STORY BEHIND THE SONG: Loretta Lynn, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

STORY BEHIND THE SONG

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Loretta Lynn
The Truth about “Coal Miner’s Daughter”

By PAUL ZOLLO

“You can call me anytime,” she said over the phone from her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. It’s the second time I’ve been lucky enough to talk to Miss Loretta, which is how everyone refers to her, and each time it’s a joy. Unlike other living legends, she goes out of her way to find out about the guy asking the questions, and ends our conversations with promises of more to come.

Born in 1932 in Butcher’s Holler, Kentucky, she wrote about the real facts of her life, and turned it into classic song. Songwriters struggle everyday with the old quandary of wanting to write about specifics, but maybe not so specific as to lose your audience. And so some choose to write intentionally vague songs, so as not to exclude or alienate any listener.

But time and time again we learn the same lesson. Which is that the most universal songs are the most specific ones. The beauty and undying strength of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” lies in the truth. Every line is true. And there was more, as she related in this story behind the classic song.

Yet even those of us who have never been to Butcher’s Holler – or any holler for that matter – can experience the world of her childhood. It’s all there. That is, except the parts she cut out, as related during our talk on the origins of this remarkable song.

LORETTA LYNN: “I wrote it on a little $17 guitar.  It didn’t stay in tune. And $17 was a lot of money, cause at the time we didn’t have any money. But then Gibson gave me a guitar, and I wrote all the others on that one.

Every word is true. My daddy would work all night in the coal mine. During the day he would work in the cornfields. There were ten of us. He had to make a living for us. Eight kids. I was second, so I would take care of the kids while Mommy did the sewing and the cleaning and everything else. I think that’s why I sing. I’d rock the babies to sleep and sing to them.

The song says Mommy’s fingers were bleeding. I’d seen them bleed many times. In the wintertime we had these old clothes-lines made out of wire. It would be so cold that her fingers would stick to that wire. She’d pull them loose and I’d see the hide come off of those fingers. I would hide and cry. Monday was wash day. She’d scrub on those washboards all day and her fingers would bleed. But she didn’t complain.

My Mommy, to me, was beautiful. I’d see everything she’d do, whether it was crying or laughing. She would rock the babies by the coal oil light, like in the song. That was our light. We didn’t have much light. Butcher Holler, Kentucky was dark at night. You go up a long holler, and there’s trees everywhere and it’s very dark.

We had a well. I would help my daddy a lot and bring the water in at night when I wasn’t being lazy.

[The song] says we’d go without shoes in the summer. We would wear our shoes out before it would be warm enough to be without shoes. We’d have holes in our shoes, and put paste-board in our shoes. But halfway to school the paste-board would come out. One time my daddy found me by the creek with my shoes off, just crying, cause it was so cold from those shoes with holes. And Daddy picked me up and carried me home. And Daddy only weighed 117 pounds. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.

You know, you hear about poor people in other countries. There are a lot of poor people in our country if you go to the right places. There are a lot of hollers, not just Butcher Holler. I’ve seen them. I guarantee you there’s kids right to this day in the Kentucky hills that don’t have shoes.

There’s the line “Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere.” Parents do what they have to do. Daddy would usually try to get two hogs, one to raise and one to sell. So the other hog would pay for itself. We had a rough life. It was a hard life. Mommy would raise a garden in the summer, and we’d help her. She would can, and I would pick wild blackberries. I would go and pick from morning till night. And Mommy would pack up 100 quarts of blackberries.

The song doesn’t tell half of it. If I told the whole story nobody would believe it now anyway.

[Producer] Owen Bradley heard me writing it. It had about ten verses, and he said it was too long. He said, “There’s already been an ‘El Paso,’ there didn’t need to be another one.” He knew it was about my life, and he didn’t care about my life and figured nobody else would. So I cut out, I think, four verses. And I cried the whole time. And I have lost those verses, I do not remember them. I wish I did.

We cut it in Owen’s studio in his barn. It was my arrangement. I told him exactly how I wanted it, whether I wanted the steel to start it, or the fiddle. Then I sang the song to the band, and said, “This is what we’re gonna do now.” And I sang it live with the band. Just sang, I didn’t play guitar. Just a couple takes at the most. I never did many takes of anything. The more I sing, the worse I get. I like to make it fresh.

