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Inside country legend Loretta Lynn’s ‘first birthday party’ (at age 87)
Amna Nawaz: The songs of Loretta Lynn have spanned generations of country music fans. Millions more came to know her story through the 1980 film "Coal Miner's Daughter."
This Sunday, one of the greatest figures in American music turns 87. And Loretta Lynn is a woman who knows how to celebrate.
Jeffrey Brown joined her in Nashville.
It's part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: It was a birthday bash unlike any other, as the matriarch of country music was feted for a career that's already spanned six decades.
Dolly Parton: Loretta, happy birthday.
Keith Urban: Happy birthday, Ms. Loretta.
Reba McEntire: Happy birthday.
Jeffrey Brown: But this year, Loretta Lynn claimed, marked a first.
Loretta Lynn: This is my first birthday party I ever had.
Jeffrey Brown: Oh, really?
Loretta Lynn: Yes. When I was a little girl, mommy would say, "Well, today, you're 5 years old." Next time, "Today, you're 6."
I never had a birthday.
Jeffrey Brown: Well, now you deserve it, I guess.
Loretta Lynn: Well, I'm loving it.
Jeffrey Brown: A who's-who of country music, and 12,000 fans, filled Nashville's Bridgestone Arena in early April to mark Lynn's 87 birthday. It was her first public appearance since suffering a stroke in 2017.
Serenading her, stars like Miranda Lambert. And all-time greats George Strait, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood.
Talking with us backstage before the show, Lynn said all this was beyond imagining when she was growing up in the tiny coal-mining community of Butcher Holler, Kentucky.
What was the hope, what was the dream, what was the ambition back then?
Loretta Lynn: You know, you never dare to dream big, because, where have you been to dream? How could you dream when you have never seen nothing or never been nowhere. Never been to town, so I -- you didn't dare dream.
Jeffrey Brown: As captured in a PBS "American Masters" documentary, at 15, Loretta married Oliver Lynn, known as Doolittle. She had four children by age 22 and twins 10 years later.
It was a marriage of professional partnership, great love and plenty of turmoil. And she put it all in her songs.
Good and bad, huh?
Loretta Lynn: Oh, yes. And he -- it didn't make no difference what I wrote. If it was about him, he would say, "It's a hit, honey."
I sang him the song that I cut on Sony last year. I sung it... that was the last song I sung him when he died. And he said, "Honey, it's a hit."
Jeffrey Brown: What do you think he would be saying tonight?
Loretta Lynn: He would be so proud of me. Oh, yes, he'd be the first -- he would be partying. Man, he would be down here raising all kinds of heck.
Jeffrey Brown: Her first hit, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl," came in 1960, and set her on a trailblazing path: first woman in country music to write a number one hit song, "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man;" first to be named Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, and to have more than 50 Top 10 country hits.
What's the key to writing a good song? What does it have to have?
Loretta Lynn: It's got to have the person.
Jeffrey Brown: The person meaning you?
Loretta Lynn: It's got to have the heart and soul of a person that's writing it.
Jeffrey Brown: That sounds simple, but it can't be simple to capture the real person.
Loretta Lynn: It's not simple, because it's hard on the writer. I used to lock myself up, shut myself in a room, before I would get through with a song. I wouldn't come out until I got it wrote.
Jeffrey Brown: And when did you know that you had it, that it was done?
Loretta Lynn: Well, I would know when I had it done. If you don't know when you have it done, you shouldn't be writing.
Jeffrey Brown: She was a strong voice for women in a conservative industry, a powerhouse in a business run by men, making herself a multimillionaire.
You know, we all know you as a great artist, but I understand you have always been a great businesswoman, as well.
Loretta Lynn: Pretty good.
Jeffrey Brown: Was that -- you took care of things?
Loretta Lynn: Yes, I did.
Jeffrey Brown: Because you had to? Did you have to learn how to do that?
Loretta Lynn: If you're hungry, yes. You learn how to make a living if you're hungry.
Jeffrey Brown: It was an inspiration to women who followed, like Martina McBride.
Martina McBride: She was really one of the first, if not the first woman that sang about stuff other than just being somebody's love interest. She sang about her as a woman, and the things that she was going through, and the things that she was facing, and living with a man, a not perfect relationship, and songs like "The Pill." And just really groundbreaking stuff.
Jeffrey Brown: And it reached to the other side of the world, where a young Keith Urban played Lynn's songs in cover bands while growing up in Australia.
Keith Urban: She's talking about home, and she's talking about dreams, and she's talking about heartbreak, and she's talking about desire, and love, and just destruction, and all of it. It's global.
Jeffrey Brown: But Urban had a slightly more direct reason for being here tonight.
Loretta Lynn: Hey Keith, this is Loretta. And I'm having a birthday, and I want to see your butt there.
Jeffrey Brown: You get that call, and you're in, right? You got no choice.
On stage, there were duets made famous by Lynn and Conway Twitty. And a version of controversial 1975 song "The Pill" about birth control.
Darius Rucker: I love her songs because she bleeds her heart out of her songs. Like, you feel that's real. She felt that. And she knows that. And she's telling you that. You can believe that or not. She doesn't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED). But it's real.
Cam: Because she was kind of like living her whole truth in the fullest space she could meant that the rest of us in her wake could be ourselves. I mean, it's just, I owe her the space I stand in.
Jeffrey Brown: Lynn herself told us she's not done. She's working on her next album.
So what's been the key to surviving and thriving for so long in this business, as a songwriter, as a star, as a businesswoman?
Loretta Lynn: You have to be smart. Hard work, and smart. That's all it takes. If you have got a little talent, you can go a long way, if you're smart and put the work in it.
Jeffrey Brown: The night's grand finale? "Coal's Miners Daughter," of course, with the star of stars joining in.
At first, she seemed to have forgotten her own words. But a few lines in, she was ready. And she sang it through to the end.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Nashville.
Amna Nawaz: And, online, we have more from Loretta Lynn and the standout moments at her birthday bash. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.