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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

Country queen: Loretta Lynn is still feisty and making music at 69

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Rocker Jack White, left, served as producer of Loretta Lynn's latest album, "Van Lear Rose," which was one of the most unusual country collaborations in years. Rocker Jack White, left, served as producer of Loretta Lynn's latest album, "Van Lear Rose," which was one of the most unusual country collaborations in years.
TONY PHIPPS / PRN Enlarge

Twenty-five years ago, the dress was beautiful, but good gracious, why, Loretta Lynn wants to know, did they have to drag it out now?

One of the more memorable moments of the Academy of Country Music Awards show on May 26 was the return of Lynn to the country music spotlight.

There she was, center stage, singing her just released single, "Miss Being Mrs.," as Vince Gill strummed along on guitar. And she was wearing the original dress from The Coal Miner's Daughter, the Academy Award-nominated 1980 film about her life. Her manager had the dress stripped off a mannequin at Lynn's museum back at her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., just for this occasion.

"All the pleating had fallen out; it looked like I weighed 400 pounds," Lynn says by phone from her ranch. "I'll tell you what - I'll be the one who says what I wear next time."

There's no mincing words with Lynn. The "Queen of Country" is still as feisty as ever.

"I don't think I sung real good," she says. "I did the best I could, but I got real nervous because of that dress. And that makeup they put on me, you coulda scraped it off with a knife."

As disappointed as she was with her appearance, the more important point is that, at age 69, she's still relevant in country music. Since hitting the charts with "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" in 1960, Lynn has piled up hit after hit, decade after decade. She has released 76 albums, produced 52 Top 10 hits, and reached the top of the charts with 27 singles.

She's on the road for about 70 dates a year, including Saturday night at the Stranahan Theater in Toledo.

She may be making the biggest splash of her career now, with the release of her latest album, "Van Lear Rose" (Interscope), which has sold more than 150,000 copies in four weeks. The project is one of the most unusual country music albums in years. It's a collaboration between Lynn and the White Stripes' Jack White, a rocker and a fan of Lynn's who dedicated the band's 2001 album, "White Blood Cells," to her.

"We worked together in Manhattan one time. He watched my show, and I watched his show. I told him that night I was getting ready to do another album. He said why not let me do it? I said why not?" Lynn says.

What they created, with White producing, is a country album with a rock influence that excels because of its simplicity. There are four musicians who play on the entire album, but often it's White's guitar and Lynn's vocals.

"It's real. It's like sitting in the front room and everyone singing along. I sung every song one time. Owen [Bradley, who produced many of her albums] used to have me sing songs three or four times to get my voice warmed up. Not Jack," Lynn says.

"I think when he was producing, I detected a little bit of Owen Bradley. He reminded me of him, except he made me sing it one time. He's no dummy for being [28]. One day he'll be one of the greatest producers, if that's where he wants to go."

What the album also has are the words and thoughts of Lynn, who wrote every song. One thing that has been consistent in Lynn's career is her songwriting. She's not interested in fluff, but she is interested in plain talk about life.

More than once she has shaken up the conservative country music industry with controversial songs, including "Fist City," "Rated X," and "The Pill," which was banned by some stations when it was released in 1975.

"I write about real life. Women get afraid people are gonna get mad at them if they talk about certain stuff. If you're going to take the pill, it's real life, so why can't you write about it?" she asks.

The new album is no different. "Women's Prison" details a woman's life on death row and ends with her execution. "Family Tree" is the story of a wife confronting her husband's mistress - "I brought along our little babies/Because I wanted them to see/The woman that's burning down/Our family tree."

"I'd rather write than sing. It gets a little deeper in the soul, you know?" Lynn says. "When I'm writing, I want to be alone. I don't want no one within five miles of me.

"My husband always said he'd open up the door when I was writin', and he'd say it didn't even look like me. I'm livin' the song."

Oliver Mooney "Doolittle" Lynn was Loretta's husband for 48 years, until his death in 1996. "Doo" and Loretta Webb met at a pie social in Kentucky when she was 13 years old. They married the same year. She had their first baby when she was 14, had four children by 18, and was a grandmother by the time she was 29.

She had no singing aspirations until her husband came home one day and heard her "singing to the babies." He told her she was better than anyone on the radio, and she started singing barefoot and pregnant in bars.

Her first hit, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl," was in 1960 when she was 25 years old.

The marriage was tumultuous, but the love was real. Last month, Lynn said in another interview: "He was funny, and he was serious. And he was happy, and he could get daggone mad. As long as we were together, we'd fight. But we'd make up."

His death after a seven-year battle with heart trouble and diabetes sank Lynn into a deep despair, a depression she climbed out of only after a visit from her husband's doctor.

"He said, 'I know you been hurtin', but I got to tell you what Mooney told me to tell you. He told me to tell you to do not quit singing. Stay on the road and sing.' "

It was in that period that Lynn closed herself in her bedroom and penned "Miss Being Mrs.," which is her current single on country radio.

"When you listen, you hear a story. It was how I was feelin'. It was about a year after I lost him," she says.

The words are tender, accompanied only by White's guitar: "I lie here all alone/In my bed of memories/I'm dreamin' of your sweet kiss/Oh, how you loved me/Here in this blue moonlight/Oh, I miss being Mrs. tonight."

Simplicity, realness - they are the trademarks that have drawn fans worldwide to her and made Lynn a legend of country music. As the accolades and honors have mounted, Lynn clings to her roots and is never far from that naive Kentucky girl who rarely had money for shoes. It's not uncommon for her to leave a theater after a sold-out show and go take pictures with those outside who did not see the show, whether it was because they didn't have money or just couldn't get a ticket.

Rick Cornett of Toledo puts together news about Lynn for members of her fan club. They have enjoyed a close relationship for years.

"She doesn't realize the scope of her fame," he says. "I've seen her with governors, and she's been to the White House several times. Then she meets someone on the street, and she treats everyone the same."

No. 1 singles, No. 1 albums, Hall of Fame membership. There's not much more to accomplish.

"I just want to be better," Lynn says, before pausing for several seconds, "and that means getting to wear the dress I want to."

Because of a back injury, Loretta Lynn has postponed all June concerts, including Saturday night's show in the Stranahan Theater. The dates are likely to be rescheduled, but ticketholders should return their tickets to the location where they were purchased for a refund.

Contact Brian Dugger at: bdugger@theblade.com or 419-724-6183.



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