It was my husband Doo’s idea to put a banjo on it after. He was right. It added so much to the song. None of us could believe it.

It was a fun session. I stopped at the store before going to the barn. I’d get a half a roll of bologna cut up, and cheese, bread, onion, potato chips. We made everything fun. I didn’t have a drink but whoever had a drink had a drink. A hillbilly party. I didn’t want my sessions not to be fun. Because if you go into a recording studio and you think you’re a better singer than the boys that’s gonna play behind you, then you better not go.  It’s a thing you are feeling and you can sense, and I know the musicians can sense it.

 

Miss Loretta in Nashville, photo by Stephanie Chernikowski/Morrison Hotel Gallery.

Miss Loretta in Nashville, photo by Stephanie Chernikowski/Morrison Hotel Gallery.

REVIEW: Paul Zollo & The Zollo Band at the Fremont

Paul Zollo and The Zollo Band

Fremont Centre Theatre
Pasadena, California
November 22, 2014.

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 The Universal Cure for Happiness 

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Words & Photos by K.K. Ryder

“People are sleeping and you have to wake them up.” So said Madonna in words my heart remembered when I read cover to cover Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting.

This is the guy that has woken a lot of sleepers in his time, in his songs and all the amazing books he’s written. He’s interviewed Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Joan Baez, Carole King and Gerry Goffin and so many more. Songwriters On Songwriting is considered the songwriter’s bible.  I became friends with him through Facebook, and told him the reason why I started writing had to do with him. From there a great mentorship and friendship blossomed.

So I felt blessed to be invited to the CD release concert with Zollo and his band at the beautiful and historic Fremont Centre Theater in Pasadena.

It was a fantastic night. Zollo and his talented friends were amazing.  I was blown away with the talent on the stage. It was an evening of pure fun. And even complete with clowns too. Who doesn’t love clowns? Well, I know they scare some people but I loved them all. The “Clown Jam” that closed the night was filled with laughter and joy.

When I arrived Paul was already on stage and he had already been introduced by the one and only Robert Miles aka Count Smokula, a popular accordion playing musician and personality-plus entertainer in Southern California.

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I opened the door and boom, there was the dressing room so I went in and here’s all these clowns getting ready and sitting down and so I took this opportunity to grab some shots of these very colorful entertainers. Being backstage especially when a show is going on is exciting because entertainers are in the whisper mode. So very quietly I got some great poses with personality plus coming through. Zollo’s son and “beamish boy” Joshie was backstage and I saw a handsome young man with the most wild haired 70’s style afro just nonchalantly standing in the midst of the backstage flurry.  I snapped away, and then quietly excused myself from the backstage to the actual stage where Zollo and his full band were in full force.

 1111 Universal Cure concert 2 cool band angle by KK RYDER DONEEarl Grey, Aaron Wolfson and Paul Zollo.

I wore all road dog black like a roadie so I could creep around behind the stage and the audience would not be distracted. I came upon a chance in a lifetime opportunity to watch Paul Zollo onstage doing what he does best. With the rhythm of the horn section and the beat of the drum and the bass guitar in my heart,  I crept around so I could capture a little video and a few stills.. Paul in a midnight black tweed suit, electric blue tie, showing his love and care for humanity. Paul proudly wearing his father’s dog tags, rocking on this eccentrically exciting performer’s feet, were tennis shoes. Aahhh, comfort and style! Looking a little like Bob Dylan and sounding so Paul Zollo with a 70’s flair in his vocal style with a tinge of Dr. Hook, which first captured my soul upon hearing him the first time.

The first song I captured as a backstage creeper was “Mississippi Sheiks,” almost Blues Brothers sounding. So I crept behind a very tall speaker stage right and began filming and capturing some shots of the crowd enjoying the show from the performers point of view. On stage right were Zollo’s longtime friends Earl Grey and Aaron Wolfson playing guitar, and on horns were Chad Watson, Jeff Gold and Sarah Kramer. Lisa Johnson sang glorious harmonies all night long, many with Earl Grey (to whom she’s married) and also covered the keys.

