Nearly every performer, journalist or even marginal fan of country music must have a Loretta Lynn story to tell.
Lynn, the Johnson County native who died October 4 at 90, was a seminal figure in the genre. Her career spanned generations.
Unfortunately, although I wrote quite a bit about country music in the 1990s — my first book was about a country singer — I never got to meet Lynn.
Still, in a manner of speaking, I have my own Loretta Lynn tale.
In 1987, I was a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. At 31, I was playing catch-up after a wildly misspent youth. I was broke, seemingly unemployable to all reputable companies I’d applied to for jobs and feeling awful about myself.
Then I won a fellowship to study media management and entrepreneurship in Florida. I hoped it might open the door to a good job somewhere, something to replace the patchwork of part-time gigs I was relying on to help support my wife and 4-year-old son.
I left my family and headed alone to St. Petersburg, driving my sun-faded clunker Chevrolet Caprice, which friends jokingly called “the brown bomber.” Its color was supposed to be maroon.
From my first day at the institute where I was to study, I realized I was out of my depth. I was a rural Kentuckian who attended a state university.
In the get-acquainted sessions, I found my fellow students had arrived from Ivy League universities and Stanford, or from jobs with iconic news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail and the CBC.
One guy was the son of a media magnate who was on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. A woman in the group had attended the same private high school as former-President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy.
Country mouse, meet the city mice. Meet a whole conference room full of them.
They’d been places I’d barely heard of and talked about things I couldn’t understand.
In the weeks that followed, I smiled a lot and nodded. I doubt the others sensed my distress. But I grew more miserable daily. I missed my wife and son. I felt outgunned intellectually and professionally.
As I drove around St. Petersburg in the brown bomber, I listened to the car stereo to distract my mind from my unhappiness.
Then, on one such drive, I popped into the cassette player the soundtrack from “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1980 biopic about Lynn. If memory serves, Sissy Spacek, who’d won an Oscar portraying Lynn, sang the title song.
No matter. I’d heard Lynn herself sing it a thousand times. It was the words themselves that suddenly smacked me upside down.
“I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter,” Spacek-cum-Lynn belted out. I played the song through, then rewound it and played it again. And again.
I wasn’t from Butcher Hollow, and my dad wasn’t a coal miner, but I was from the country and my grandfather drove a coal truck, and I knew right down to my toenails that feeling Loretta was talking about. Sometimes it seemed the whole cosmos was aligned to make you feel inferior.
But it didn’t have to be that way, Loretta was saying. You didn’t have to be ashamed of who you were or where you were from. She wasn’t ashamed. She was proud.
It may sound contrived to say one song you listened to 35 years ago changed you.
Well that song, in fact, did. That day, it stirred me like the invitational hymn at a camp meeting. Time and again ever since I’ve heard Loretta’s words echo in my soul.
I realized you could be from places such as Loretta and I were from and cherish them as gifts, not curse them as barriers. You didn’t have to fix the way you talked—it made you different, but not inferior.
You could be grateful for your modest family if they loved you, and for the woods you’d tromped around in as a kid. Whatever you had, that was God’s special brand of grace to you, just as he granted other graces to other folks.
I went to the media institute the next day reborn. I’d decided me and Loretta were as good as anybody there—no better than anyone else, but just as good as anybody.
The 10-week fellowship was to end with a business presentation by all the fellows. The audience: real-life media muckety-mucks, who were headhunting for talent. Early on, I’d dreaded it. I started to embrace it.
On the appointed day, we each made our presentations. I have no idea what I said during my segment, but it went amazingly well. I even got offered a swanky job.
I ended up declining. Instead, I returned to Kentucky and soon became a reporter for the Herald-Leader. But I returned at peace.
I imagine Loretta had that effect on lots of people who’d thought they were born in the wrong place or to the wrong people or just plain wrong. She spent her life speaking up for herself and, by extension, for working people, for women, for Appalachians.
She was that girl from a hill in Butcher Hollow who refused to be ashamed. God bless you for that, Loretta.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at email@example.com.