By Michael G. Ankerich
Loretta Lynn’s death on Tuesday, October 4, 2022, stunned me, caught me off guard. I was working at home when my phone beeped. I looked down at the text message from The Washington Post. “Loretta Lynn dead at 90.”
I got up from my desk, walked into the den and told Charlie the news. “Loretta’s dead,” I said. I didn’t shed tear. Instead, a cold chill went from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.
I hadn’t talked with Loretta in decades, but the day she died, the years collapsed and I remembered my time with her. When she died, I felt I’d lost an old friend.
It was easy to call Loretta an old friend. Everyone she met was either “sweetheart” or “honey.”
I first saw Loretta in person when I went to her concert in the mid-1970s. When the show was over, I walked down to the edge of the stage. I stood in line to say hello while she signed autographs. I was smitten.
When I went to Nashville, after I saw Loretta in concert, I looked at everyone’s face I passed to see if it was Loretta’s. No Loretta, but I did find her bus.
We finally met in November of 1982, when she played the Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, South Carolina. I was a journalism student and still smitten with the Coal Miner’s Daughter.
I had read in her autobiography that she had always been nice to the press because they had been nice to her. That was my entrée into her world. I would pose as a reporter.
I put together a fake press pass and contacted a fan club representative with my request. The representative contacted Ken Riley, Loretta’s road manager, and the appointment was made. I was beyond being excited.
The evening of the show, I made my way to her bus, winding my way through legions of fans wanting for a glimpse of the star. Ken welcomed me. He said I had five minutes.
There I was, not quite 20, boarding Loretta Lynn’s bus to meet the lady herself. Climbing the steps, I turned left, glimpsed Loretta, before my feet hit another step up. I almost fell into her lap. She said, “Well, come on in, honey.”
By the time we settled into a booth, not three feet from each other, five minutes was over. Loretta settled my nerves. “It’s okay, honey, take as much time as you need.” We spent about 20 minutes together.
By the time we settled into a booth, not three feet from each other, five minutes was over. Loretta settled my nerves. “It’s okay, honey. Take as much time as you need.” We spent about 20 minutes together.
The second time I interviewed Loretta was in 1986, when I was a senior in college. Like the first time, we met before her show. This time, Loretta met me in a housecoat and bedroom slippers. While we chatted, she rolled her wet hair in rollers and pinned them in place. I can’t believe this, I thought. A icon allowing a reporter to see her put it all together for her fans. I understood why she was referred to as one of the world’s most admired women.
From that night on, Loretta Lynn could do no wrong.
The third and final time we met was in 1989. It didn’t matter that she had worked two shows and it was after midnight. Loretta made time for me. I called that night, Talking After Midnight.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of subjects over the past 40 years, but Loretta Lynn rises to the top of the list when I have to name a favorite.
First, I was a huge fan of her music. I was also as green as they came when it came to interviewing anyone, much less this icon and giant in the music business. Third, the time she gave me, along with her gracious, encouragement, and down-to-earth presence, gave me the confidence I needed to carry me along for the next 40 years. I can only say, “Thank you, sweetheart.”
I have combined our three interviews into one continuous question and answer session. Enjoy!
Michael: First thing I want to ask about is the relationship you have with your fans. They’re out there crowded around the bus. I’ve seen you on stage many times, and I think you’re enjoying yourself. There seems to be this energy going back and forth. What is it?
Loretta: I think being with the people, looking down at them, seeing them singing, and clapping their hands. I think that kind of says, “Hey, you know, you’re out there singing, you’re trying to make people happy and this is making you happy.”
Michael: So that’s the connection you have with your fans.
Loretta: That’s right. If it’s making them happy, it’s making me happy.
Michael: This setting seems a long way from Butcher Holler, Kentucky. You were a teenage mother with four kids by the time you were 18. It looked as though you were going to spend your life as a mother and a housewife. What happened?
Loretta: Well, I didn’t start singing until I had four kids in school. Two years after I started singing, I got pregnant with the twins. I figured, well this is it, the career is over. I didn’t figure that I could ever make it with another baby, after having four and getting them all in school.
