At 83, country singer and songwriter Loretta Lynn is about to release her first album of new material in a dozen years.
"As long as you keep singing, your voice gets better as you get older," Lynn said from her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. "But if you quit, you won't be able to sing. I've heard people walk on stage as they've gotten older and they couldn't sing their way out of a paper bag. I don't want to be one of them."
"Full Circle," due Friday, is produced by a duo Lynn has known since they were in diapers. That would be her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, and the album's co-producer, John Carter Cash, the only child of country greats Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
The new album includes Lynn's versions of a number of country, folk, bluegrass and gospel standards, among them the Carter Family's "I Never Will Marry" and "Black Jack David," the bluegrass perennial "In the Pines," and the Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson country hit "Always on My Mind."
She's also recorded new versions of a couple of her own classics, "Fist City" and "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" as well as the song she identifies as the first she ever wrote, "Whispering Sea," which is the album's lead-off track. Nelson and Elvis Costello are in a couple of duets with Lynn.
Russell, of course, grew up listening to her mom sing. For a time in the 2000s, she and her twin sister, Peggy, toured as their mother's opening act. But this is the first time Russell has served as co-producer on one of her mother's records. The collaboration has given Russell a whole new relationship with her mother, along with a heightened respect for her instincts as a musician.
"We had gone to see another singer who has been in the business for 50 years, and they couldn't really sing anymore," Russell recalled. "She turned to me and said, 'You can't really hear yourself sing, which is why so many people who can't sing, still think they can. You can't hear your true voice. If I ever start sounding bad, you have to tell me. I don't want people leaving one of my shows saying, "Oh, gosh, Loretta used to be so great" or any of those things.' "
Lynn's voice does sound every bit as vibrantly assertive and emotionally honest as it has throughout her nearly 60-year recording career, and the new album represents just "the tip of the iceberg," John Carter Cash, 45, told The Times in a separate interview.
"I love John Carter — June used to hand me to him during their shows," said Lynn, who also jokes that he wasn't always an angel. "I told him once I'm gonna kill him. You got to take control of the kids!"
"The kids" — Cash and Russell — have been working steadily with Lynn since 2008, largely at the Cash Cabin Recording Studio in Hendersonville, Tenn., whenever she's been in the mood and not on the road playing one of the 100-plus shows she's being doing nearly every year of her life.
"John Carter and I got to talking," Russell said, "about us coming in and doing some sessions there with mom at the cabin. My thought was, 'Let's just go out and record. I want to have mom sing some songs, whether they're old songs that have been favorites, or song that she's written — whatever she wants to do, just getting her in the studio to have some fun.' Before you knew it, we had recorded over 100 songs."
Lynn plans to release a series of albums from those sessions over the next several years, both as a legacy project putting her stamp on a body of songs she grew up loving but never recorded, to reinterpreting many of her own songs at least in part to provide financial security for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In conjunction with the release of "Full Circle," PBS' "American Masters" series on Friday will premiere "Still a Mountain Girl," a two-hour documentary on the life and career of the woman known to millions as the "Coal Miner's Daughter," referring to her upbringing in the Appalachian coal-mining country of eastern Kentucky.
The phrase became the title of her autobiographical 1970 country hit, her 1976 bestselling autobiography and the Academy Award-winning 1980 film starring Sissy Spacek (who was one of several people interviewed in the PBS program).
The last album Lynn released before "Full Circle" was "Van Lear Rose," her unexpected collaboration in 2004 with roots-rocker Jack White, a longtime fan of her work.
"That was his band on that record," she said. "I just let Jack do whatever he wanted to do. He'd asked me about something, and I'd say, 'Hey you're the producer — you produce it!' I thought he done good. It's country."
With "Full Circle," Lynn, Russell and Cash do cover it all, from the vintage Carter Family songs she learned as a girl, through the first song she wrote up to much more recent songs she's written with younger (relatively speaking) collaborators including Todd Snider and Costello.
During Costello's writing session with Lynn a few years ago, he got a close-up look at how she works.
"I was sitting patiently when Loretta Lynn took the room by storm," Costello writes in his recently published autobiography, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink." "She was carrying a box file with a label on it that read SONGS.
"We made our introductions and immediately got down to work," he continued. "Loretta tipped the contents of the box file onto the table and invited me to examine these fragments of songs, lyrical openings, and ideas for choruses, all jumbled up on legal paper, telephone message pads, and the backs of receipts and hotel bills....
"I picked up a jagged piece of cardboard from the pile. It looked as it if had been torn hastily from a box, and on it Loretta had scribbled the first draft of one of her biggest songs. I think it was 'You Ain't Woman Enough (to Take My Man).'
"I expressed surprise that a first draft like this was not on display in a glass case at the Country Music Hall of Fame," he noted, "but then I turned the packet over to see that the scrap of cardboard had come from a box that had contained a brassiere. 'Oh, I can't give them that,' said Loretta, as if I'd suggested sending them last week's dinner."
In the most recent record session last month, the woman who wrote and sang "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" in 1966 put her spin on Amy Winehouse's breakthrough hit "Rehab."
"It's really, really wild," Cash said of the track. "When we first started recording, she would joke with me about that song, and go around singing 'They tried to make me go to rehab/I said no, no, no.' That was years ago. I said, 'Why don't we actually record it?' It's really something. Her interpretation is going to be mind-blowing, I truly believe it."
That was prime example to Cash, as with the older Appalachian-rooted traditional songs, of what has made Lynn one of the most revered artists in country music history.
"She's treading ground that she never has before," he said. "I've seen her go from the heart through this process and be completely unafraid to take risks. She has that command of a song, that when she takes it on, she makes it her own."
Time to bond
For Russell, serving as her mother's co-producer on these recording sessions has given them a far closer relationship than existed during her childhood, when Lynn's recording career and heavy touring schedule often kept her away from her family.
"There are no words," Russell said. "I'm feel like the luckiest human being on the face of the Earth to do this every day with just my mom. Right now I'm sitting in her bedroom and she's opening the door and letting her cat, Precious, come in, and mom is just grinning at me."
In one scene in the documentary, Lynn recites the words to "Coal Miner's Daughter," in essence retelling her own life story.
"How we filmed that," Russell said, "is that I sat down across from her and next to the director, and I said, 'Tell me the story of "Coal Miner's Daughter,"' and then she says, 'Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter....' What you can't see is me crying. You can't imagine how that feels, knowing your child is hearing that, knowing that's being captured on film. I hope the world gets to see that."
It's not hard to wonder how Lynn feels about continuing to crisscross the country in her tour bus, enduring sometimes grueling recording sessions, promoting records and giving interviews at this point in her life.
She's been hospitalized with pneumonia and gone through other illnesses that forced her to cancel performances. Does it ever feel like it's getting to be too much?
"I don't want it any other way," Lynn said. "I'm going to keep working till they put me down. But I ain't figurin' on going any time soon."