Loretta Lynn was 28 years old when she got her first pair of high heels. They were gold, fancier than anything she had ever owned. “I was up all night long in this hotel in Iowa, just walking back and forth, trying to walk in them high heels,” she recalls over the phone from her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. “I don’t know how many times I fell.” By her show the next night, she hadn’t quite mastered the technique. “When I got out on that stage, people thought I was drunk. So I pulled them off. And I stood there barefooted and sang. The crowd didn’t want me to leave. That was a good moment.”
That night was 55 years ago, but Lynn’s homespun humanity has been a defining feature of a career that has stayed strong for those five-plus decades. Her background may be the stuff of legend — the Kentucky coal miner’s daughter and mother of six who propelled herself from a mountain cabin to superstardom with a distinctive voice and a $17 guitar — but few artists seem so relatable or are so beloved.
And few have been so prolific. At 83, Lynn has written more than 200 songs and released more than 55 albums. A 1980 film based on her best-selling 1976 autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, earned seven Academy Award nominations and won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for best actress. Inducted into more music halls of fame than any other female recording artist, Lynn received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
She also forged this success in a time when women country singers were a rarity — when, as she puts it, “Women were kind of held down.” That she wrote not just about love and heartbreak but also double-standards (1972’s “Rated X”), the frank inelegance of motherhood (1972’s “One’s on the Way”) and contraception (“This old maternity dress I’ve got/Is going in the garbage/The clothes I’m wearing from now on/Won’t take up so much yardage” she sang in 1975’s “The Pill”) pushed the boundaries of female songwriting and permanently opened doors for women in country music.
Despite being banned by numerous radio stations, her most controversial songs still made the charts. (“The Pill” hit No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100.) She has reportedly sold more than 45 million records worldwide.
Today, Lynn — who never remarried after her husband of 48 years, Oliver “Doolittle,” died in 1996 — regularly tours with three of her children, who help comprise her backing band, The Coal Miners: Ernest Ray, 62, and 51-year-old twins Patsy and Peggy.
On March 4, 2016, Lynn will release Full Circle, her first album since Van Lear Rose, a 2004 collaboration with Jack White that won her two Grammys. “When this album comes out, I want to work it just like I’ve done always,” she says. “And I can’t wait.” The Queen of Country recently talked with Billboard about making music, having babies and Donald Trump.
You were one of the first women musicians to take on controversial topics like birth control and divorce.
Oh, yeah, you can call me your No. 1 you-know-what-kind-of stirrer. Always stirring stuff. When I’d put out a record, they’d say, “Uh oh, another dirty song.” “Rated X”? They thought that was going to be bad. But hey, it sold. “One’s on the Way”? They thought that song would really be dirty. But everything I sang about was everyday living.
Why was it important to tackle those topics?
Nobody had done it, for one thing, and I thought it should be done. A woman shouldn’t be looked down on. There wouldn’t be one on the way if it wasn’t for a man, would there?
Right. There were repercussions, though. Radio stations wouldn’t play your music.
Some of the disc jockeys I knew — and we all knew each other — I’d be sending them records when they came out, and they would listen and find out the record wasn’t a dirty song. A preacher come by the dressing room in Kansas, I think it was, and he said, “Loretta, the song that you have out right now is one of the greatest things that you could do for a 15-year-old girl.” It was [1968’s] “What Kind of a Girl Do You Think I Am.” It just told a great story — there was nothing dirty about it. None of them were ever that dirty. “Rated X” was about as mean as I got.
How have you seen the music industry change for women during the past 55 years?
Oh, it has opened the doors for all of them. When I started singing, there weren’t that many women singing. Kitty Wells, Jean Shepard, Patsy Cline.
Do you feel responsible for helping open doors for other women?
I think I have done quite a bit. I’m probably one of the girl singers who have helped other girl singers getting in the business, because it is harder for girls to get on labels and be out there.
What makes it harder?
For me, it was being married and having one kid after another. I had twins when I just started singing. We didn’t know we were going to have twins until the day they were born. I think it’s harder on a woman than it is a man. I really do.
