Thursday, March 31, 2016

American Masters: “Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl” (Yap Films, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched a couple of quite interesting programs on KPBS, including an American Masters documentary on Loretta Lynn — subtitled “Still a Mountain Girl” to emphasize the pride in her heritage that led her to call her 1976 autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter (later filmed in 1980 by British director Michael Apted, which is probably still the best movie ever made about country music — only Robert Altman’s Nashville, which featured Ronee Blakely as a character called “Barbara Jean” obviously based on Loretta Lynn, comes close, and there was a certain patronization in the treatment of the Nashville scene in Altman’s and writer Joan Tewkesbury’s film that was refreshingly absent from Coal Miner’s Daughter). It remains a fascinating story, not only in the parts that had already happened when Lynn and George Vecsey collaborated on the book and Apted filmed it four years later but how she’s lived since, including facing the death of her husband Oliver Lynn — variously nicknamed “Doo” (after his middle name, Doolittle) and “Mooney” — whom she loved and remained with even though his frequent extra-relational activities inspired some of Lynn’s greatest songs — and making two late-in-life albums, Van Lear Rose (produced by and featuring alternative-rock musician Jack White) and her most recent one, Full Circle, on which she returned to the bluegrass roots of her music, recorded in the still-preserved backyard studio built by her friend Johnny Cash and was at least partially produced by Cash’s son and heir, John Carter Cash.

The mega-success of the film Coal Miner’s Daughter (in which Sissy Spacek played Lynn — and did her own singing, matching the real Lynn with almost eerie perfection — and Tommy Lee Jones played Mooney) has made Loretta Lynn’s story almost too familiar, but just in case, here goes: she was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky (“holler” is just Appalachian mountain-people speak for “canyon”), she really was a coal miner’s daughter, she was inspired by the mountain music she heard as a kid — she said that when she was growing up it was just taken for granted that everyone picked up a musical instrument and learned to play it, and the few people in her community who don’t play are looked down on — and then by the commercial country that came to her on the Grand Ole Opry and the show hosted by country legend Ernest Tubb that came on the radio right after it. (The show credits Tubb for boosting the careers of quite a few of the major country stars of the 1950’s and 1960’s, though it also claims that Elvis Presley “broke” to a major audience on the Tubb show — actually Elvis flamed out when he tried to crack the Nashville scene and his boost to stardom came from the rival Louisiana Hayride show in Shreveport, Louisiana, where performers just a bit too “edgy” for the Opry, Tubb’s show and the country establishment in general got their starts — Hank Williams had also got his first break on the Louisiana Hayride, though unlike Elvis he later “graduated” to the Opry.) What’s most amazing about Loretta Lynn is not only the sheer soul of her voice — through a lot of the clips of her performing in her glory days there’s a bizarre disconnect between the over-the-topness of her outfits (in some sequences she looks less like a woman than a drag queen) and the straightforward sincerity of her singing — but the fact, curiously unmentioned in this show (directed by Vikram Jayanti and written by Robin Bicknell), that Loretta Lynn was the first major female country singer who relied for material mostly on songs she wrote herself.

Though her roots are in Kentucky and Tennessee (where she lives today on the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch she and her husband opened as a public attraction for her fans, whom she would frequently go out of her way to meet when she wasn’t on tour), her career oddly got started in Washington state, where Mooney had moved her and their five kids (there’d eventually be another one) so he could work in a factory. She began singing largely as an avocation and a stress reliever from the task of staying at home and raising the children, and when Mooney told her she sounded better than the singers who were playing on the Opry and making records, she decided to give it a go. She wrote and recorded a song called “Honky Tonk Girl” — an answer record to Kitty Wells’ legendary hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” — put it out on a tiny label called Zero and she and Mooney, along with the kids, criss-crossed the country, stopping at every town where there was a radio tower and hanging out at the station until they agreed to listen to her record and add it to their playlists. All this attracted the attention of the business people in Nashville, though at first she was told she sounded too much like Kitty Wells to make it; she finally was signed by the great producer Owen Bradley to the Decca label — and one of her albums was titled, with the fierce bravado with which she frequently pursued her career, Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em as a spit-in-your-face response to all the sexists in Nashville who acknowledged that a male artist could sustain a career on original songs (like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash) but didn’t think a woman could do it. There’s an interesting comment from Jack White to the effect that Loretta Lynn often wrote her songs backwards — instead of working out the verse first and then the chorus, she’d frequently write a two-part chorus, coming up with the second part first, then the first part of the chorus and only then adding the verse. White said that when Lynn played him the songs for Van Lear Rose (which, he said, were the first 10 they pulled from a backlog of unused songs she was literally keeping under her bed!) he often couldn’t tell whether a particular strain was intended as a verse or a chorus.

The show suffered from some of the usual problems of music documentaries — the refusal to show a complete performance of a song, start to finish, and the plethora of talking heads, some of them with legitimate connections to Loretta Lynn (including Michael Apted and Willie Nelson, who didn’t work directly with Lynn but sold Patsy Cline the song “Crazy” when Lynn was touring as Cline’s opening act and got to know her then) and some of them there simply because they work in the same field — Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, along with Miranda Lambert and even Sheryl Crow, who isn’t known as a country singer at all (though she can do country material credibly and demonstrates it with a snatch of a Lynn song on this show) — but it’s also an affectionate tribute to a force in the musical business who’s let nothing stop her: not the difficulties of touring with a huge family at home, not the frequent “straying” of her husband (is it really that big a surprise that her song “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” was autobiographical?), not the loss of him (indeed the memorial song she wrote for him, “I Can’t Hear the Music Anymore,” may be the best thing she’s ever done; I remember a special on which Lynn was being introduced by Joan Lunden, who babbled ridiculously and insensitively throughout the whole show until Lynn played “I Can’t Hear the Music Anymore,” and the power of what she’d just heard finally got to Lunden and she shut up) and not age and the changing tastes of the music market. As I’ve pointed out in these pages before, despite the reputation of country music as a genre of emotional excess (when I told Charles the old joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your car back, your wife back, your job back, and you sober up,” he added, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life”), the greatest singers in it — from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn — have been surprisingly understated, creating intense and emotional music without pushing the melodrama.