Seventy-seven songs on the charts over the years, 16 number one hits, 45 million albums sold and number one female country artist of all time.
By Ed Breen
Not so long ago our home place here in Grant County and up in Wabash County, Indiana was a sort of northern suburb of the hills and hollers of Johnson County down in southeastern Kentucky.
The reason for that, for the link between places like Wabash and Marion and towns with names like Van Lear and Thealka and Paintsville, was the General Tire company, which had big plants here in Marion, out where Crosley cars used to made, and up in Wabash on a sprawling landscape at the west edge of town that is now nothing more than a brown field surrounded by black fence.
The bond that bound these disparate places was jobs, the need for workers here in Indiana in those go-go years and the absence of such jobs in the scarred and worn out coal mining communities down there.
Thus did families like the Webb family from Paintsville and Van Lear come north to make a living, but never abandoned their love of the hills of home, with family cemeteries perched on the crown of the hills and the sound of their special kind of music echoing up and down the valley.
For so many, the workplace was here, but home was there. Phone books, or what is left of them, church rosters, club membership roles in both places are littered with the names of those who came and went, moving back and forth over the 355 miles like they were doing nothing more than going to the store.
Herman Webb operated the grocery store at Van Lear, but sisters Brenda and Peggy Sue and their widowed mother, Clara, who was remarried to Tommy Butcher, lived in Wabash. That’s Butcher, as in Butcher Hollow down there in Johnson County. Tommy was a promoter. He loved nothing more than promoting shows that put his stepchildren at center stage at places like the Honeywell Center in Wabash on their way to grander venues like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, like happened with Brenda Webb when she grew up to become Crystal Gayle.
Why, even the eldest of the sisters, Loretta, who lived in Wabash in her youth only long enough to have worked for a while at Gackenheimer’s drug store, was married to a guy known as Doolittle, who had family roots here and had been in and out. His given name was Oliver Lynn, but he was Doolittle, or Mooney, or just Doo and, it turns out, was not as nice a guy as we long believed. Her father was Melvin Webb and she was, of course, . . . the coal miner’s daughter.
All this came rushing back last week at the news that Loretta – Loretta Lynn – had died at the age of 90. The iconic songwriter and singer who was alternately known as “the queen of country music” or “the first lady of country music” – she sometimes shared those titles, “queen” and “first lady,” with the late Kitty Wells – had died at her home in Hurricane Hill, Tenn.
The last time she was on stage around here was maybe eight or nine years ago when she performed at Emens Auditorium at Ball State University in Muncie. That night, adorned on stage, as she always was, like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Loretta delivered a full show, but sang from a perch on a stool at center stage. The years had taken their toll, but, in fairness, some of her most heartfelt music was made in the last few years after she left the stage. Her last, her 46th album, Still Woman Enough, was released in March of last year.
Seventy-seven songs on the charts over the years, 16 number one hits, 45 million albums sold and number one female country artist of all time. Her legacy is staggering, and you have to include the books and movies from Coal Miner’s Daughter. And, yes, Sissy Spacek sang Loretta’s songs in the movie.
She fit firmly in the tradition of country musicians in that she never acted like a celebrity. She was folks and she wanted to sing for other folks. Gotta get personal for a minute here. I probably photographed and interviewed the lady a half-dozen times over 40 years. Always gracious, always cooperative, always willing for another half-dozen pictures.
And I harkened to a story from long ago, back when General Tire was the mother ship and Peggy Sue Webb and a lot of others were working there.
On a lunch break in the cafeteria, she was scrawling words on a pad, then approached a friend of mine who was much younger in those days. He was Tom Drook, who grew up to become Marion Police Chief and later a banker.
“You think I got a good song here for Loretta,” she asked him. Tom read it and politely agreed without passing judgment and they both returned to work.
A few months later, Drook, tooling along with the car radio on, heard the playing of a new song by Loretta Lynn, the very same lyric he had read in the General Tire cafeteria.
That song? “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin with Lovin’ on Your Mind.”
Photograph taken by author.
Ed Breen has been an Indiana journalist for 50 years. He was a reporter, photographer and editor at the Marion Chronicle Tribune from 1966-1995, when he became Assistant Managing Editor of the Journal Gazette newspaper in Fort Wayne.