Loretta Lynn is sitting on a sofa in her publicist's office. Dressed in a lavender print dress and a matching headband, the 5-foot-tall singer is sipping a Diet Coke and discoursing breezily on the virtues of banana candy, an entire bag of which she's eaten for breakfast that morning.
"It's been around forever and I love it!" she gushes in her thick eastern Kentucky patois. "It kinda looks like peanuts, little yeller things. I get started eating 'em, and I can't stop till it's gone."
Just then, Dave Skepner, Lynn's longtime manager, sticks his head in the door. A tanned, burly man with a tight-lipped profile, Skepner is a former Hollywood film executive who somehow or another stumbled into running the career of one of Nashville's most determinedly countrified and temperamental superstars. Over the years, he and the Appalachian-born, grade-school-educated Lynn have developed a strange sort of "Mutt & Jeff" symbiosis.
"Well, I've got to go get my neck twisted at the chiropractor's ," Skepner informs his client after running down some business details.
"Here!" Lynn cackles as she jumps to her feet and grabs Skepner by the shoulders. "I'll do it for you and save you some money!"
Standing behind Skepner, she thrusts him down on the sofa. A fiendish grimace spreads across her face as she grabs his head between her two widespread palms. She begins twisting it as if she's going to break it off at the neck.
"We have," Skepner smirks uneasily as the photographer draws a bead on them and his shutter goes click-click-click, "a very strange relationship."
In recent years, 50-year-old Loretta Lynn, with her certifiably rural pedigree (born in Appalachian poverty, a mother of four by 18, a grandmother at 29) has become something of an institution. In the minds of many she has, with her unerringly down-home musical instincts, come to symbolize all that is right and good in country music.
Lynn, who appears at the Kennedy Center Thursday and Friday, is celebrating her 25th year in show business. She has also come out with a new album, "Just a Woman," her first in more than three years and roughly her 60th since 1961, when she had her first national hit. Though she demurs at the title of the "Queen of Country" ("I'm not the queen," she scoffs. "I guess that would be someone like Kitty Wells"), she long ago amassed the credentials of a top contender.
Lynn has never been far from the top of the country charts. Her self-composed musical anthems have, like her robust, sensual voice, resonated with celebrations of her humble origins in dirt-poor Kentucky coal country ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Kinfolks Holler"). Others have been sassy, and at times irreverent, broadsides that carried muted sentiments of feminine protest: "You've Come a Long Way, Baby," "The Pill," "From Adam's Rib to Women's Lib."
Along the way, she's won a Grammy and become the first woman to win the Country Music Association's prestigious "Entertainer of the Year" award (1972). She's shown up in polls as one of America's most admired women and has performed at the White House. She's been on the cover of Newsweek, been profiled on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." (It was on that show she revealed that, perhaps owing to the lean years in her native Butcher Hollow, Ky., she now keeps an emergency 365-day supply of canned food, as well as a replica of the tiny wooden shack she was born in, on hand at Hurricane Mills, her elegant, 5,000-acre rural Tennessee estate.)
Her life story, as chronicled in her bestselling autobiography, "Coal Miner's Daughter," and the 1980 film of the same title, has become the archetypal saga of the rags-to-riches rise of a female country star. The movie won Sissy Spacek an Academy Award.
"I picked her Spacek from a glamor picture" Lynn recalls proudly in her dipthong-twisting drawl. "I'd never heard of her, you see. I never get to watch movies, and I don't know one star from the other," insists the singer who is nonetheless something of an MTV fan and thinks Tina Turner can do no wrong.
"But they had this big list of possible people, and Sissy was way down about middle-ways. Jaclyn Smith was in there, and as far as I was concerned, she looked right. She had dark hair, high cheek bones. Lynn is one-fourth Cherokee. Everything.
"I knew all this, and I was passing all these people up," she continues. "I had a stack of publicity pictures about a foot high, and I was middle-ways through 'em and there was Sissy Spacek, which I'd never seen. Long blond hair in this glamor shot. Freckles. No makeup. I took one look and said, 'This is "The Coal Miner's Daughter"!' "
But life for Loretta Lynn has never been a bed of roses.
Through the years she has been plagued with a virtual shopping list of psychological and physiological maladies, most brought on by overwork and chronic exhaustion. There have been migraines, high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, depression, ulcers, mysterious blackouts and seizures (which have occasionally occurred on stage), and a "nerve pill" (Librium) dependency.
Even in her wildly freewheeling conversational style and effervescent humor there are occasional traces of darker undercurrents. Now and then she lapses into moody reminiscences, her eyes dart nervously and she takes on the scattered look of an easily spooked horse. There is about her a sense of chronic dislocation -- of a life lived almost constantly in motion. She has residences in Nashville, rural Tennessee and Hawaii, but concedes that the only time she really feels at home is riding down the highway in her tour bus.