Michael: Your story is similar to that of Tammy Wynette. I believe she had three kids by the time she moved to Nashville.
Loretta: I believe so. I just kept right on trucking. I worked hard. I worked right up until the babies were born. I went back to work about nine days after they were born and have been on the road ever since.
Michael: I read that it was your husband, Doolittle, who pushed you into the music business.
Loretta: That’s right. Right at first, I would really get sick when I had to sing. I didn’t want to do it.
Michael: What were your reservations?
Loretta: Well, I had never been out in public. In Butcher Holler, the only people we saw were from the Revenue trying to find moonshine stills and stuff like that. Kids didn’t talk. We’d stand behind the door and holler to the next house, “Stranger‘s coming up the holler.”
When my husband (pictured right with Loretta in 1955) took a notion for me to sing, I had four kids. At that age, I was so bashful. I was also embarrassed because the only thing I had to wear was stuff I’d get from the Salvation Army. I did my first show in a ten cent pair of penny loafers and a little skirt and sweater I got at the Salvation Army.
Michael: You mentioned that being on stage and singing made you physically ill.
Loretta: It did. When I realized that Doo was going to make me sing, I went to the doctor and told him I was having these headaches. He told me I was going to have to get it in my mind that my husband was going to make me do it. He told me not to look at people when I was onstage, but just pretend like I was at home rocking the babies, just like I always was.
Michael: Was that good advice?
Loretta: That’s when I realized I was going to make it. If I had to do it, there was no doubt in my mind that I couldn’t.
Michael: I hear you’re writing a sequel to your memoir, Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Loretta: I am. It’s coming along really good. I’ve got enough written for 15 books. I’ll edit it down to what it should be.
Michael: Do you expect it to be as big as your first book?
Loretta: It’ll be bigger and a better book than the first one. It’s going to start with my first memory and end with the last thing on my mind when I’m finishing it up. God only knows what that would be.
Michael: With a new book, can we expect a sequel to the movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter?
Loretta: Yes, they’ll have to do another movie and I’ll play Mommy in this one. They played Mommy pretty dang good in the first movie, I thought.
When I got married and left home, I didn’t see Mommy for seven years. When I came home, I didn’t know her. She’d been sick and lost all of her teeth. When I left, she weighed 110 pounds. When I came back, she weighed 80.
Michael: Tell me a little about your mother. Clara was her name, I believe.
Loretta: Mommy (pictured left with Loretta and Crystal Gayle, Loretta’s younger sister) was a very colorful person. She was part Cherokee Indian and Irish. That’s why she was so dark. Before Doo and I moved to the state of Washington, Mommy would color white feed sacks using different colored rocks and put berries and different things in them. She wore blood red lipstick way back before people ever did it. I said to her one day, “Mommy, that lipstick is plum red.” She said, “Well that’s the name of it, plum red.“
Michael: I thought Sissy Spacek did a phenomenal job portraying you on screen.
Loretta: Fantastic. Sissy did a fantastic job. She’s got a little girl now. She was down at the house a couple of weeks ago, in fact.
Michael: What did you think of the movie Sweet Dreams, a film made about your friend, Patsy Cline.
Loretta: I saw little clips of it on television. I just didn’t think it portrayed Patsy like I remember her. I didn’t want to be disillusioned by anything else. I knew who she was. I know that she was my friend and I knew her very well.
Michael: Of all the awards you’ve won, is there one that stands out among all the rest?
Loretta: It happens to be one of my most recent awards (1986), from the American Academy of Achievement (for public service in the arts, business, science, and exploration). During that dinner, nobody was talking to each other, and I didn’t know anyone, except Ed Asher, the emcee. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever been to.
Finally I punched the guy next to me. “What’s your name?” I asked. He said, “The son of the man who started Johnson and Johnson.” I said, “Can you tell me what’s wrong with this guy over here?” He had his glasses way down on his nose and was looking up in the air. He said that he was a mad scientist and that most of the people here were mad scientists.
So I then punched the guy sitting on the other side of me and said, “Hey, what did you do? He says, “I split the atom.” I thought to myself, “Loretta, what are doing in this place?”
