Updated: Feb 16, 2021
As the legend goes Loretta Lynn was in an outhouse leaning against a toilet at her home in Washington when she wrote I'm a Honky Tonk Girl in 20 minutes. She was 24 years old, and unlike many of her peers, and predecessors, the thought of being a singer never entered her mind. It was her husband Doolittle who recognized the talent in Loretta early on.
They had fallen on hard times living a hard scrabble life in Washington State with four children in tow. Doolittle had relocated the family to the state in hopes of better employment opportunities. Loretta's life with Doolittle sure did seem like material for a country song.
She recalled in an interview aired on NPR that country music was about real life, and she knew a little something about that. She was a young mother from a financially challenged background, and was already married for 10 years by the time she was 24.
For the sake of this series, we are specifically focusing in on Loretta's honky tonk roots. We already know she's the Coal Miner's daughter, and hails from Butcher Holler, KY. What y'all might not know is Loretta cut her teeth playing her songs in Bill's Tavern in Blaine, Washington. Blaine is right on the U.S Canada border, and is a blue collar town with various manufacturing plants, warehouses, and freight services.
Loretta played with a local group named Westerners which featured local favorites The Penn Brothers. She was paid $5.00. They initially snuck her in through the back because she looked too young despite being 24 years old, and being the momma of four children. Before too long, she branched out with her own group Loretta's Trailblazers.
Loretta liked singing more than her day job. She worked cleaning out hen houses, and cooked for 36 ranch hands. Doo, Loretta's husband felt it might be good exposure for Loretta to be on Buck Owen's show in Tacoma. He was just starting out himself, and played at a rough honky tonk named the Pantania Club.
When Buck heard Loretta sing, he encouraged her to stay and perform at an amateur singing contest. Loretta did, and won a watch for Doo, which broke the very next day. But, it was just a matter of time for Loretta's big break. The amateur contest was televised in Canada, and Loretta made an instant fan across the border that would prove instrumental for Loretta's career.
Firstly, let's go back to Blaine, WA where Loretta's Trailblazers were now singing 6 nights a week at Bill's Tavern. The partners of Zero Records saw Loretta there according to the book "My Rambling Heart" an autobiography by Don Grashey which chronicles the formative years, and demise of Zero Records.
Ray, and Harriett Chamberlain, Don Grashey, and several other partners involved in the entertainment venture, but Norm Burley appears to have been the principal officer. I say this because when the company faltered, he paid the investors back their money.
Loretta states that Norm saw her on Buck's show, and decided to form a record label In order to release her music.
Norm was a wealthy elderly widower that often stayed on a remote seaside village that could only be accessed by Ferry. Family members confirm that he enjoyed music, and use to play drums at the house.
One thing that can be said with a great level of certainty is that Zero Records signed Loretta, and recorded her first singles.
"I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" was written, and performed by Loretta. She wrote it about a regular at Bill's Tavern that used to cry in her beer all the time. Down on her luck. A real life story that resonated with Loretta. The record peaked at #14 with the help of a musician union strike. With the lack of new music circulating to radio, programmers were chomping at the bit for new music. Loretta's single was a welcome sight.
The Zero Records expenditures show that the label burned through the initial $26000 investment. That is the equivalent of 200k now.
But it lasted long enough to help Loretta get the exposure she needed. She recalls going to every station, they could find with the record in hand.
One such station had a deejay that was about Loretta's age, pimply, and with greasy hair. She got along so well with that youngster that they corresponded by mail for awhile until he started singing himself.. That deejay's name was Waylon Jennings!
Nothing smacks hard country like the hard knock life of the road. Loretta says that she STILL doesn't eat sandwiches due to how many she ate when she was sleeping in her car going from town to town, and from station to station.
The strength of single landed Loretta a spot on the Opry the same year, which was unprecedented. But there were still more dive bar shows to do. One in particular, Loretta recalls that it was so small they did not have a stage, and she had to stand on the bar to sing. Loretta's honky tonk education, and future hits came from some of the unsavory things she saw, and some that she experienced performing at the dive bars.
You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man was inspired by a woman at one of her shows that pointed out that her husband was at the. bar with some other woman. When Loretta saw the other woman, she told the girl plainly "She Ain't Woman Enough To Take Your Man"..
Loretta says she knew she had a hit.
Fist City hit closer to home, and was about some woman that would come to all the shows, and hang around Doo. Loretta says she's been in a couple of fights in her day. Country music is honest, it's about real life..And real life can be messy at times.
We would be hard pressed to argue Loretta's honky tonk credentials. She made it the hard way. Often playing hole-in-the-wall places with nebulous characters including salacious propositions, and gropes.. And we know that still happens, but nowadays, a lawsuit, and bad press could end your career, so not worth it to most reasonable life forms.
Decca ultimately bought Loretta's master from Zero Records. She released "Success" her first single with Decca, which became her first top ten hit. Loretta has gone on to earn 27 Number 1 hits, and 55 Top 10s!
Those tough early years helped Loretta cultivate a strong work ethic that helped solidify her as a bonafide Honky Tonk Queen.
Im our next installment, we'll explore the innovation that set honky tonk music aflame! It gave teens a reason to bond, and adults something to look forward to. Additionally, it provided opportunities for independent regional artists to be heard across America, and ultimately the world.
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