Who inspired you when you first started?
Patsy Cline was one. I tried to sing just like Kitty Wells. (Laughs.) I never made it.
How are you different from that young girl?
I have learned a lot. Some of the records that come out [today] are a lot worse than my records ever thought about being. (Laughs.) But whatever the trend, you can bet I’ll be in that: I’m not going to sit back and let somebody else take over the writing, the singing. As long as I’m on this earth, I will try to be on top somewhere. If you don’t feel that way, you don’t need to be in the music business.
Do you still keep in touch with Jack White?
Oh, yeah. He’s my friend. I love Jack White. Me and Jack, we get together quite a bit. He’s the closest person to me in the music business.
What makes you two relate so well?
I don’t know. When me and him worked in Manhattan [White booked Lynn’s New York show in 2003], I said when the show was over, “Jack, I’ve got to go home now, because I’ve got to get ready to do my session.” He says, “What session?” I say, “I’m recording in a week, and I got to get my songs ready.” He says, “How about me recording you?” This was when Jack was just a kid, but I thought, “Well, why not?” And he beat me to Nashville. He wanted to be there to record me.
What do you do together?
We just tell each other lies. (Laughs.) We go and eat. We talk on the phone. Whatever comes up. He’s a real good kid.
What’s a normal day at home for you?
I’m not home a whole lot, but when I am, I do whatever I want. I watch TV. I water the flowers. I watch the news — that’s how I stay in the know. I read the Bible a lot.
What has been the highlight of 2015?
Oh, goodness, the last three to four years, we’ve been recording. I recorded 93 songs, and I’m going to record some more, too. I’ve got all this stuff from the time I started singing when I was a little girl.
You have written more than 200 songs. Do you find that remarkable?
I’d rather write than sing. Writing always has helped me get through any trouble I had. After I got through writing a song about what was going on, I felt better.
You have performed at the white house for presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. What was your favorite experience?
Jimmy Carter [in 1977]. There’s no backstage, and the place was packed. But he sent me a note that said, “Sing ‘One’s on the Way’ and ‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like Daddy Anymore’ and ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ ” I thought, “Well, shoot, this is what he wants me to sing,” so I sang them.
You received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. What was your impression of president Obama?
I like Obama, and I like his wife. I liked Bill Clinton, too. Of course, I always felt like I knew Bill. When I was up there getting that award, Bill came over and said, “Loretta, we’ve both lost someone this year that we really loved.” I thought, “Who could that be?” I wasn’t thinking straight. He said, “Levon, who played your daddy in Coal Miner’s Daughter — Levon Helm.” That tore me up. [Helm] was a good guy. While he was doing the movie, I couldn’t be around him that much — I couldn’t sit down beside him — [he] reminded me so much of my daddy. I just wanted to hang on to him.
What do you think about the next presidential election?
I think Donald Trump is going to be our next president.
Have you met him?
Yep. I like him. I mean, Donald’s Donald. (Laughs.)
You really have had an amazing life.
Yeah, I look back and see the artists I’d met when I’d first come to Nashville, and they haven’t been on the road in 30 years. I’m still hitting that road and doing as much as I always did. I never drank, I never smoked. I always took care of myself like that. I’ve been singing for a long time. And I haven’t quit.
Have you ever thought about retiring?
Naw. When they lay me down six feet under, [then] they can say, “Loretta’s quit singing.” I’ll have on one of my gowns. That’s morbid, but it’s the truth.
What are your worries?
Not a thing. I sleep well. God has been good to me, hasn’t he?
Earned 39 top 10s on the Top Country Albums chart, with 11 No. 1s
Achieved 16 No. 1s on the Hot Country Songs chart
In 1972, first woman to win the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award
Published three books, including best-selling 1976 memoir Coal Miner’s Daughter
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988
Received Kennedy Center Honors in 2003
Hit No. 2 on the Top Country Albums chart with the Jack White-produced Van Lear RoseUpdated this for accuracy
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008
Won four Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010
Subject of new American Masters PBS documentary, which will air March 4, 2016
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.