Loretta Lynn, who died Tuesday (Oct. 4) at age 90, struck up a friendship with Garth Brooks that lasted more than two decades. He helped induct the legend when she received her Kennedy Center Honor in 2003 and he was her date when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Salute to Country Music in 2010. Here, Brooks talks to Billboard about what she meant to him both personally and professionally.
She was the first female [artist] for me. I know her contemporaries and I know there were women that came before Loretta, but Loretta was the first Reba. She was the first Dolly. She was the first of the female stalwarts that you built a foundation on and she never gave that throne up. For me, Loretta Lynn’s name is as powerful today as it ever was.
The truth is what we believe it to be, but Loretta’s conviction in what she believed the truth to be was in her songs. The crazy thing was Loretta also had a wonderful feel for a melody and a groove. It wasn’t only the lyrics.
What separates the fantastic artists from the 99% of the rest of us is their truths are the exact same truth as their listeners’. How Loretta Lynn thought with “The Pill” and songs like “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” those were universal thoughts. Everyone was thinking them at the time, they just needed somebody to have the balls to say it. And that somebody was Loretta Lynn.
She never quit being her. We were at a state dinner at the White House. She was getting a Kennedy Center Honor and her daughters couldn’t keep her shoes on her. Me and Miss Yearwood were there to honor her so we’re all at the dinner table together with Colin Powell.
Now this is a true story. You cannot make this sh– up. This young man is bringing around dinner and she uses his tie like a doorbell. She just reaches up gently, grabs his tie, pulls him down, and she goes, “Son, what is that?” And it was a scone. It was a flat biscuit. She brings this kid right down to her face level and goes, “You tell them people in the kitchen if they put some self-rising flour in that thing, it’ll pop right up.” She was fantastic! Never, ever did she ever come off as uneducated. She always came off as sincere.
One of the greatest rewards you can ever get in this business is being part of giving an award to another artist. She asked me to be her date [in 2010 for the Grammy Salute to Country Music to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award]. She actually asked Trisha if it was OK.
I said, “OK, if we’re going to be a date, let’s do it right. Limo or truck?” She said truck. I [go] to pick her up and when she comes out, she’s glitter from head to toe in this big ballgown. She looks gorgeous. She looks like she’s 20. She’s so happy.
She walks straight up to the driver’s side and just waits. I’m going, “Holy cow, Loretta Lynn is going to let me open the door to the driver’s side and she is going to ride right in the middle of the bench seat.”
I crawled in next to her. We pulled into the Ryman sitting side by side in a pickup truck. It’s like dreams are made of this stuff. When I went to step out, I offer my hand to her and she pulls it and she slides across that [seat] like she had done it 1,000 times. And she began to be the queen of queens with everybody. I’ve got a front-row seat to this.
We performed [classic Lynn/Conway Twitty duet] “After the Fire Is Gone.” I just remember being scared to death. It’s the first time I ever played the Ryman, and so the first time we ever played the Ryman and you’re playing with Loretta Lynn — that’s crazy. But what I loved about that whole evening was I watched her drive her ship. Even when they surprised her, she could turn the surprise around where she was in control of the moment.
As an artist, you’re going, “This is magic, what I’m watching right here.” I think there are some people that are born to be that person and I think she was, but I think what made Loretta Lynn special was she never ever made you not believe she was that little girl from the holler, because I think she always was. But I think God just touches some people in certain areas and she was meant to do this without ever becoming the big glossy celebrity and leaving what she knew. She never left what she knew.
When the night was over, I put her in the truck. She handled [the evening] with all the grace, style and elegance, while pretty much carrying me because she knew so much more about being spectacular than I will ever know. It was quite possibly one of the most fun nights of my life.
[Over the years,] we’d send each other gifts. When she went into the Kennedy Center Honors, I sent her a necklace that I just thought was her. [One day,] I get this unbelievable package in the mail. They’re her cowboy boots with a little note on it. They’re beautiful. If I was to show you all the cool things I’ve ever got, that would be the first thing I would show you.
I don’t know what it is. I can just tell you that there was a bond with that woman that I’m sure everyone that ever met her felt, that she made you feel like you were so special. I just loved her. And she had me convinced that she loved me right back.
–As told to Melinda Newman