On a recent September afternoon, Loretta Lynn is at home in her bathrobe, feet up on a stool, defiantly singing while a make-up artist attempts to get her camera-ready. “Well, I was born a Coal Miner’s Daughter…” the country star belts out before she’s scolded, “Don’t squint your eyebrows!” But if a stroke and a hip fracture didn’t keep her down, the 86-year-old legend sure won’t let a little brow liner get in her way.
Sixteen months after suffering a stroke, Lynn tells PEOPLE she won’t let her health troubles define her: “I wasn’t goin’ to let it stop me. You just can’t sit down and say ‘Hey, take me.’” Instead, the singer says she’s ready to go on with her show, and this week is releasing Wouldn't It Be Great, a new album of original songs along with a few remakes of old favorites like “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
It’s a record that Lynn was set to release last summer, but that plan was derailed on May 5, 2017 when Lynn, who was at her Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, ranch at the time, suddenly realized she couldn’t use her left hand or arm.
“It’s a very scary thing when you find out you’re havin’ a stroke,” Lynn says. Immediately, “I wondered if I could sing. Mommy said I was born singin’. That’s all I’ve ever done. I couldn’t believe that that could be taken away.”
Her legendary voice was intact, but her left side was seriously affected. “Your mind tells you, ‘You can!’ but your body soon tells you, ‘No you can’t quite do this,’” she says. “Got to work at it.”
She began physical therapy immediately — and with intense determination: “I told the girl that was doing therapy with me, ‘Do not help me anymore. The next time you see me, I will be using my hand and arm,’ and I was, and she could not believe it.”
She was forced to move from the ranch where she had lived with her husband Doo before he died in 1996, to a house closer to doctors in Nashville, but by September, she was feeling good enough to call over a few members of her band for some practice sessions.
Despite a nearly 60-year career singing and performing, it didn’t come easy. The stroke had affected her hearing and her timing, but she says she never thought of giving up: “I always had a different mindset — that I can do this. Just keep it up.”
Just as she was beginning to feel back to herself, she suffered another health blow on New Year’s Day this year, when she fell at home and broke her hip. “I think people thought I wouldn’t come back from that,” Lynn says. “And they’re really shocked when I tell them, ‘Well, I’m doing good, I’m moving my arms, I’m moving all my parts and I can still sing.’”
She’ll admit she’s a little slower — she relies on a walker and, when necessary, a wheelchair (“I hate that damn wheelchair,” she says) — and the stroke has left its mark. Her left side is still weaker and at times, her memory is fuzzy.
“Every now and then, I’ll look around and think of my home and I’ll say, ‘Am I at the ranch?’ And [my daughter] Patsy will say, ‘No, Momma, you’re here in Kingston Springs.’ And it’ll kinda bring me back to reality.”
The chance to share new music, however, has given her renewed energy. “This album means a lot to me,” she explains. The title song, a lament in which she sings, “Wouldn’t it be fine if you could say you love me/Just one time with a sober mind?” was written for her husband.
The two were married nearly 50 years, and despite his well-publicized history of drinking and the violence that she’s admitted was a part of their marriage, theirs is, for Lynn, a true love story. “I think of him a lot when I’m singing that song,” she says. “It’s the last thing I sang to him before he died.”
It’s not the only tearjerker on the album – on “Ain’t No Time To Go,” a moving tune co-written with her daughter, Patsy, she calls out to a lost love: “The children need your guiding hand/Ain’t no time to go, darlin’/Your son’s too young to be a man/Ain’t no time to go, darlin’.”
In curating the collection of such heartfelt songs, all of which were recorded between 2006 and 2017, Lynn still displays her songwriter savvy. “Them hurtin’ songs sell so much better,” she says with a laugh.
She’s not content, however, with simply sharing the recordings. “I said, ‘Call my booker. I need to have a talk with him about booking me for a few dates,’” she says. “I will get completely better if I go out and hit the stage a couple times. I need to show everybody that I can do it.”
Lynn knows she could easily rest on her laurels – after all, she’s sold more than 45 million records, has three Grammys, was the CMA’s first female Entertainer of the Year, received a Kennedy Center Honor and will be presented the Artist of a Lifetime award at CMT Artists of the Year next month. But that’s not enough. “I don’t have nothing to prove but I have stuff I want to do,” she says. “And my fans want me to do it too. My fans are out there with me saying, ‘Do it Loretta. Do it.'”
And, her health scares behind her for now, she’s got every intention of giving them what they want: “As long as you dwell on the bad, it’s taking the life away from you that you need to be living.”