In the film biography Coal Miner’s Daughter, a renegade corn whiskey maker crouched before his still, rifle in hand, and told a young O.V. “Doolittle” Lynn that being born in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky left him with three career options: the coal mines, moonshine, or moving on down the line. Lynn, who died two weeks ago on Aug. 22, would experience all the three alternatives early in his life: He worked in the coal mines; he ran moonshine (the source of another of his nicknames, Mooney); and he moved on down the line. When he settled on the last option, he took with him his 13-year-old bride, the former Loretta Webb, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child. They would discover a future no moonshiner could have ever foreseen.
Appalachian mountain families in the 1950s were a steely and tightly knit lot. It took a willful soul to seek a life outside the mountains, and separating an unformed girl from her family bordered on callousness. But Mooney Lynn never lacked nerve, and if it hadn’t have been for his bravado, the world never would have known Loretta Lynn.
The first time I met Mooney Lynn, he was standing in a field of corn. It was the fall of 1985, a couple of weeks before the first Farm-Aid concert. His wife enthusiastically agreed to take part in the landmark benefit concert because she knew firsthand the difficulties farmers were experiencing. The previous summer, the Lynns’ 2,300-acre farm in Hurricane Mills hadn’t turned a profit for the first time; Mooney expected a greater loss that fall. “The price fell 20 cents just today,” he groused, snapping off a fresh ear of corn from the more than 1,100 acres he’d planted. “Everybody says, ‘You’ve got Loretta backing ya.’ But I’ve always tried to make this farm pay for itself. For the last two years, that’s been kinda tough. What hurts me is, all my friends, they ain’t got a Loretta.”
A year later, I spent three weeks traveling through Korea and the Philippines with Loretta and Mooney Lynn, Loretta’s band, her manager David Skepner, photographer Don Putnam, and a crew from TNN. The singer was on a tour sponsored by the USO and the U.S. Department of Defense. Prone to feeling bored and in the way while on the road, Mooney rarely traveled with his wife anymore, but she had urged him to come along. A World War II veteran, he agreed to join her, thinking that he’d enjoy the proximity to the troops. But the first night in Korea, as his wife lay in bed, he accidentally fell back on her foot and severely sprained her ankle. The accident only signified how he had become more of a liability than a comfort to Loretta.
This little event also illustrated how Mooney’s greatest achievementthe career of Loretta Lynnhad also became the great paradox of his life. He had put the boat in the water, no doubt about that“In a real sense, Doolittle is responsible for everything we’ve got,” Loretta Lynn wrote in her autobiographybut as Loretta’s career grew, he became less and less a part of it.
She never would have made it to Nashville without Mooney’s encouragement and hardheaded hucksterism. He bought her first guitar and pestered her until she learned to play it; he pushed her onto a nightclub stage before she felt ready; he sent her first 45 rpm single to every country radio station in the country; and he drove her across America to promote the record. His persistence helped send the song up the record charts, and by the time they’d reached Nashville, “Honky Tonk Girl” was a country hit. Loretta Lynn landed a guest spot on the Opry her first week in town, at which time country music met one of its most endearing, and enduring, artists.
It took presumption and confidence to get there. Loretta had plenty of inner resolve, but she never would have been so bold as to think she could have forged a career in country music. That was all right, thoughMooney had enough nerve for both of them. Loaded with bluster and common sense but not overly concerned with the consequences of his actions, he moved through the world like a tough-skinned raft fighting its way through a river of resisting forces. He’d grown up in a region saddled with limitations, but he learned quickly that something better waited on the other side of the hill. Fearless and unrefined, he was from the last American generation that thought itself incapable of losing the big battles. He wasn’t about to be denied.
He also provided his wife with the material for many of her most memorable songs. Their struggles inspired such classic lovin’ and fightin’ songs as “The Home You’re Tearin’ Down,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Fist City,” “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Steppin’ Out on Me),” “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Woman of the World (Leave My Man Alone),” and “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight).” Every one of them was about Doo, Loretta often said.
Even into the ’80s, the couple’s private conflicts continued to provide Loretta Lynn with her best material. “Wouldn’t It Be Great?,” released on her last album for MCA Records, asked, “If you could throw the old glass crutch away and watch it break, wouldn’t it be great?” When I asked her about the song, she said without hesitation, “That’s about Doo.” The two were vacationing in Hawaii, she explained, when she found herself stranded in their hotel room while Mooney whiled away hours in the bar. She wrote the song on hotel stationery. She had been afraid to show it to him, so the first time he heard it was during a recording session. He told her, “That’s a good song” and left it at that. “Doo says I’m telling the truth,” she said. “That’s why other women identify with my songs.”
Indeed, no one before or since has created a self-penned repertoire that so clearly mirrors the arguments from one side of a difficult, but lasting, relationship. Full of spunk and self-reliant attitude, Lynn’s songs remain some of the most potent, and popular, in the history of country music.
Ironically, the success that the couple had worked so hard for only separated them more. After a few hit singles, Lynn had reached a level where she needed finesse, not brawn. Beginning in the mid-’60s, she worked under contract to the Wilburn Brothers; later on, she hired Skepner, an ex-MCA executive, to manage her. Mooney bought a ranch in Hurricane Mills, 70 miles east of Nashville. He became a gentleman farmer, probably the ultimate ambition of a coal miner’s son.
Much as they had difficulty being together, the Lynns never fared well apart. They fell out of balance when separated for long periods of time, and Mooney turned increasingly to drink. But through all the ups and downs, Loretta never, ever stopped loving him. They’d fight, boy would they fight, and no man was ever as intimately exposed as he was in her songs. But no man will ever be more cherished and beloved either.
Over the last few years, as Mooney fought with heart problems and diabetes, Loretta rarely left his side. He’d chide her, telling her she needed to get out and work; she’d quibble and say she wanted to be with him. To the end, he stayed a fighter. Doctors repeatedly gave him a death sentence, but he moved in and out of hospitals, undergoing various surgeries. His left foot was amputated last year, and then in July they took his right foot. Loretta was at his side when he died.
In the dedication to her autobiography, Loretta Lynn wrote, “To Doo, who had an idea.” He had much more than thatthey both did. Together, they lived one of the greatest American stories ever told. At its core, it’s also a great love story.