I really got worried. I really didn’t know what to do. It was so weird to be in this place were nobody was talking. I told the Johnson and Johnson guy sitting next to me that I had no idea what I was doing here or why they were giving me anything. I said to him, “I haven’t invited nothing but kids!”
Finally it came time for me to receive my award. Ed was so sweet. He said, “I want to tell you why my little sweetheart is here. You may not think she’s done anything, but here’s what she’s done.” He talked for about 10 minutes on what all I got and all what I had done. I couldn’t believe that I had done all that. When I took the award, I said, “Friends, I’ve never been in a room of people that were so distinguished and I’m just honored.”
Michael: That award was certainly indignant of your success. How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Loretta: Success to me is peace of mind and very few people have it.
Michael: Your success has not come without its sacrifices.
Loretta: I think that’s what bothered me in the music business. It really did get me down, because I was away from my kids so much. I really didn’t get to see my twins grow up. (Loretta and her husband are photographed with their newborn twins below, 1965.)
Right after I lost my son (in a drowning accident in 1984), I got on television and we were doing interviews. They were asking me about how I felt about being on the road so much. I said what hurt me the most was that I didn’t get to see my twins take their first step or cut their first teeth. I started crying.
Last night, my little grandkid by my son that died, came up just as I started singing I Fall To Pieces. I hadn’t seen that little boy in three years and he looks just like my boy. I just fell to pieces and I ain’t over yet. I held him and I held him and cried. He said he was going to see me more often and asked me about going with me on the road for the weekend. I’d love to have him do that.
Michael: Back to those words, success and sacrifice. Constant touring and going to the fans was a key to success, but it played hand in hand with sacrifice. Being away from your family was the price you paid for being at the top of your game.
Loretta: Yeah. I worked my butt off. That’s the main key to success in this business.
I’ll tell you something. You have to either work hard to be successful in the music business or get out. There is no half way. You may have good luck along the way, but you’re not going to be successful if you don’t go all the way with it.
Michael: That’s true for any profession, don’t you think?
Loretta: Yes, it is. I don’t think it’s just music, but it’s any profession that any young kid picks. They can say, “Hey, I’m going to be a doctor or I want to be a lawyer or I’m going to be a singer or I’m going to be a store clerk.” It doesn’t matter. You have got to work hard. There’s no way that you can not miss if you really want to do it. And America is the only country that you can do that in.
Michael: Your mother named you Loretta after actress Loretta Young, whose photo she had pinned to the wall over your crib. Have you ever met Ms. Young?
Loretta: That’s one of the dreams that I have never done. I met Loretta’s son and that was an honor. Loretta and I have tried to get together several times. She sent me a great big picture that I still have in my new den. I think it will happen one day.
Michael: What makes you happy?
Loretta: I guess I have to say the happiest is being with my grandkids while they’re still little kids and playing with them.
Michael: What makes you sad?
Loretta: What makes me sad is not being able to be with all the family. I like for everything to go just right and everything is not gonna go just right when there’s so many. Maybe one is not going to show up when I get home or whatever.
Michael: You spend so much of your life on the road. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Loretta: I haven’t had any time off in so long. I went home for Thanksgiving and I was so tired that I think I slept about the whole time I was there. On the road, I’ll go back to my room here on the bus and write. I’ve started back to writing songs.
I’m also working on a few scripts. These are all true stories. I never buy fiction books. I don’t like anything that’s fiction. I don’t like anything false. I think the truth is so much more interesting than anything that isn’t the truth. They can fantasize about a love story if they want to. I’d rather tell a love story and it be true, and mine will all be true.
There’s so many things that I can do. You’ve heard women say they don’t have anything to do. They just don’t want to work. There is no time to get bored if people work.
For example, I’ve never watched soap operas. I about died the other day. I went home and my husband‘s mother and Gloria (Loretta’s housekeeper) were in this conversation. I was in the bathroom. All of a sudden, I heard, “Oh you didn’t know that he died? So and so shot so and so.” I ran out of the bathroom and asked who had died. They had been watching a soap opera.
