While I’ve never been a huge admirer of country music, I’ve always had a soft spot for Loretta Lynn. Like me, she’s from Kentucky. She was born in Butcher Hollow and I was born in Pikeville. Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any more Kentucky than Butcher Hollow and Pikeville.
Loretta was also the rare country music artist (particularly among women) who actually wrote many of her own songs. The only one of her contemporaries who comes to mind in that regard is Dolly Parton. And these weren’t frivolous songs she wrote, either. For a woman from the south raised on guns, God, and red meat, she was surprisingly progressive, and even feminist. Her songs touched on hot-button topics like philandering husbands, birth control, being turned into a baby-making factory by an overly-traditional husband, and even the Vietnam War.
Of course, she’s probably most famous for being the subject of the biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, where she was brilliantly played by Sissy Spacek (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn). The title of the film is taken from one of her greatest songs.
Coal Miner’s Daughter may not be a classic film, but as an honest depiction of growing up in the rural south, it certainly beats the hell out of Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a sturdy, authentic movie directed by the ever capable and professional Michael Apted. When the film came out in 1980, I remember my mom wanting to see it (which was rare, as my mother is more of a talking-animals movie kind of person) and not being able to find a sitter for her prepubescent son.
With no other choice in hand, my mom snatched me up and we went to the cruddy little theater in our then-hometown of Niles, Michigan. The Ready Theater was the kind of place where your shoes stuck to the floor and your armrest was removable, but, as you might guess, they showed movies, and what was on screen supplied all the wonder that my mind could take in.
As family legend goes, my first film-going experience was 101 Dalmatians. My mom tells me I loved it so much that I stood in the aisle and clapped. I have no memory of this, but it could explain my crazy, nearly over-the-top love of dogs. The first movie I do remember seeing is Coal Miner’s Daughter. Even though the film is rated PG, much of it went over my head at the time. I can still recall my mom telling me that Tommy Lee Jones was just “tickling” a giggling Sissy Spacek during what would certainly pass for now as a pretty chaste love scene. More than that, I remember the shots of the Appalachian hills, the men coming out of filthy coal mines, and Sissy Spacek nailing that holler accent.
The movie felt like the home I had left behind when my then-single mother, barely out of her teens, decided to move us north so I didn’t end up being a coal miner. Over the years, my mother and I have had many ups and downs. She’s a very difficult person (and as an apple falls not far from the tree, I can be a bit extra myself) but I’ll always be grateful for the courage she showed at a very young age, with almost no money and no education, in moving us away from the black-sooted hills of my birthplace.
Loretta Lynn lost her father to black lung when he was just 52. I lost my biological grandfather before my birth to the same miserable affliction. My grandmother outlived two additional husbands—both succumbing to coal-related illnesses. I never met him, but my biological father was a coal miner too. You could say that coal ran through my family’s blood. I know it certainly ran through and wreaked havoc on much of my family’s lungs.
Loretta and I both came from coal country and made better lives for ourselves. I guess you could say I feel a kinship with her because of that. Obviously, she went on to great fame and fortune, whereas I’ve eked out a solid, more modest existence for myself. But there’s something about the commonwealth of Kentucky that still calls to me. My first memories were made there. We were poor, but I didn’t know that. I was well-loved by my family. That I did know.
So, when I stepped into that raggedy theater on a cold Michigan evening in March of 1980 to see this movie about a woman from a place that was so very familiar to me, I was briefly taken back—to a place where people talk funny, eat a lot of biscuits and gravy, and have chickens and cows in their backyards. It’s not a life I would ever want for myself now, but it’s a part of my history that I cherish—poverty and all. I’d like to think that having lived that way, if only briefly, informs who I am today, and my ability to have empathy for others who didn’t escape a dying southern town that is probably, right now, killing them slowly with every dark breath they take in. I certainly think those early hard years in Butcher Hollow had a lot to do with the legend that Loretta Lynn became.
I guess you never forget where you came from. Hell, if I pause for just a moment and let my mind wander back to my earliest years, I can still pick up the dusky, toxic aroma of all that black rock I was surrounded by when I was a child. It’s the smell of death, and yet, somehow, nostalgia abides.
Black ash to black ash, black dust to black dust.
Loretta Lynn died today. She was 90 years old. She was a coal miner’s daughter.