By the time the chorus comes around, you can usually tell if it’s a Loretta Lynn song. The iconic country singer is famous for threatening to send a rival to “Fist City” if she didn’t “detour around my town.” To another would-be homewrecker, she once boasted, “You ain’t woman enough to take my man.” Lynn has also sung about social issues we’re debating to this day, from birth control (“The Pill”) to the results of not taking it (“One’s on the Way”).
This is clear: Loretta Lynn, who’s still a spitfire at 76, suffers no fools.
Born a coal miner’s daughter, “in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler,” as her signature song goes, Lynn has just written a new book. “Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics” is an overdue look at Lynn’s 50-plus years of songwriting, with a reverent foreword by Elvis Costello.
Set for release on Tuesday, the book presents Lynn’s lyrics alongside her anecdotes about writing them. It’s also sprinkled with passages about musicians who have inspired her — from Kitty Wells to Jack White, who produced Lynn’s Grammy-winning 2004 album, “Van Lear Rose” — as well as personal photos of Lynn throughout the years and handwritten lyrics scrawled on hotel stationery.
On the phone from her home in Tennessee, Lynn recently reflected on the art of writing from the heart and why it was so important to her career, and sang the praises of a celebrated songwriter she hopes to meet one day: Bob Dylan.
Q. Early in the book, you outline your approach to writing: “For me, I could and can only write what I’ve lived.” Did songwriting come naturally to you?
A. It did, but I never could write before I started [writing songs]. I could never understand that. When I wrote my first song [“I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” released in 1960], they started popping out every three or four days. It was a good thing because my writing is what got me my first recording contract in Nashville. They said, “We don’t have anybody that can write for you,” and I thought, “God, what’s wrong with me?” (Laughs.)
Q. Would you have been as successful if you hadn’t written your own songs?
A. No. I’ve never been able to ask a writer for a song that I thought fit me right at the time. You have to be in the frame of mind of what you’re going through at the time. When I recorded my songs, that was exactly how I felt.
Q. I ask that question because music is full of great singers who never get their due because they don’t write. People really do relate to artists who write their own material.
A. I think so, too. They can put more into it when they sing it, and whoever is listening to that song can feel it.
Q. When do you know you’ve got a good song on your hands?
A. Well, I think singers – I’m not going to say all of them, because I hear some of them come out with the crummiest stuff – I think most people that really write know when they’ve got a good song. Me and Shawn Camp have been writing together. He’s one of the greatest little songwriters going right now. He’s kind of a bluegrass singer, but he can write any type of song.
Q. Was a song like “Dear Uncle Sam,” about a woman torn between the love of her country and the love of her man, controversial when you released it in 1966?
A. That was when I first started singing, back during the Vietnam War. My husband and I were listening to the radio to see if the disc jockeys were playing any of my records. And I said to my husband, “I am so sick of war. I don’t like war. I can’t take it.’’ He said, “Well, why don’t you just write about it?’’ So I got my pencil and paper out right then, and I wrote just how I was feeling. I sing that song every night. And you know, this has been the longest war we’ve ever had in our lives. So many people want to hear it. When I look out and see people crying and wiping their eyes, it bothers me, because I know they’re going through something that I hope I never have to go through.
Q. Have you ever shied away from writing about something?
A. Nothing. If I think about it, I’m gonna write it. You may never know why, but I’m going to write it.
Q. I was astonished to learn in the book that “Coal Miner’s Daughter” originally had eight more verses.
A. Yes. [My producer] Owen Bradley said, “Loretta, you take some of them verses off. There’s already been one ‘El Paso,’ and there will never be another.” Remember, “El Paso” [a hit for country singer Marty Robbins] was real long, almost five minutes. That was the hardest thing I ever did, though, was take the verses off.
Q. Did you ever consider rerecording the song with the extra verses?
A. Well, I think I left the verses there that night [in the studio]. I just ran off and forgot them. But I don’t remember now what they were.
Q. You just broke my heart.
A. (Laughs.) Well, listen, if I’m ever going to put those verses back together, I’ll send you a copy. You’ll get the first dadgum one.
Q. I once read that you used to joke that everyone had the wrong idea about you and Tammy Wynette based on your songs. In real life, Tammy was the feisty woman you portrayed on record, and you were the one more likely to stand by your man.
A. That’s the truth. We laughed about that, too.
Q. The last time we spoke, you mentioned how much you admire Bob Dylan.
A. And I still haven’t got to meet him yet.
Q. Really? Should I make some calls for you?
A. You’re gonna have to. I need to meet that boy. I saw him the other day singing somewhere. It’s so funny to watch him sing. Have you noticed that? (Adopts a prim accent and sings): “The answer my friend/Is blowin’ in the wind.” (Laughs.)
Q. What do you like about Dylan’s songs?
A. Well, you can’t beat that song, can you? I love that song. And Bob just knows how to put a song together. I’m not gonna say that he knows how to sing them. I’m just gonna say he knows how to put them together. (Laughs.) To watch him sing is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m a big fan of his.
Q. I’m sure he’s a fan of yours, too.
A. I don’t know if he’s ever heard of me, you know.
Q. I guarantee you you’re wrong.
A. Well, I hope so. (Laughs.)
Q. The book ends with lyrics for several unreleased songs. Does that mean you’ve got a new album coming soon?
A. Yes. I’ve got a new Christmas album coming out. I’ve got a new religious album cut. And I’ve got another album cut of some of the biggest hits that I ever wrote for Decca and you can’t find anymore. I rerecorded them.
Q. I hear you’ve also been writing with Bret Michaels from the band Poison.
A. Yes. He came down and cut one of his records in my little studio. I’m singing “The Rose” with him.
Q. The Bette Midler hit?
A. No, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
Q. Oh, wow. That’s a surprise. And you’re also working with Elvis Costello?
A. Yes. He’s funny. He was telling somebody how he took his computer out and was writing on his laptop. And there was Loretta sitting with a pencil in her hand and a piece of paper. So that was our writing session. (Laughs.)
Q. What does Jack White think of all these new collaborators?
A. He loves it. Jack is a great person. He really is. You know he got married and he’s got two little girls. But him and his wife broke up. I hate that, especially after the kids. But I seen him the other day, and he looks good. He hadn’t changed a lick. His hair is still the same. Jack looks the same.
Q. When you think back on all the songs you’ve written, is there anything that ties them all together, a common thread?
A. I think just knowing that I spoke my mind on every song I ever wrote.James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.