Let me tell you, if I was president, the first thing I would do is stop the soap operas. They are something that we could do without. Women should be working instead of sitting home watching television.
I do like the documentaries. I love history. I can sit and watch them all day because I feel I’m learning something.
Michael: I’ve always seen you performing in long beaded gowns. Tonight was the first time I saw you in a shorter dress. Are you making a statement? A style change? (See previous photo).
Loretta: Those gowns are so heavy. For years, I’ve been hollering, “Something different,” and they kept coming back with the same thing. So I finally went out and said, “Okay, this is it!”
Michael: You’ve been in the music business for 20 years and won most every award there is. Do you think about retirement?
Loretta: I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I’m gonna slow down, but I have no reason to retire now. When I wanted to quit, I couldn’t, and, as I said, I really didn’t want to start to begin with. All this was my husband’s idea. I really wanted to stay home. All I was heard was, “Just a couple more years and then you can retire and stay home.” It’s never happened and now I have no reason to slow down. The only reason to slow down now is because there’s a lot of things I want to do. I want to go to Israel.
Michael: Or just go back to being a housewife?
Loretta: Listen, I go back to being a housewife every time I go home. I just got through working my butt off planting a few flowerbeds.
Michael: Now that we’re in the Christmas season, what does Christmas mean to you?
Loretta: Not much if I’m not with my kids. I really think that Christmas is a time to remember Jesus and it’s supposed to be his birthday. We’re giving gifts to the wrong person.
I’m getting to where now I think it’s so commercial. You never used to see Christmas decorations go up in November. It won’t be long until they will be up in October.
So I see people celebrating Christmas by being drunk. I know Jesus is not too proud of the way that they celebrate his birthday. Whether he was born on December 25 or not, it is the day that was set aside just to remember him.
Michael: I read somewhere that the Bible is your favorite book. Do you have a favorite verse?
Loretta: You know, that’s a funny question. Doo built me a house for all my clothes. I either had to leave or build a house for my clothes.
I can’t tell you where to go and put your hand on whatever I want in that room, because I got so much stuff. But I know whether it’s there or not. It’s the same way with the Bible. I can’t tell you where to go to find whatever we’re talking about, but I know whether or not it’s in the Bible.
I read the Bible a lot in the bus at night. It’s still my favorite book and it’s still the bestseller. I don’t believe that anyone will ever beat it.
Michael: If you were given the opportunity to have a seat on the next space shuttle flight, would you take the trip?
Loretta: You couldn’t get me on a space shuttle. It would take a space shuttle to get me on the space shuttle. I don’t want to even ride on an airplane, so, no way, Jose. Let’s let somebody else do that.
I’ll tell you something, if I could have been the teacher (Christa McAuliffe) with the little kids, I would not have taken the chance. My kids would’ve come first. (Loretta and Doolittle are pictured below with five of their six children, 1967).
Michael: When we last spoke, you were getting into genealogy.
Loretta: I’m still studying genealogy. I found my crest over in England. I have a great- great- great- uncle buried at Westminster Abby, and to be there, you have to be a great-great-great somebody. I also found out that Davy Crockett was married to my great, great aunt.
I also learned that the last male Webb had all girls and no boys. One of the girls that got married, the husband let her take on the Webb name and carry the name on. I thought that was very interesting.
Michael: Have you learned anything about yourself through your study of genealogy?
Loretta: It tickles me to find out what has already been. I know where I’ve been and I’ve learned a lot. It’s not that I don’t know where I’ve been, but I don’t know the future.
You have to know the past to be able to live with the future, so I’m trying to learn the past of my generations to be able to understand myself and what I want to do in the future. Does that make any sense?
You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going, but really, it’s not what I’ve learned, it’s what I’ve been through that counts.
Rest In Peace, Sweetheart!
2 responses to “Conversations with Loretta”
Thank you for sharing your memories of Loretta. I remember when you started doing your interviews with the singers and you telling me about Loretta. You have come a long way and I’m proud of you and your books. Keep in touch.
Ruth – Yes, you remember. You are one of my oldest (not in years) but in having known each other. I appreciate this connection.