To catch the next song as the crowd was applauding, I went around to where I could get a good seat, so I sat in the front row stage left. Paul was funny and engaging with the standing room only venue and he chided with the crowd while wiping his brow with a scarf: “This is Steven Tyler’s scarf,” he said. “I stole it from him, I saw him at a party and I grabbed it… He came running after me and I turned around and I kicked him right in his chest and knocked him down and I was out of there!” The crowd absolutely loved his story laughing with applause.

He also talked about this stylish African style of music that Paul Simon does and he said he feels better because he’s taller than him. This led to a song he wrote for his son Joshua called “God Gave Me Something To Keep,” with a Calypso feel- also real Latin but yet African. It was great. Paul said Josh is also his manager, and at one point in the show Josh brought out a life-size doll replica of Joe Frisco which he placed center stage as the band played the ever popular song “Joe Frisco on a Ferris Wheel.”

Paul explained that Joe Frisco was the “King of Vaudeville” and that he had always had a thing for vaudeville and that classic sort of entertainment. Paul has since adopted the “King’s” grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. And Mr. Frisco probably dances like “Mr. Bojangles” when Paul and his son Josh come to visit him.

He also talked about how Lucy Liu used to be his next-door neighbor and she was talking about how he had been working out “`Yeah, sure I do,’ I said to impress her. She said, ‘I’ve got a garage that needs to be cleaned,’ and though it was his wife’s birthday, he said sure. He is such a card and I’ll bet a bit of a prankster that he leaves you scratching your head wondering what this genius is going to come up with next!

Zollo loves his friends and a few lucky musicians shared the stage with him.  Darryl Purpose, his co-writer on many songs, sang a few and performed solo as well. Danny Shorago of the Fuxedos sang the Elvis song “Little Sister” with Zollo and the band, and did a spaceman routine on the song “Tallahassee UFO.” which was so much fun to listen to, and to watch.

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The Zollo Band has changed a lot over the years, but on this night consisted of Paul’s “brother” and long-time partner Earl Grey on guitar and vocals, Lisa Johnson on keyboards and vocals, Neil Rosengarden on bass and trumpet, and Edoardo Tancredi on drums. The great Chad Watson filled in on mandolin and trombone; Sarah Kramer played trumpet and Jeff Gold was on sax and clarinet.

Aaron Wolfson, a wonderful guitarist Zollo dubbed “the electric wolf,” added amazing jazz and rock guitar leads to many of the songs, and is “one of the shining stars” of the album.

1111 Universal Cure concert with JILLY  DONE by kk ryderZollo with Jill Freeman

Jill Freeman, the singer-songwriter who Zollo said was one “of his oldest and best friends ever,” a former member of his band The Ghosters, came out to sing solo with Zollo on the song “Being In This World” from his previous album, which he said was a duet with him and Jill until Art Garfunkel chose it to duet on and, Zollo said, “we had to get rid of Jill.” With the band they did a greatly spirited rendition of a song Zollo dedicated to his late father, “Thanksgiving.”

Props to Karen Young on sound and lights, who was very sweet. At one point when I ventured upstairs to capture a little birds-eye view  video, we danced upstairs in her fun crow’s nest of sound and lighting domination!! Then I stepped outside to where Lois Tedrow was grooving to the music and serving goodies for the evening and we had a short but sweet conversation. Lois has worked with the Fremont for many years, and arranged for Zollo to do his show in her venue.  “Lois told me many years ago, that when I finished this album, we would do a concert here at this beautiful theatre,” said Zollo. “And those who know Lois know – she keeps her promises.”

It all wrapped up with the most epic clown jam on the song “Clown Jam” with all the backstage clowns taking the stage and the whole house, as the band jammed away and the night was filled with bright happy sounds and color that filled the room with love and music as the band jammed and shone. Jeff Gold’s klezmer clarinet playing, a Jewish sound “deep in our roots,” as Zollo explained, was delightful.

I’ll bet the whole world could be a happier place on earth with one dose — one shot of sunshine —  upon listening to Paul Zollo’s CD Universal Cure.

http://kkryder.wix.com/kkryderentertainer

 1111 Universal Cure concert 2 DONE BACKSTAGEBackstage after the show, front row: Marilyn Shenkman, Joshie Zollo, Penny Folger.
Back row: Earl Grey, Chickster Shenkman, Zollo, April Hava Shenkman and Sarah Kramer.