It’s been years since I’ve had any desire to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so when I got an email announcing Loretta Lynn with the Secret Sisters on March 17, it seemed like a good way to get out of the house but avoid the crowds. Hell, it’s pay day, right? $131.60 later, I am still feeling ZERO buyer’s remorse, especially as I read more about the Secret Sisters, aka Laura and Lydia Rogers. Listen at 15:45 at the above link and weep tears of pure love. I just want to hug them, and then take them to the zoo to see if they can get the lions to lay down with the lambs.
Anyway, their debut album featured Jack White and was produced by the Jay Z of traditional American music, Mr. T Bone Burnett. (It’s hard to type that without thinking, “why did my parents not name me T Bone Burnett, because then I would be awesome.”) But no matter. I’m going to buy their album tomorrow to share it with my not-so-secret-sister, because February 5th is her birthday!
Like many other people my age, my initial appreciation of Loretta Lynn came second hand care of Sissy Spacek. Now Loretta’s feelings about that movie might be mixed due to royalties issues, but WOW. Sissy gets 4 starts out of 4 in all categories in my opinion: acting, singing, accent and outfits. The scene detailing her wedding night makes me cry every time (not tears of joy: she was fourteen). But if you can take your eyes off Sissy for five minutes, there are many other notable appearances: Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Levon Helm as her father, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline too.
While the movie is fantastic, it doesn’t sufficiently answer the question “why do I love Loretta enough to cough up $55 plus a bunch of bull*** fees per ticket?” It’s a long story. I was never quite the bumbling hayseed that Loretta Lynn describes herself as in Coal Miner’s Daughter and the follow up Still Woman Enough, but I could still relate to her troubles. I grew up in a small town in a rural area, and there’s a learning curve to becoming a cityfied fancy woman. There were a few times early on where I just stuck my foot in my mouth, for example, the party where I got confused and thought people were talking heatedly about magical wizards. And, there was the time Brendan Canty asked if I’d ever sung with anyone else, and I said, “um… my sister,” and he said “cool, what band?” To which I could only honestly answer, “choir.” And I can’t seem to break my slip habit, even under knee length skirts and dresses with built in linings! I just remember my mother muttering something about it under her breath on the way to the JC Penney’s Catalog Store when I was about 5, “that woman is not wearing a slip and you can TELL.” I was like “whoah, no one will ever say that about me.” I may ride a bike in a skirt but rest your minds, there will be a slip under it.
But while I grew up in a town with more chickens than people, it was no Butcher Holler, and my love of Loretta didn’t fully appreciate until I moved to Eastman Georgia to take a job at the Ocmulgee Regional Library System. Never heard of Eastman? Too bad for you. They have very good Brunswick Stew, donuts, and watermelons which many people eat with salt and pepper. Eastman is where I learned to make quilt blocks, to whistle, to put grape jelly on my sausage biscuit and to enjoy buttermilk straight from the glass. It’s a quiet place, mostly populated by some very nice religious people as well as some trash and criminals which seems about par for the course these days.
There were some characters too. The library director who was a former weight lifter ended up in a heap of legal trouble which I was glad to have no part of. Then where was the reverend who drove the bookmobile, but mostly seemed to take off fishing in it according to all the MIA calls we got from the jails he was supposed to be visiting. And somehow I ended up in possession of a home video called “Rattle Snake Hunting with Burl Fincher” which is pretty self explanatory, but still really needs to be seen to be believed.
Two women I worked with were standouts on the Sissy Spacek achievement level. Miss Anne, who I believe still works there, and Miss Grace, who I’d like to think does but it’s probably wishful thinking. Miss Anne, I won’t say too much about out of respect for her privacy, but she is a great lady. One of my favorite memories is her description of her husband’s proposal to her, when he explained that he had $____ and could either get her an engagement ring or a washing machine, whichever she’d prefer.
“Are you crazy?” she said. “What am I going to do with an engagement ring? Get me the washer.” Smart lady. If anyone wants to marry me, trust me, get the washer.
Miss Grace, I will elaborate on more fully as it’s very likely that she has passed on to another realm, or is past the point of caring what anybody might say about her on the internet. I’m not sure she ever would have cared anyway. I’m 100% sure she wouldn’t have cared if she knew if related to Loretta Lynn in a positive way.
