Murder on Music Row,” nominated for Song of the Year in Country Music Association award voting.
Lynn likes “Murder on Music Row” and feels the song should have gotten more airplay from country radio stations. “It kinda told the story of what they were trying to do to country music today,” says Lynn, who came to Nashville singing in a traditional style at a time when the more cosmopolitan Nashville Sound was on the ascent. Just as surely as the styles changed then, Lynn feels that the current wave of pop-country will yield to something new in time. Country music will not die.
“It ain’t gonna work, ’cause country music is the basis of all music,” she says defiantly. “Where’d it come from? Sitting around the fire, banging on a tub for drums and whatever, playing a washboard, humming through a comb and playing with whatever instruments you could get ahold of. The black people did this, this is where the blues come from, this is where we’ve all come from, country music.”