Hollywood has already melodramatized the lives of musicians from Fanny Brice to Glenn Miller and from Billie Holiday to Buddy Holly. But perhaps no bio film has ever tapped so deeply into the mother lode as Coal Miner’s Daughter, the current movie based on the memoirs of Loretta Lynn, the Queen of Country Music. Admittedly, Loretta’s tortured progress from a Butcher Hollow, Ky. shack to Nashville’s pantheon is a powerfully affecting story, but the box office—$38 million and counting—and the public response have exceeded expectations. Even city-slick cinéastes found themselves surprisingly moved. Jimmy Carter told Loretta, she reports, “that it was better than he thought it would be.” On the following pages Loretta, rocker-turned-actor Levon Helm (who plays her late coal miner father) and Loretta’s now remarried mother describe their personal feelings about the film—and its impact.
My life was much worse than them scenes in the movie,” confesses Loretta Lynn, 45, and ain’t that the truth. After she married at 13, she cooked for the four kids she had by age 18 on a wood stove, not a gas range. It took her five years, not one, of “nearly starving to death” to break into Country’s big time at 29. Her subsequent breakdowns and Valium dependency so sensationalized in Robert Altman’s 1975 semifictional Nashville were minimized. “They had to kind of skim over the top of things,” Loretta observes. “As Mommy said, if the movie had told everything, there’d been 50 hours of fighting. And she’s about right.”
The loving, however, would have required equal time. Sissy Spacek and Tommie Lee Jones as their film counterparts were so heart-twangingly on the mark that Loretta and her husband of 32 years, Oliver Lynn Jr. (better known as “Doolittle” and “Mooney”), left their first screening in tears. It wasn’t easy watching Loretta’s beloved father’s funeral, or Mooney’s drinking problems, infidelities and his trauma over not being the breadwinner, not to mention Loretta’s own neglect of hearth and health for her career. But the experience, she now feels, has “kinda put us together a little more. It really made Doo think that we have been together a long time and that we’ve had something real good.”
Indeed, after seeing himself as others did, Mooney, 51, who reportedly took a few bracers before the movie premiere, has been on the wagon most of the time since. “I think he quit when he realized he didn’t remember an awful lot in the morning,” says Loretta. “He’s always been a smart man, and he sure didn’t want to lose that.” She herself hasn’t popped a pill since 1976. “There ain’t nothin’ worth gettin’ that upset about,” she now recognizes.
Otherwise, Loretta’s life since the film chronicle ended in 1977 is as frantic as ever. She still performs some 120 concerts a year and travels 150,000 miles in her $200,000 customized bus called Coalminers. “How can I say that I’ve learned to pace myself better when I haven’t been home since Christmas?” muses Loretta. “I keep saying I’m going to quit every year.”
While Loretta’s sister Crystal Gayle has followed her path to showbiz stardom, Loretta’s children (she eventually had six) are emulating Mom in more basic ways. Loretta and Mooney returned from a tour last October to find that Patsy, one of their 15-year-old twins, had eloped with a 19-year-old truck driver.
“My baby!” wails Loretta of the girl she named after her late Grand Ole Opry mentor, Patsy Cline. “I’m still upset about it and don’t expect it to last a day,” she continues. The Lynns could have had it annulled. “But what good would that do?” says Loretta. “She’ll just have to learn for herself.” The elopement leaves only the other twin, Peggy Jean, still at home on their 6,000-acre spread at Hurricane Mills, Tenn. It draws 40,000 visitors a year to facilities that include a museum, dude ranch and Western-wear store. Peggy Jean vows to become the family’s third high school graduate before pursuing a modeling career. Loretta, who waged a losing battle to keep her kids in school, has her doubts. “Heck, she’ll probably end up doing the same thing as the others,” says Lynn, herself a fourth-grade dropout. “I’ve fussed and fussed at them. They keep telling me I wed young too. I knew my only future was to be married and have children, but these kids could have had everything,” she sighs. “I can look back now, and I really believed I was a big woman. I was nothin’ but a little girl. I just walked right out of my daddy’s arms and into my husband’s.”
She and Mooney plan to spend more time together now that the children are away. Betty Sue, 30, lives in Wisconsin with her two kids and writes songs for her mother and others under the name Tracey Lee. Jack Benny, 29, has three children and works on the Lynn dude ranch. Ernest Rey, 28, is a singer in Florida and father of a 3-year-old daughter; Clara (nicknamed, coincidentally, “Cissie”), 27, has two kids and runs the Western store along with the recently eloped Patsy.
Loretta and Mooney are still talking about the little house that Spacek and Jones were planning at the conclusion of Coal Miner’s Daughter. The scene was filmed on the actual site of the home they plan to build in a secluded spot on their farm. “There’s no sense us stayin’ here with all the kids gone, it’s just too big,” says Loretta of their present five-bedroom antebellum mansion. Loretta still works in her vegetable and rock gardens, cooks (“from scratch without cake mix”), and cans her own recipes when she’s not on the road. “I can’t have spare time,” she concedes. “I drive myself to death.” Her tentative May schedule includes hosting NBC’s Academy of Country Music Awards (she won a nomination as Entertainer of the Year), a White House appearance and a duet with opera’s Luciano Pavarotti on an ABC revival of Omnibus. Her publishers are already pressing for another installment of her autobiography. “I think I’m gonna wait,” she says. “From now on my life is gonna be closed—at least for a little while.” Mooney just chuckles up his sleeve at that one. “Heck, Loretta’ll never change,” he promises. “She’ll always be talkin’.”