Loretta Lynn
Bumbershoot, Sat Sept 3, 3:45 pm, Real Mainstage

Here's why I don't feel American sometimes: I do not know how to drive a stick shift; I have never had sex in a car; my parents are not divorced; and I have never had an eating disorder. Here's why I do, at times, feel incredibly American: I am heavily in debt; I put ketchup on everything; I have spent a great deal of time in New Jersey; and the soundtrack to my United States childhood was, among countless other classic country tunes, the voice of Loretta Lynn.

After just a few months in this country, my father--at the time an anxious, scrawny Chinatown busboy with a physics degree and high hopes--submerged himself in a rich pool of country. "This," he insisted excitedly as Coal Miner's Daughter blared, "is proper American music."

Memories of my father's patriotism notwithstanding, it is impossible for me to think about Loretta Lynn without also thinking about being unequivocally "American." Lynn's iconic rags-to-riches path from a scrappy hillbilly existence to fame and glory is pure American folklore--a glowing example of my father's immigrant mantra: Anything is possible in America. All you have to do is work hard.

To understand Lynn you need to understand Butcher Holler, Kentucky, where she was born in 1935. (A "holler," a Southerner once told me, is also known as a "hollow"; but this should never be mistaken for a valley. Valleys are pretty places where folks settle. Hollers are bleak nooks you want to see shrinking in the rearview mirror.) At 13, Lynn married Oliver Lynn, a.k.a. "Mooney." At 14, she was pregnant, and Mooney took her to Custer, Washington, where she bore five more children before her 21st birthday. She was a grandmother at 29.

While in Washington, Lynn started singing with local bands. In 1960, tiny Vancouver label Zero Records released her first single, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl." Two years and 80,000 miles of touring later, Lynn had a Top 10 single ("Success"); by 1967, after moving to Nashville, breaking industry sales records, and writing all of her own songs, she had become the darling of country music.

Her late-'60s trademark hits--"Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man," and "You've Just Stepped In (from Stepping Out on Me)," along with the down-home narratives from 1970's Coal Miner's Daughter--were pure, unabashed country, stained with tradition and gorgeous despair. This was Butcher Holler territory--done-wrong, liquored-up, heart-aching music, where wandering husbands, miscarriages, and bourbon tears were as commonplace as coffee at dawn and church on Sunday.

The '70s brought Lynn more prestige and adoration. She wrote a best-selling autobiography, scooped up gold records and awards, and showed up on the cover of Newsweek as country music's first female millionaire. When women's roles shifted during that tumultuous decade, Lynn followed suit: Just a few years earlier, Tammy Wynette had advised ladies to "Stand by Your Man"; Lynn sassed her man in '75 with "The Pill" (banned by several God-fearing radio stations). Wynette had previously wailed about avoiding a "D-I-V-O-R-C-E"; Lynn belted out "Pregnant Again" and "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" (one of many great duets with Conway Twitty). Her golden rhythm continued well into the '80s, as she toured extensively and cranked out more records.

Lynn virtually dropped off country's radar in the '90s, due to problems with Mooney's health. He passed away in 1996, and Lynn spent the following years grieving deeply. Her latest recording, Still Country (2000), is a wistful valentine to the man she had shared everything with since early adolescence. Her voice is proudly showcased, still strong and sure as she sings through tears to Mooney.

Despite Still Country's depth and musicality, the blonde-and-backlit new-country scene reveres Lynn as a rustic relic; and while video divas like Faith Hill sell millions of records, Lynn has sadly been shuffled into the kitschy-Americana world of nostalgia and reissues.

And yet, this weekend at Bumbershoot will surely prove that Miss Loretta is nowhere near ready for pasture. Today's Nashville glitterati could use a thick dose of Butcher Holler grit, endurance, and the grace of a classy lady. My father would certainly agree.

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