It's been a long journey that has seen Loretta Lynn — who started life as a coal miner's daughter in Butcher Hollow, Van Lear, KY, was married at 15 and a mother to four of her six children by age 20 — become one of the most beloved, iconic country singers of all time.
A trailblazer in an industry that, until she came along, hadn't been accustomed to women writing their own material, Lynn wrote (and still writes) tough-as-nails, witty and honest tunes based on her life experience — songs about cheating husbands and alcohol abuse — that translated into a staggering 16 #1 hit singles.
At 83, Lynn is no mere living legend resting on her laurels. In fact, following the success of 2004's critically acclaimed, double Grammy-winning, Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, Lynn has been writing and recording at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, TN.
"I recorded two days, right before last, 11 songs. I just keep recordin'," Lynn says, on the phone from Hurricane Mills, TN.
When it came time to make her new album, Full Circle, Lynn and her producers (daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and Johnny Cash's son, John Carter Cash) had plenty of material to choose from — and choose they did, selecting songs for her that tell part of Lynn's remarkable musical story from Appalachia to Nashville and beyond, though some of the tunes are so old that Lynn had to learn them anew while making the album.
"I never will marry …" Lynn sings part of the Carter Family song on the phone. "I'd heard it when I was a little girl but I was too little to even think about 'em." Same thing with "In the Pines," which Lynn does a haunting version of on the record.
Full Circle revisits the story behind Lynn's first song, "Whispering Sea," which she recorded for her debut on Zero Records while living in Washington State, near the Canadian border. "I had to write all the songs that I recorded for them," Lynn says. "And I think we had 12 on that album — 'Whispering Sea' was the first song I ever recorded."
The album also includes an updated version of her 1968 hit "Fist City," but when we talk, Lynn seems most excited about the record's single: a duet with Elvis Costello in the same vein called "Everything It Takes." "That's the kind of stuff I like."
Though a few of the songs on Full Circle address mortality and dying, including country gospel number "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven," a new song, "Who's Gonna Miss Me?" and "Lay Me Down," a duet with Willie Nelson, Lynn's not ready to go anywhere yet. "I'm just going to stick around here and raise hell!" she says.
Despite that, the duet with Nelson is convincing and beautiful. "We never sung before together in our lives and we did it on the first take," Lynn says. "Willie looked at me and said, 'I guess you know we're going to have to go around the world with this and tour?' and I said, 'Willie, I ain't goin'!
"Willie's a great writer and a great artist: you can't miss who he is when he starts singing," Lynn says of his distinctiveness, though she could just as easily be talking about herself. "That's what makes an artist."