“Her secret is her honesty. Her strength is in her womanhood. Her pride is in her working-class background.”
-Mary A Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, on Loretta Lynn, excerpted from “Finding Her Voice – Women In Country Music“
Country music has long lived and breathed on not who is best, but who is best liked. Ernest Tubb, who assuredly by his own account, wasn’t much more than passable as a singer and guitarist was, is, and will continue to be a shinning pillar of country music thanks, in no small part, to his gregarious and congenial nature. ET was seemingly an everyman. He wasn’t of course, “Walkin’ the Floor” and “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” being just two examples of early, superb, stripped down and muscular honky tonk. Part of his charm though was that every back-porch picker thought he could do what Tubb did.
One of Tubb’s favorite duet partners was a woman not unlike him in terms of talent, saying things we all thought and felt and making it seem easy as pie. She was born Loretta Webb in 1935 in a small mining town called Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and would be better known as Loretta Lynn.
Butcher Hollow isn’t really a town in the civic sense. The postmark reads Van Lear which is the official town nearby named for Van Lear Black who ran the Consolidated Coal Company. This was and remains hard country. Impoverished, entrenched and small with a population still under 3000 people. This was a typical company town, meaning everything was owed by Consolidated Coal Company. The houses, the stores, the post office, the coal coming out of the ground, and the people who mined it. Merle Travis sings about places like this in “16 Tons”. Dwight Yoakam, who was born in neighboring Pikeville, sings about places like this in “Miner’s Prayer”. Loretta would put this exact place on the map with “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
“I ain’t no star. A star is something up in the night sky. People say to me ‘You’re a legend.’ I’m not a legend. I’m just a woman.
Lynn was one of seven and once said of the film on her life, Coal Miner’s Daughter, about how much they left out about her childhood. They didn’t want to make the movie to depressing. She was married by 13 and had four children by 18. Okay, so what. Weren’t we all? It would be 15 more years before she would sing for people professionally. Her first song was a basic country cryer called “Honky-Tonk Girl” which she wrote after hearing Kitty Wells sing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels”. It has the flat-footed shuffle beat of the 1950’s and the languid singing style of Kitty. The fierceness was still to come, but you can hear her hold those wonderful notes already that catch us by surprise when she doesn’t quite come down when we expect her to. The song is part fantasy maybe, a young woman cheated on and finally left becomes a honky-tonk girl. She wouldn’t remain the victim in her songs for long, but even here she’s pushing the envelope in what women wrote and sung about.
How deep can we regress? Cecil Sharp was a British song collector who came to America in 1916 in search of backwooders still singing British ballads. He believed they would be unchanged more or less from their eastern progeny and he was sometimes proven right. Songs like Knoxville Girl and The Butcher Boy are, with a few locale changes more or less as they were in the isles. He also, though, received a lesson in pop music. People, more than simply respecting some notion of tradition, like a good song. If they still clung to an old ballad it was because it was still relevant rather than historical important. The people he encountered were just as apt to sing a popular song of the day learned from sheet music or touring medicine shows than a pure passing of traditional song.
Which brings us back to the idea of that which is best is not always best. Loretta Lynn’s own songs and the covers she chose are well written true to life vinettes of hard scrabble as gospel. The well written lyrics and melodies makes them popular. What she sings about and how she sings them makes them timeless.
As example take Shel Silverstein’s “One’s On the Way”. Basically, it’s a novelty song in the same vein as George and Tammy’s “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” and a forebearer to today’s blue collar comics. Written in 1971 by our comic Laurette, Silverstein must have been channeling Lynn when he wrote it. Juxtaposing the life of a working woman with Jackie O. and Raquel Welch, screen door’s banging and wash that needs a-hanging with the White House’s social season and million dollar movie deals. With our current First Lady, the song has a curious significance again. Glamour and cocktails are back, but be careful those voter’s with ballin’ kids.
Lynn sings Silverstein’s broken ryhmes and rhythms perfectly. As in the “how do you do, now you’re gonna die” bit in a Boy Named Sue, Silverstein breaks out with a perfectly absurd phone call from the father at a bar near the end of One’s On The Way and Lynn hits it just right. We could assume she had a bit of practice at this too. The final verse is something we all need to understand to know the working women of our country.
The girls in New York City, they all march for women’s lib
And better homes and garden shows, the modern way to live
And the pill may change the world tomorrow, but meanwhile, today
Here in Topeka, the flies are a buzzin’
The dog is a barkin’ and the floor needs a scrubbin’
One needs a spankin’ and one needs a huggin’
Lord, one’s on the way
Oh gee, I hope it ain’t twins, again!
This isn’t octo-mom stuff and it’s not ironic simply because a man wrote it. It’s true enough to anyone who has eyeballs to see. Like most of our women though, it’s rueful and even it’s contrasts aren’t mean spirited as they are sitting on the table observations. I write this two days before a new decade, while my wife sleeps with our three week old baby. We’re both plum tired and the floor does need a scrubbin’, and the rain is fallin’, and the coffee, well, I haven’t even bothered to make it. Loretta Lynn still sings our lives better than anyone simply by singing about her own.
Thank the Lord, one’s not on the way.