Miss Grace was a volunteer in her late 70s or 80s, and that was back in 2001. She had beautiful white hair, which looked quite sharp with her favorite outfit of purple socks, purple sweatpants, and purple sweatshirt that read “WHEN I AM AN OLD WOMAN, I SHALL WEAR PURPLE.” Mission accomplished Miss Grace!When the library was quiet there was always time to chat up at the front desk, and Miss Grace, while very sweet, had no shortage of opinions and feelings which I was always glad to hear about. She didn’t like listerine breath strips very much, that’s for sure. Or saggy pants. Or hussies. One of my favorite memories was her slapping “FOR REFERENCE USE ONLY” stickers over the racy parts of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. “That’s better,” she said when she was through, and put it right back up on the rack.
Like Loretta, Miss Grace had also been married at a very young age. I want to say 14 or 15. It was probably younger than many, but not completely unusual for the time I think. When I think about the person I was at that age, I am astounded at what the experience must have been like. At fourteen, I knew how to cook some and clean some but the responsibility of raising children, even conceiving children at that age seems incredible, not to mention running an entire household like a grown ass woman.
Certainly girls in America are still having children at that age, but not in the isolation that was normal out in the country. You might live miles from the nearest neighbor, and even further from anyone in your family. You probably wouldn’t have access to a telephone, or a car, even if anybody bothered to teach you how to drive one. Your husband might be gentle and sober if you’re lucky, but if you’re not… good luck getting much more than an occasional hug and bag of frozen peas for your eye. Maybe your family, friends, or congregation would help you if your marriage turned into a burning ring of fire, but legally, you’re on your own.
Miss Grace never seemed to think about herself as a victim of these circumstances, but was always very matter of fact when recounting her somewhat hardscrabble childhood (she was one of many, many children), and subsequent youthful marriage. The only time I knew her to acknowledge these difficulties was when she was talking about the Grand Ole Opry.
The Opry today is a bunch of spangles and hoopla (and I guess it has been for a long time) but back in the day, this was a show that Miss Grace and just about everyone else she knew tuned into on the radio without fail. It was like a church for a million people, but with comedy routines and bands. The Opry was quite a social and cultural force across the South and beyond, and created a symbiotic relationship between listeners and music that is hard to identify in modern audiences. Today our relationships with musicians can be summed up in 99 cents per download. But where the Opry was concerned, they knew each other, and needed each other. Tammy Wynette kept her hair dressing licensure close to her whole life, so scared was she that it could all be taken away. So they really loved their fans, and vice versa.
Miss Grace spoke especially fondly of the ladies that graced the Opry. Patsy, Kitty, Dolly, Tammy, Skeeter… all of them were masters at conveying heartache, loneliness, and sure, self pity. But one amongst them gave as good as she got (Fist City), challenged double standards (Rated X) and sang about birth control like it was a good thing (The Pill, and it was). Of all the Opry’s female stars, Loretta Lynn was in many ways the most relateable, emobodying the guts as well as the frailty of the much put upon queens of country music.
Miss Grace was not alone in her admiration of Loretta Lynn. When Lynn’s follow up to Coal Miner’s Daughter came out, the waiting list at the library was about 10 people long. Volunteership is not without its privileges, so Miss Grace was at the top of the list. Every time a delivery of new books came, we’d rip it open to see if Still Woman Enough was in it. It seemed like weeks went by and it hadn’t shown up yet, and wouldn’t you know it, her diabetes was giving her trouble the day it finally did arrive, so she was in a local health center for a few days for dialysis. I looked at the list to see who was next, but something didn’t feel right.
How could you be born one of a dozen children, be married at 14, live your young married years in isolation on a farm, lose a child before his time, be both a library volunteer and the biggest Loretta fan in history and NOT get first dibs on her 2nd autobiography? No sir. Not on my watch. I threw the book in the car, drove to the clinic and read bits and pieces to Miss Grace out loud. The part that sticks out in my mind is where LL visits the White House and is seated next to a nuclear physicist. Being Loretta Lynn, she makes a big to do about what a fish out of water she was. “I’m just a girl from Butcher Hollar, and a har I am, talking to a nuclear physicist!” But being Loretta Lynn, I’ll bet she did just fine.
At any rate, I am sure you can now see why it was necessary for me to blow the bank on Loretta and the Secret Sisters. Sorry for the long post. It actually took me several days to finally wrap this one up. However, I wanted to do the Mss. Loretta, Grace and Anne the justice they deserve as I learned a thing or two from all three of them. Hopefully Eric will understand when I break down into tears, like I did at the Ryman Auditorium while thinking about Johnny and June. Sometimes I do that.
Soon to come: this weekend’s bread experiment, and something exciting on its way in the mail!