"There was just a whole package of things that got me down there for a while," she explains wearily in reference to the bleak years that have accompanied her fame. "For one thing, I was very hurt when my babies was growing up without me. She is the mother of six, grandmother of 10. They was getting away from me. It got to where I was gone all the time. I'd be home maybe two days a month and gone all the rest. Pretty soon, I got to feeling like I was nothing to nobody but a tree they could pick money off of. I got to feeling like I was worth more to 'em dead than alive.
"The first time I ever took a Librium, though, was when I got sued and hit the witness stand," she adds, making reference to a $5 million breach-of-contract suit brought against her by her former booking agency and music publisher.
"I was trying to heal my mind, you see. It got where if I started crying I'd take one Librium . Later, it got to where I'd take two and still be shaking. Finally, it got to where things was so bad I'd just get up and do my show and say, 'Hey! I don't wanna think about nothing!' And I'd just take some Librium and go to sleep.
"There was some of 'em Nashville gossips that had me taking Valium," she snaps indignantly. "Well, they'll say anything, but I never took 'em. They'd of drove me outta my mind. I took one once and I went nuttier than a fruitcake! I was talking and saying things and I didn't even know I was doing it!"
No stranger to controversy or tragedy, Lynn's life has often made great grist for the grocery tabloids. They had a field day a few years back when one of her twin daughters eloped at age 15 -- just two years older than Lynn herself was when she married coal miner and ex-moonshiner O.V. "Mooney" Lynn, her husband of nearly 40 years.
It was she, in fact, who was said to have inspired Ronee Blakley's portrayal of a neurotic, pill-popping country and western basket case, hopelessly dominated by her toadyish husband/manager in Robert Altman's 1975 film, "Nashville." ("The worst goddam movie I ever saw," Mooney once said. "Of course I recognized myself in it," adds Lynn, who found the movie "funny.")
Rising far above and beyond all the usual setbacks -- the lawsuits, the migraines, the on-stage collapses and the occasional death threats that have come her way -- was the recent death of her elder son, Jack Benny Lynn, 34. He apparently fell from his horse while attempting to ford the shallow but rain-swollen Duck River, near Hurricane Mills.
The day it happened, Lynn was in intensive care at an Illinois hospital. She'd been placed there after succumbing to exhaustion and "nervous seizures" while on tour.
The scars from this last trauma are still tender; on this particular afternoon she would not talk about it. She did tell a reporter just a short time after the accident that "if a person could just hurt and die -- if your heart could just break and could die, I would have."
But friends don't call her the "Iron Lady" for nothing. Partly as a means of assuaging her grief, she has thrown herself into her career with renewed ardor in the months since.
After more than three years away from the studio, due to a contractual dispute with her record label and the emotional derailment brought on by Jack's death, she's once again hoping to breathe some life back into her recording career. With "Just a Woman," she's enlisted the help of some new blood: ubiquitous MCA staff producer Jimmy Bowen.
Bowen, another West Coast-to-Nashville transplant, produces an array of artists, from Jimmy Buffett to Hank Williams Jr. He is a man with his finger on the pulse of the contemporary music scene.
Which is what Lynn, who has been four years without a major hit and is being outflanked by a new generation of younger, more urbane and pop-inspired female contenders, needs right now.
Some of the arrangements on "Just a Woman" are a bit flashier and more contemporary than the bedrock steel guitar/fiddle underpinnings that her longtime fans are used to hearing on her records. Still, at its core, the new album is unembellished, unreconstructed Loretta Lynn.
"I think I do have a few songs on there that are kinda modern, that aren't really real country," she says. "But you can still hear 'Loh-retta' in there. I think there's a few of 'em that'll maybe sell in a different direction. But there's nothing too far out. I think that's what hurt country music: when the records started getting too far out.
"Hey!" she snaps her fingers and gestures emphatically. "If they the fans are gonna buy over here, then I'll teeter-totter that-a-way. But I don't wanna just straddle the fence, not knowing what I am. I wanna be on top!"
She is quick to acknowledge the polite suggestion that perhaps she should, for a change, consider not pushing herself so relentlessly; that she should instead learn to enjoy some of the rewards of her accomplishments. After all, if she wanted, she could merely coast along on the weight of her own legend. She is, after all, a star.
"Who's a star!" she protests rhetorically, with widened eyes and strident voice. "Who! I know some that sings, and some maybe have a little more than others. But there are some that are big stars that end up with nothing. There's a lot of 'em that works in the factory and end up with more than the big star does.
"I'm not some star hanging up there, shining," she points at the ceiling. "I'm just right down here, just a-grindin' with the rest of 'em."