Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter"

May 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz


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In her 1976 memoir, Coal Miner's Daughter (written with journalist George Vecsey), Loretta Lynn dispels the myth that all of her song lyrics come from her own diary. “Honky Tonk Girl” was inspired by a young woman Lynn saw crying into her beer in a bar. “You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” describes the domestic strife of one of her fans. But if there's one song that sets Lynn's personal memories to music, it's her affectionate, understated appreciation of her childhood, “Coal Miner's Daughter.”

Like the song says, Lynn was born into a loving family in a shack in Butcher Holler, near the coal-mining town of Van Lear, Ky. Born in 1935, she was the second of eight siblings, and her family's struggle for survival was unfortunately commonplace. Her father Melvin Webb's health suffered cruelly from years of hard labor and breathing coal dust. Her mother, Clara, bore all but one of her children at home because the family didn't have the resources for a hospital stay. Lynn's first memories of singing for an “audience” are of shouting hymns out to the hills as she rocked one of her younger brothers or sisters on their front porch.

“That was my main job,” she writes in her memoir. “I'd swing and rock them babies and sing at the top of my voice.”

Lynn met her husband, 19-year-old Oliver “Doolittle” Vanetta Lynn, at a “pie social” when she was 13 years old, and she was married, against her parents' wishes, before she turned 14. Lynn was pregnant with her first child when Doolittle was offered a job on a ranch in Washington state, and the Lynns began to raise their growing family in the Northwest.

Several years after their move to Washington, Doolittle surprised his wife — by then a mother of four — with a guitar and told her to learn how to play it.

“Doo said I had a good voice, and he wanted me to sing. What did I think?” Lynn recalls in Coal Miner's Daughter. “Well, I was surprised. Stunned, you could say. I didn't know Doolittle thought that much about my singing. I was proud to be noticed, to tell you the truth, so I went right to work on it. When the kids were in school or asleep at night, I'd sit in my front room, learning how to play the guitar better. I never took no lessons or nothing — I just played. After a while, I got where I could play a pretty good tune on it. First I was singing Kitty Wells' songs on it, but after a while I started making up my own.”

Doolittle proceeded to talk his shy young wife's way into club dates. Her first single, “Honky Tonk Girl,” was bankrolled by a wealthy Vancouver widower named Norm Burley; he saw Lynn perform “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” on a TV talent-show broadcast from Tacoma, Wash., and simply decided he wanted to help her career. Burley released the single on a one-shot label he called Zero Records. He even pitched in for a radio-promotion tour; the Lynns traveled from Washington to Nashville, stopping at every country radio station along the way to encourage disc jockeys to play the single. By the time Lynn arrived in Nashville, she had a hit single and a little more confidence.

Lynn writes that she talked her way into her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry radio program by “pestering” the manager, Ott Devine. Not long after that, they decided that she could use some help to make more headway in Music City, so they turned to the Wilburn Brothers, popular country artists at the time who also ran a talent agency. They signed Lynn and brought her into their own studio, Sure-Fire, to record a new song they could shop to labels. That demo song was called “Fool Number One.”

“They figured I might as well start at the top, so they took the ‘demo’ record to Owen Bradley at Decca Records. Owen Bradley is one of the biggest men in the business,” Lynn wrote in her 1976 memoir. “He talks like an easygoing country man, but he's been responsible for more country music hits than anybody.”

When Lynn and the Wilburns first approached Bradley, the now-legendary producer was still recording all of his productions in the 3-track Quonset Hut studio, where he and engineer Selby Coffeen had captured Patsy Cline's masterpieces, such as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” He owned that studio with his brother, Harold Bradley, who is now widely considered the most-recorded guitarist of all time, with dozens of credits including Cline, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and Elvis Presley, as well as Lynn.

“Owen was looking for a song for Brenda Lee,” Harold Bradley explains, “The Wilburns were pitching him Loretta's song, and he liked the song, but he wanted it for Brenda Lee. But they said, ‘You can't have the song without the artist.’ So they reached a compromise.”

Owen Bradley signed Lynn to a six-month contract with the agreement that Lee would record “Fool Number One” but Decca Records would put out a different record for Lynn if she had another song. She had plenty, and she and Bradley soon had a string of hits with tracks such as “Blue Kentucky Girl,” “You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Fist City.” Lynn and Owen Bradley also developed a very warm working relationship.

“I always felt like Owen was a father to me,” Lynn writes. “He could see I was just a scared little country girl, and he made me relax. I remember one time, after we signed, we didn't have any money. I started crying in his office, and he gave me $1,000 out of his pocket, not from the company, to pay my rent and the back bills. The next year, we were making some money and we paid Owen back. But I ain't never forgotten that man helping me like he did.”

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