Catching Up With Loretta Lynn

With a new album and more than five decades in music, the four-time Grammy winner looks back at her pioneering journey

Photo: David McClister

Loretta Lynn inside a replica of her childhood home at her Tennessee ranch.

“The sun is out, but it ain’t warm,” says Loretta Lynn from her ranch outside of Nashville on a chilly day. Lynn herself has a sunny disposition, but also a chunk of attitude that has made her a trailblazer for countless female country artists. On her new album, Full Circle, her first studio recording in more than a decade, she revisits some of her early hits such as “Fist City” and childhood Appalachian favorites like “I Never Will Marry,” and introduces newly written songs, including “Lay Me Down,” a duet with Willie Nelson. Here, the eighty-three-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer dishes on her favorite fighting songs, breaking down barriers, and the ghost of Johnny Cash.

You recorded Full Circle at Johnny Cash’s old place, now the Cash Cabin Studio. Did you feel his presence there?

Yes. You’re not gonna believe this: I cut more than ninety songs out there and did one of his songs. I was standing at the microphone singing, and the door opened from the control room into where I was recording and in walked John. I didn’t think anything of it because I was so used to seeing him; we were such good friends. He had one of those gray uniforms on from the Civil War and all of a sudden it hit me: Lord, that was Johnny Cash. I quit singing. His son came in and kind of laughed at me, but I told him Johnny came in and walked through that door. That shook me up. I don’t think anyone believed me, so I didn’t say anything more about it. Everyone thought that old Loretta’s seeing things again!

“Fist City” has to be one of the greatest butt-kicking songs ever.

I wrote that about an old gal one time. I got into it with her.

Who won?

Now, well, who do you think got whipped? Ha ha ha! I don’t let anyone get ahold of me. When I was married, my old man was running around on me a lot. I could really write those cheating songs then. He never said nothing to me. If I wrote a song about him, he didn’t say anything about it. All he would say was “That’s a good song, honey.” “Fist City,” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough”…he knew what that one was about.

You took some heat in the 1960s and ’70s for writing songs about topics such as birth control and the double standards for men and women.

I never understood that. I was just singing about what was going on. I guess people just weren’t ready for it. “The Pill” didn’t hurt the record. It helped it sell more! The disc jockeys would tell me it wasn’t good, but they weren’t used to hearing a woman talk like that. Well, they found out with me!

A lot of singers would have backed down.

I didn’t sing anything that was wrong. I just told the truth.

Jack White produced your previous record, 2004’s Van Lear Rose. Do you guys stay in touch?

Oh yeah, he’s a good kid. He’s no phony. If he likes a song, he’ll tell you. If he doesn’t, he’ll tell you.

Do you think about your legacy?

Legacy don’t mean a thing to me. I’m just glad people like me. I don’t need to go out and charge a lot of money to do a show. I am proud that people feel that way toward me and I love them for it. I get a bang out of being out there. I don’t think that ever changes, the feeling you get when you’re out there onstage. Some people think they’re better than what they are. Ain’t none of them that good.

Willie Nelson sings on the album. I imagine you guys go way back?

Willie, bless his heart, he’s such a good guy. I’ve known him for fifty years. We only saw each other when we worked together. He was in one car and I was in another. We were both lucky to have cars. I went one way, he went another.

Have you been on his tour bus? Maybe sampled some of Willie’s Reserve?

I haven’t been on his bus. I have a hard enough time getting on mine! I had some trouble with my eyes and someone told me to smoke pot and it would help. I never smoked anything in my life, not even a cigarette. Someone gave me one of those rolled-up little things and I took one little drag and I thought it was going to kill me. I said, hey, I’d rather go blind than smoke this stuff. Never again.

Do you have a secret for healthy living?

Nope. I was supposed to start walking, but I never got out there. I’ve got to do something, but I’m as healthy as a doggone horse. It’s a sin to be my age and not have anything wrong with me. God’s been good to me.