Our friend Loretta Lynn died Tuesday morning.
So many people have written about her, and one of the very best tributes is by Laura Vecsey, former sports and political columnist in major newspapers.
This is from Laura's website:
By Laura Vecsey
Loretta Lynn was 90 when she passed away today. But she will always be 13, which is how old she was said to be when she married Doolittle Lynn and left Butcher Hollow, Kentucky for Washington State, 4 babies in 4 years and singing at grange halls en route to American originalism stardom. In fact, Loretta Lynn was 15 when she got married, and that was the only small deceit ever in her entirely genuine life.
By sheer good fortune to be the daughter of George Vecsey, who was deemed the right person to write Loretta's biography, I was able to spend a good deal of time around Loretta Lynn for a few years. I can safely say that among the many celebrities and stars and powerful people I have been able to rub elbows with in my life, I'm not sure anyone will measure to Loretta's light.
There is a reason some people are stars, icons, once-in-a-lifetimes. Loretta made me understand that. An incredible combination of spirit, light, beauty, talent, work ethic, righteousness and humor.
As my father worked recording taped interviews with Loretta, I got to go along on some of trips to wherever she was performing. My father met Loretta after a mine blew up in Hyden, Kentucky, close to where Loretta had grown up. She performed a benefit for the families and, as my father was the New York Times correspondent for the Midwest based in Louisville, he was there for the coal mine catastrophe and her performance.
They got along, and her Nashville agent knew Loretta's story had to be written, and my father was the absolute right man for the job. An incredible listener, thoughtful interviewer, my pops says Loretta wrote the book herself and surely she knew how to create a narrative arc and fill it with detail and emotion, but this was a good pairing my father and Loretta.
As my father would get time with Loretta, I would be allowed on her tour bus as it sat parked outside of concert halls or country music festivals. The cast of characters in and out of the bus was a sight to behold for a young teenager.
Her son Ernest Ray was touring with her one year, and really it was all so he could snag as many groupies as he could between sets. I'd watch her seasoned band perform all sorts of side jobs -- drive the bus, hawk merchandise, set up autograph lines -- and then hit the stage and every note from pedal guitar to drums and fiddle perfectly.
Loretta would sit at the table in the bus, full of quips and comebacks, as many questions as answers. "I may be ignorant, but I'm not stupid," she'd say. She was self-aware and curious and had perfected the ability to run a tour and be a star and care about her fans and her music and fellow musicians and her hair and costumes in a way that took a toll on her physically and mentally.
Still, I remember watching the scene from Robert Altman's "Nashville" in which Ronee Blakely plays a Loretta Lynn-esque character whose grueling life on the road and marital issues sends her to a hospital for exhaustion. I remember thinking ... as compelling as Ronee Blakely was and vulnerable and beautiful, she couldn't quite capture the true originality of Loretta, the fire and the determination and the ability to confront and yet sidestep pain and bad times.
Loretta was a star that no amount of time or deterioration could blunt the light. Levon Helm knew it. Jack White knew it, bringing Loretta back to the studio for Van Lear Rose to cast the American icon into a new modern light. But even Jack White trying to put his spin on Loretta could never best the best of Loretta.
I was really lucky to have known her.
My undying memory of Loretta Lynn brings me such a sense of good fortune and joy. It was around 1975 or '76, and my father took us all to meet up with Loretta in Massachusetts where she was playing at a festival in Cohasset MA -- south of Boston near Plymouth. She either had a day off or time off between sets and we all agreed it would be a fun trip to go see Plymouth Rock.
With Cherokee on her mother Clara's side, Loretta was long proud of her Native heritage, so she was particularly curious about the Wampanaug Chief Massasoit, whose peaceful nature helped keep the Pilgrims alive. It was a sunny but windy day, I recall, and Loretta was a slight thing wearing jeans and some kind of denim jacket, her long dark hair blowing all around. As we walked through the streets down to the state park, we stopped at an ice cream stand and all got a cone.
Loretta got black walnut, and went to town licking it so to keep it from dripping all over. She was in good spirits, pulling her hair out of the cone, until we finally arrived at the place where Plymouth Rock sat in its confined station near the shores of Plymouth Bay.
Loretta straightened her head up, took a look over the iron rail to the ground below.
"That's Plymouth Rock?'' she said: "Why I've got bigger rocks in my driveway!" And she went on to talk more about the gorgeous Chief Massasoit and I knew that she had taken some pleasure in knowing the Chief was the better man in the deal, same as she sang about having too many babies, and how The Pill was the freedom women needed, and how cheating men deserved Fist City, and that being home with family was in the end the right place to be, even for the Coal Miner's Daughter whose gift and starshine will let her live forever.
(Below: My father walking with Loretta and her agent, David Skepner, outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.)
GV: Two good friends, now both gone. David Skepner died on 9-11. See this.
I have a piece on the NYT website, Wednesday, with thanks to the Culture editors who asked me to write about helping Loretta with her book.
(The NYT link does not seem to be opening here, for some reason, but try looking up nytimes.com and loretta lynn and vecsey.) I understand it will also run in the Thursday paper.)
Here is the NYT obituary by Bill Friskics-Warren, who writes so well about Nashville:
And here is the NYT appraisal by the always-astute Jon Pareles:
A few words about Loretta's Cherokee heritage (via her mother, Clara.)
She was always proud of her roots, before it was cool. Laura Vecsey remembers our sojourn to Plymouth Rock, how Loretta was intensely fascinated by the Wampanoags and their chief, Massasoit.
When she and Mooney bought their ranch west of Nashville, she started to learn more about how the Cherokees were forced from their homes (just a little bit of American history the country never taught us, back in the day.) The Duck River is about 10 miles to the west of the Lynn ranch at Hurricane Mills. Loretta said she could hear the Cherokees crying as they marched along the Trail of Tears.
She brought her pride with her on the stage.
On Page 16 of the original hard-cover book, Loretta has a few words about Andrew Jackson and other Tennessee people who sent the Cherokees away.
The Johnson sisters were part Native Americans -- Loretta Johnson, most strikingly -- and in 1968, the four women delivered a load of clothing and supplies to the Red Cloud school in South Dakota, and later Loretta and her band played a benefit up there. I thank our Laura for reminding us about that side of Loretta Lynn.