LORETTA LYNN PROFILED: Of queen and country

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Loretta Lynn: The Other Woman (1963)
LORETTA LYNN PROFILED: Of queen and country

The ugliest baby I ever saw -- a pug-faced killer-midget with malevolent eyes -- was at Loretta Lynns place.

Then again, there was plenty of ugly, kitschy, evil and just plain tacky stuff at the home of this country music legend.

But Ill be forgiving, and say that maybe the baby just looked bad in comparison with the delightful setting of Hurricane Mills, the property Loretta bought in the late Sixtiess and which included a working mill beside a pretty lake, and rolling fields in the lush landscapes of east Tennessee about an hour from the capital of country music, Nashville.

We had been driving to Nashville on Interstate 40 when a sign loomed up on the highway ahead: Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch.

Not having read her autobiography Coal Miners Daughter -- or having seen the 1980 film adaptation in which Sissy Spacek played Lynn and Tommy Lee Jones was Lynns husband Doolittle -- I had no idea Loretta had a ranch open to the public.

But the thought of it is too good to miss, so we pull off the highway and drive to a restaurant-cum-gift shop on a hill above the side road where Lorettas name was bannered large above the entrance.

Lynn -- who made her name with appealingly earthy and honest songs like Dont Come Home A Drinkin (With Lovin On Your Mind), The Other Woman, and Whos Gonna Take The Garbage Out -- is a country star of the old kind. Her story of rags-to-riches has been told in her autobiographical songs and two volumes of her life story (Coal Miners Daughter and the repetitive sequel Still Woman Enough).

She sang of cheatin husbands, bein poor but still havin dignity, of belief in God when the world has done you wrong, and of lost love. Loretta knew all these things from bitter experience.

2004_0527Tn2Ga0058While buying jars of her jam and a recipe book of downhome cooking (Coca Cola Cake and You Aint Woman Enough Casserole included) to amuse the folks back home the young girl behind the counter says Lynns home is just down the road apiece, if yall is innerested.

That was the dude ranch, this was just the merchandise store.

We drive through fragrant countryside lined with wildflowers, cross Duck River (where Lorettas son Jack drowned in 84) and the road narrows to almost a single lane through a silent forest. Down a broad driveway on our left is Hurricane Mills, a small town of the original post office, a few other buildings and the mill and wheel beside a flat pond.

It is as purty as a picture and facing it across the river is the white columned house which Loretta and Doo moved in to in early 67.

2004_0527Tn2Ga0060In Coal Miners Daughter -- which reads less like a biography than rambling but informative transcripts of conversations with her co-author -- Lynn says when she first saw the three storeyed ante-bellum mansion she thought it was like Tara in the movie Gone With The Wind.

“It looked like a hillbillys dream.

Loretta -- and Doo, who died in 96 -- moved out in the late 70s after fans just kept turning up to the door (and some tempting boozy Doo off for drinks). But the house has been kept as it was when they lived there.

And its tacky.

Lynns early life was unashamedly tough and she has written and sung about how she grew up in remote Butcher Holler in Kentucky. She went to a one-room school; their single-room handmade cabin was wallpapered with pages from magazines; she wore flour sacks as a child and slept on the floor until she was nine; and her father worked in the mine.

On the day of her wedding in the local courthouse she needed to go to the toilet so Doo took her to the bus station. Shed never seen indoor plumbing and was terrified by the flushing.

Loretta_Lynn_illus5_2LorrettaLynn20cr300hDoo called her a stupid hillbilly -- and Lynn admits she was. But forgive her, she was young.

Loretta married Doo when she was 14 -- he was in his 20s and had fought in Europe in World War II -- and had no idea how babies were made. She had four by the time she was 18.

What separates Lynn from many other successful country artists is she genuinely hasnt changed her attitudes: she doesnt know big words and doesnt pretend to; and admits to some hilarious gaffes.

When she was invited to a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for Jack Lemmon she didnt have any lunch that day. She was looking forward to the roast meat and potatoes later.

Ernest Tubb, the country legend who helped her career in the early 60s, said she was the only person hed met -- and through the Grand Ole Opry hed met em all -- who didnt change after she became famous.

Lynn has known six presidents and in Still Woman Enough she says she counted two of em as friends, Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush. Of course she supported George the Younger.

Yet while she has mixed with the great and the good -- and the not-so-good -- she also remembered what being poor felt like and so wasted nothing.

She kept the packaging that perfume bottles came in and at Hurricane Mills there is a museum filled with her dresses, concert posters, memorabilia and her old tour bus.

Shortly after Doo first met Loretta he gave her a baby doll for Christmas and said that when they were married they would have a real live doll.

“I didnt know what he was talking about, she later said.

But, like most things in her life, she kept that gift. The child-bride was, after all, still playing with dolls.

Over the years as she became wealthy they added to Hurricane Mills.

2004_0527Tn2Ga0057She built a replica of the house she grew up in on a hill above the town so her fans could see what her early life had been like. Although slightly larger than the original it is full of detail like the magazine and newspaper wallpaper, and it has a tiny kitchen and outhouse.

The day we dropped by there we were a dozen other visitors to Hurricane Mills, among them a couple who -- and I dislike myself for making this observation -- could have been siblings and had two slightly unusual looking children with them.

The man was ill-shaven and wore ragged denim overalls, and the woman a baggy hand-me-down dress. They tip-toed around Lorettas house and gazed in awe at the hideously carved Indian kitsch on the walls (Loretta was proud of her Cherokee heritage) and the cabinets Doo built to house her collection of salt and pepper shakers and such like.

Loretta_LynnThey became reverently silent at the sight of her gold and platinum discs in the stairwell, and in the garden took dozens of photos of the hideous job-lot statuary.

These people -- worshippers in the church of country -- were Lorettas true fans and the people who gave her the career she has had. And she never forgot it.

Hurricane Mills has trail rides, camping grounds, fishing holes, regular concerts and an annual MotorCross Championship. Lorettas constituency turns up in their thousands during the year and make the pilgrimage to her house like others visit the Vatican or Buckingham Palace.

“Horses down that away reads a sign.

I could only be cynical at the reconstruction of the mine her daddy worked in -- it was kinda dark and scary in there though -- but was impressed by the ebb and flow of her career as outlined in the massive museum of her memorabilia.

Loretta_Lynn___Jack_White_of_ThIn '04 Lynn released an album with Jack White of the White Stripes, and so Loretta -- at 69 -- was a cool name to drop among the hip set. People whod previously never heard a note shed sung suddenly confessed to being longtime closet fans.

In a reminder of what a footnote in her long career that association had been, two posters of concerts with White stacked in a corner near the toilets.

But she had kept them, just as she kept and displayed the gifts from fans.

Beside the shop was her doll museum.

That is where I saw the brutally ugly baby, in a glass case beside the Native American dolls, those in chintzy wedding gowns, or dressed as cowgirls in gingham. Awful stuff, all of it.

Loretta_Lynn_loretta4The ugly baby was on its hands and knees, its oddly distorted face twisted up into something between a snarl, a grimace and a plea for help.

Its pinched eyes were almost Satanic and, most curious of all, its nappies were pulled down to reveal a round firm bottom raised in the air.

It looked . . . well, creepy actually.

And not a little perverted.

Im sure that other couple and their kids will never forget the day they went to Loretta Lynns place.

Nor will I.

But for entirely different reasons.

This was a chapter in the travel collection The Idiot Boy Who Flew, see here.

Want to read more along these lines of music and travel? Then check out this one, a journey to Robert Johnson's crossroads.

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