Loretta Lynn: So Much More Than a Coal Miner’s Daughter
Loretta Lynn is an icon in the world of country music. She makes no apologies for who she is or where she is from. The hit songs that she wrote and recorded are infused with her hard-scrabble upbringing in the mountains of Kentucky during the 1930s and '40s. Upon reading the preface and opening letter of her autobiography, Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter, it is immediately apparent that she is both bigger than life and down-to-earth at the same time. Her prose reads in a straightforward manner — simple, raw, and Southern like so many of the songs that have made her famous. She doesn't know any other way to be, and that is why we love her.
Loretta was born in the Appalachian back-country community of Butcher Hollow (pronounced "Holler" by Loretta and the locals) and married at the age of thirteen. She lived life a bit differently than today's average American. She says as much, "Holler people are just different from anybody else." Considering that her first car ride didn't occur until she was twelve, nor did she see a toilet with running water until she was married, she has come a long way.
With a tumultuous marriage (her husband cheated on her several times) and a deep understanding of the troubles of America's impoverished mountain people, Loretta expressed herself in song. And thank heavens she did. Whether she was writing a song about the importance of birth control for women (The Pill), or putting another woman in her place for sleeping with her man (Fist City), Loretta's music is a source of solace and inspiration when things get rough or when you've been mistreated. Through these songs, Loretta became more than just a cultural icon in the world of country music; she broke out of that genre to become a friend to the downhearted everywhere — country music fan or not.
Loretta Lynn's biography isn't one to read because you share a similar background — although it is fine if you do — but it is a good story to read because Loretta "gets it." She illustrates the common thread that humanity has stitched throughout. It isn't about where you are from or how much education you have; it is about being human and working through this crazy life together. Loretta has proven through millions of albums sold and sold-out concerts all across the nation that her wisdom is about more than just being a simple coal miner's daughter. It is universal in terms of the human condition, making her songs just as relevant decades after they were first released.
Well, I was borned a coal miner's daughter,
In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler,
We were poor but we had love. . . .
—"Coal Miner's Daughter,"
by Loretta Lynn
Most people know that much about me, because those are the first words of my biggest song. I open my show with it because I know people are gonna request it until I sing it. I wrote it myself, nine verses, and it broke my heart when I had to cut three verses out because it was too long. I could have written a thousand more verses, I've got so many memories of Butcher Holler.
To me, that place is the most important part of my life. My fans and writers are always making a big deal about me acting natural, right from the country. That's because I come from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, and I ain't never forgot it.
I'm always making Butcher Holler sound like the most backward part of the United States—and I think maybe it is. I've travelled all over this country, down South and out West, and I ain't never seen anything like it. And I ain't making fun of it, because I'm the most backward person you ever saw. I never knew where babies came from until it happened to me.
This might give you an idea of how backward we are, but first, to appreciate this story, you've go to know that in eastern Kentucky we saw the word "press" instead of "closet." Anyway, one of my best friends is Dr. John Turner, who took care of me when I was younger.
Doc swears he saw this patient standing in front of the hospital elevator, looking confused. Doc asked him what was the matter, and the patient said, "Doc, I just seen a nurse get into that press—and when the door opened she was gone!" See, that patient live in a holler all his life and never saw an elevator before. Myself, I never rode in an automobile until I was twelve.
Holler people are just different from anybody else. They live high up in the hills, one day at a time. There's probably a few who don't know who the president is, and there have been times when they were better off that way. Maybe things are changing now, with television and better roads and stuff, but I've got relatives living up in Butcher Holler who have never been further than Paintsville, ten miles away, in their lives. They're really beautiful people in their own way. Everybody else is worrying about the energy crisis, and talking about getting back to the simple things. My people are already there. If we run out of energy, my relatives know how to patch their houses and grow gardens, so they're gonna have the last laugh on everybody.
Let me explain where Butcher Holler is. You take any place in the United States today, and they've got an interstate highway, right? Well, you get on one of them interstates and drive to Huntington, West Virginia, which is already pretty hilly country—but you ain't seen nothing yet. You get off Interstate 64 and head south along Highway 23 into Kentucky. That's a good three-lane highway going past some nice farms and factories and mobile homes. You drive for about an hour and a half until you get to Paintsville, which has around 4,000 people.
Paintsville may not look too big to outsiders, but in Johnson County it's the biggest thing going. That's the first place I ever saw a toilet with running water, just before I got married. I went into the bus station to go to the bathroom, but when I sat down on the seat, the toilet flushed automatically. I got so scared I was gonna get flushed down, I ran out of there and waited until we found a good old outhouse.
When I was a little girl, my big city was Van Lear, which was five miles away, a coal camp for the Consolidated Coal Company, with rows of wooden houses they rented to the miners. There must have been 10,000 people living around Van Lear in the good times. The company had a post office and company stores where you paid for you things in scrip. If you went into debt, you owed your soul to the company store, just like the song says. The company also had a recreation hall where they showed movies. People make coal camps sound like slavery, but in a lot of ways it was the best thing ever happened to people—as long as coal kept running.
Before I was born, Van Lear was a boom town. The company kept their houses painted. The foremen had nice homes up on Silk Stocking row, and the bosses had real beautiful homes. Off to one side was a row of houses called Nigger Holler where the black miners lived. They worked in the mines with the whites, but they had to live off by themselves. I'm sure there was prejudice in the coal camps, but my family grew up so high in the hollers, we never knew about it.
My Daddy was color-blind in two ways. About the only color he could see real good was yellow, and I have troubled telling red from orange myself. But we were also color-blind about people. It's like in 1972, when I was up for the award for Best Female Singer on national television, and Charley Pride was going to present the award. People warned me not to kiss Charley in case I won, because it would hurt my popularity with country fans. I heard that one girl singer got canceled Down South after giving a little peck to a black friend on television. Well, Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music, and I got so mad that when I won I made sure I gave him a big old hug and a kiss right on camera. You know what? Nobody canceled on me. If they had, fine, I'd have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.
From the Trade Paperback edition.