COLUMN: The coalminer’s daughter and me

May 23, 2017

Earlier this month, the great Loretta Lynn had a stroke and was rushed to a hospital in Nashville. Updates on her health are few and far between but those that have been released are positive. She’s out of the hospital and moved to rehabilitation.

Her people have even rescheduled tour dates that were canceled because of the stroke.

But for a moment I thought I had lost someone I’ve listened to and loved for almost my entire life.

It might sound strange to think that I, of all people, would have any connection to Miss Loretta Lynn but in many ways her life did parallel my own.

I remember sitting on the floor as a kid, my back propped up against the cool wall, a small record player by my side and my mom’s old vinyl records in a heap next to it. I secretly listened to all her music even though my friends thought it was “old people’s music” and hoped no one would find out that I knew all the country albums from front to back.

It was at that time that I heard a woman’s voice that I would carry with me to this day.

“Well I was born a coalminer’s daughter

In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler

We were poor but we had love

That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of

He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar”

And I was hooked. Loretta Lynn spoke to me. She was talking right to me when she said ...

“Mommy scrubbed our clothes in a washboard every day

Well I’ve seen her fingers bleed

To complain there was no need

She’d smile in mommy’s understanding way”

There were times when my family had everything we needed and wanted, but there were times when we didn’t have a whole lot. Back when I was a little boy, my mom used to scrub our clothes on a washboard, too. On Saturdays she’d go out to the back yard and used what we called a wash pan, a big galvanized tub set up on two chairs to make it the perfect height. She’d lay the washboard in it, then fill the tub with water and pour in some powdered soap made just for scrubbing clothes. Then she’d use a big scrub brush and scrub ALL our clothes. She was bent over that scrub board half the day and she was allergic to the soap so it would make her hands blister and bleed. Then after she was done washing the clothes she’d hang them to dry on a clothes line with those wooden clothes pins.

She did that for years and years until we finally got a washing machine.

So I could understand some of what Loretta Lynn was singing about. I loved it when she told some lady that she wasn’t woman enough to take her man. And it made me laugh when she said ...

“You been makin’ your brags around town that you’ve been loving my man. But the man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can.”

Loretta sang about real life and her experiences. She sang about missing someone and lovin’ someone and fightin’ someone. She used humor and tenderness and sass. She sang about her husband running around behind her back when she had to stay home with the kids. She told her husband, Doolittle, not to come home a-drinkin’ with lovin’ on his mind. She sang about birth control and women’s lib long at a time when it wasn’t popular to do so. And country radio made her pay for it.

But she also sang beautiful old gospel songs with that Kentucky twang of hers. I couldn’t get enough.

Of all the classic country singers I listened to and loved, she became my favorite. I’d listen to Dolly and Patsy and George, Hank, Willie and Merle, Conway and John Prine and Kenny Rogers ... but Loretta was always my favorites.

And as I grew older I kept a love for a lot of my mother’s music. Loretta was always at the forefront. So when I had the chance to go off to college in Kentucky, I jumped at the chance to be closer to the hills and hollers where Loretta grew up. She was born in Butcher Hollow (Holler), a coalmining community in Johnson County in east Kentucky.

I finally saw her live in concert for the very first time a few years ago. I was mesmerized as she stood there under the bright lights and sang all the old hits that I happen to know every single word to. I sang right along with her.

And she’s still recording and performing. She’s still making great country music and gettin’ up in front of the world in her beautiful, dazzling gowns, singing the songs that people love to hear.

So when I heard that Loretta Lynn was rushed to the hospital recently, I was afraid that we might lose an honest-to-goodness legend. And I might lose my songbird.

At 85 years old, she probably won’t be gracing stages much longer. But wherever she is I’d like her to know that she has meant more to me than a stranger has a right to. But then is she really a stranger if she’s sort of been with me since I was a kid?

Loretta Lynn may be many things — the queen of Country, the Honky Tonk Angel, the Van Lear Rose and the Blue Kentucky Girl. But she’ll always be the Coalminer’s Daughter to me.

Severo Avila is features editor for the Rome News-Tribune.

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