Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter"

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


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“Owen was very wise in capturing her talent,” Harold Bradley says today. “Whatever she was putting out, he accepted it as having charm and sincerity. Singing those songs was her great passion because she believed them and lived many of them.”

Not long before Lynn wrote and recorded “Coal Miner's Daughter,” Owen Bradley sold his Quonset Hut studio to CBS/Columbia. For a while, he continued recording there, but then Columbia decided to stop selling studio time to non-Columbia artists.

“Owen called me, and said, ‘They shut me out of my own studio. I can't record there anymore,’” says Jim Williamson, the engineer who recorded most of the Lynn tracks that Bradley produced. “And I said, ‘Well, Owen you gotta remember, you sold the sucker!’ And he said, ‘Well, why don't you come over here and talk about coming to work for me.’ And that really hit me between the eyes because Owen Bradley was the father of the music business in most of our minds. To work for him, you were at the pinnacle of your career.

“So I left CBS and went to work for Decca,” Williamson continues. “He told me one of the things he wanted me to do was design and build a recording studio at South Street and 16th. I went down with some equipment that I'd rented and determined that particular location, due to the WLAC-AM radio tower, was just loaded with RF. We would have had to build a big screen room to make it work, and then we would still have problems. I told him that from my point of view, that as much as I would like to design and build Decca's recording studio in Nashville, we should go somewhere else.

“He said, ‘I have my studio out in Mt. Juliet, but I can't record there because it would be a conflict of interest. I said, ‘I don't understand that. Decca needs a recording studio to record their acts. Why don't you have Decca pay the studio a fair fee per hour and rent the studio to record Decca artists?’ And he said, ‘You think that would be all right?’ And I said, ‘I know it would be all right.’ Owen was probably the epitome of an honest businessman.”

So Owen Bradley, Williamson and Decca's A-list musicians moved their main recording operations out to Bradley's Barn in Mt. Juliet. Williamson remembers well the gear they had out in that studio, largely because it provided a constant challenge: The console was a 4-channel, 12-input P.A. board from Altec-Lansing.

“It had an outrigger, which was an Ampex MX10, 4-mic in, 2-channel out mixer that was mounted in a side rack,” Williamson says. “Between recording and playback, you had to break the whole cotton-picking thing down and repatch it for playback, which, of course, lost your levels, so you had to set levels every time you had a playback. After Decca began using the studio exclusively for its recordings, Owen authorized upgrades that helped tremendously. The Ampex mixer had been added to facilitate driving an 8-track recorder. A 16-track recorder was added some time just before, or after, the studio moved.”

The recording sessions that included “Coal Miner's Daughter” took place in October of 1969. Williamson says he can still see the musicians out in the room in his mind's eye: “You want me to draw you a mental picture? Buddy Harman's drums were center-stage in an open booth that offered minimum isolation, so I had to use the omni position on many of the mics and close proximity to gain more control.

“So with the drum booth at the center of a clock, 12 o'clock was Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins on piano with Bob Moore in close proximity on bass; 1 to 2 o'clock would be rhythm guitars; 3 and 4 o'clock would be electric and steel guitars; Loretta would be singing at about 5 o'clock; and The Jordanaires singing background at 6 or 7 o'clock.”

The guitarists on “Coal Miner's Daughter” were members of Owen Bradley's usual A-team: Harold Bradley, Grady Martin and Ray Edenton. Williamson recalls using a Neumann U67 mic for electric and steel guitars, and a Schoeps on rhythm. He says the lead vocal mic would have been a U47 or 67.

While most of the song was cut live, Harold Bradley believes that Bobby Thompson's banjo work was overdubbed. The only overdub Williamson remembers doing was one extra word: “Loretta came into the control room and we made a playback,” Williamson says, “and she said, ‘Aw, shucks, I wanted to say, “yeah” going into that last chorus. I wanted to say, “Yeah, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter,” and I left it out.’ And I said, ‘Well, why don't you jump out there and give me a “yeah”?’ And she said, ‘You can do that?’ And I said, ‘Just listen along, and when it gets to that point, you just go ahead and bellow out “yeah” and we'll have it.’ So I chose a track that was open, and I just walked along a few bars before and she said ‘yeah,’ and it was over.”

It's perhaps a little-known fact that Lynn's original composition had nine verses. “My brother cut it down to the six he thought were more relevant,” Harold Bradley says, “because she'd written a short book there.”

“One verse was about mommy papering the walls with magazines, right above my head with pictures of movie stars and such,” Lynn writes. “Another was how the creek would rise every time it rained, and daddy would have to cut logs across so we could get downhill. The third was about hog-killing day in December so we'd have fresh meat for Christmas.”

That “short book” stayed in the can for almost a year until Decca released it as a single in 1970; Lynn says that for a long time, she “didn't believe anybody would buy a song just about me.” But the song clearly resonated with a broad audience; it rose to Number One on Billboard's Country Singles chart, contributed to Lynn winning the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award in '72 and, of course, became the basis of Lynn's autobiography and hugely successful Coal Miner's Daughter film starring Sissy Spacek.

Williamson continued doing studio work for several more years before changing to a career in real estate, but he looks back fondly on his days working for Owen Bradley: “It was a tremendous treat, and I just learned googles from the guy; more than you could ever think. And we were buddies right up to the day he died.”

Owen Bradley passed away in 1998. His brother Harold, now VP of the American Federation of Musicians, is quick to point out that he's still making musical memories, but he knows that those days at the Quonset Hut and in Bradley's Barn, working side-by-side with his brother, were some of the best.

“One thing about Loretta,” Harold Bradley says, “when you walked in the studio, you were going to get a hug, and when you left, you were going to get a hug. We all became like a family. The business part was secondary to the personal part of going in and meeting an old friend and having a party and making a few records.”

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