Loretta Lynn's new album, Full Circle, comes out March 4, the same day a new American Masters documentary about her life, Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, premieres on PBS.
David McClister
By Nolan Feeney
March 2, 2016

March 4 is a big day for country-music icon Loretta Lynn. It marks the release of her first studio album in 12 years, Full Circle, which features both new material and updated versions of Lynn classics like “Fist City.” It’s also the day PBS premieres the documentary Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, which chronicles the singer’s journey from the hills of Butcher Hollow to the top of the country charts. Don’t mistake her absence from the studio as a sign that the singer, 83, is slowing down: she recorded close to 100 songs for the new album and says there are hundreds more where those came from. “I want to record them before I quit singing,” she tells TIME. “But I ain’t figurin’ I’m quitting. As long as I can sing, I’m going to be out there singing.”

TIME: Your new album, Full Circle, includes songs from your childhood that you never recorded before. Why revisit them now?

Loretta Lynn: I wanted the kids to know what I sang when I was kid. I was always busy writing new songs and recording them, but I never got back to the songs I did when I was a little girl that Mommy had taught me. I got to thinking when I started record­ing, Hey, I’m doing this on my own, I’ll cut what I want to. I got 93 songs cut. A lot of them are the old stuff. Some of them are new.

Ninety-three songs?

The record label don’t care how many songs I sing, ’cause they’ll pick from them what they want me to come out with. They’ve already got the next album picked.

On the new album you duet with Willie Nelson on “Lay Me Down.” Has he ever tried to get you to smoke?

Willie’s never tried to get me to smoke marijuana. I think people know whether you want to smoke or not.

You used to babysit the producer of this record, John Carter Cash, when his parents—Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash—were on stage. Does he have a favorite story of yours about them?

Well, not really. They’d just hand him to me when they were doing a show. Of course, she would trust him with just everybody. She’d say, “Here, hold Johnny. Take care of Johnny.” So I would do that. But he was something else. He was a good kid.

In the early days of your career, you would show up at radio stations and stay until they played your songs. Did that always work?

There was one of them who made me sit till 4 o’clock in the morning till he played my record. He was a disc jockey at night time. He didn’t have too good a word to say about the record when he listened to it. Sometimes it was hard to get your record played, but I stayed with it. My husband believed in me, and I had to show him that I could do it.

Some radio stations banned your 1968 song “Fist City,” about women who pursued your husband while you were away. Were you surprised by the reaction?

Oh, I couldn’t figure out why they thought it was bad! I just wrote about the everyday thing that was happening. Everything I wrote about was happening to somebody else or me. I wasn’t lying about anything in my songs.

In live performances of that song, you’re always cheerful and smiling, even when you’re singing about hitting a woman. Did people underestimate you because of your demeanor?

Other women underestimated me. If you can’t fight for your man, he’s not worth having.

You wrote a lot of songs about fighting with your husband, his drinking and his infidelity. Did it ever feel like airing dirty laundry?

When I sang them, I knew that women would like them because all women live the same way, you know? Most women.

You’ve always abstained from alcohol. What kept you away?

Just watching all of them that drank was enough for me. That’s the one thing I’ve never done, and I don’t think about starting right now.

In the PBS documentary, Sheryl Crow says country music is too cosmopolitan now for those kinds of drinking, cheating and fighting songs. Do you agree?

I think so. We don’t have real country music anymore, not like they used to have. It’s more or less a pop sound. I think someone will probably save it. They’re going to have to, because you can’t lose something that we’ve had for a hundred years.

Are there any country artists you do like?

Miranda Lambert is good. The last record she had out, “Little Red Wagon,” I didn’t think that was good. It wasn’t real country. I hope they don’t try to put her down the middle of the road and start recording pop with her.

You’ve previously backed Donald Trump. Is he still your candidate?

Well, I got a little mad at him the other day. He gets a little aggravated with people, and you can’t be like that. He’s got a lot of energy. What he says he’s going to do, I think he can do. But I hope to heck he don’t mess that up.

You’re known for the extravagant gowns you wear on stage. When did they become your signature look?

About 30 years ago. I don’t know why. I was making my own dresses because at first I didn’t have a lot of money to buy material with. I’d get two yards of material and make little short dresses down to my knees, and I’d hang fringe all over the dresses. I quit sewing because this kid from Arkansas [designer Tim Cobb] started doing all my gowns. I’ve given a lot of them to other people, where they have museums and stuff, but outside of that, I keep them all.

You say in the documentary that artists should be available to fans because the fans are the ones making them a living. How did you foster a close bond with your fans?

I would sit sometimes three to four hours after a show and sign every autograph till the last one left. About three years ago I just finally quit because it was getting a little hard. When I get through the show, it’s late. They still write [fan mail] because I write them back. At Christmas time I’ll get cards made up and I’ll write on each card. I write ‘em two or three times a year. I sit down and do that when I’m in the bus.

In 2004 you released Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. Did you notice a change in your audience after that album?

Oh yeah. Now there are so many that come out that are Jack White fans. They holler at me from the stage and tell me that they really like the album Jack cut and ask for one of the songs. It’s about time me and him go back out on the road. I’m going to do another album, I think, with Jack. Something different. I’ll just leave that up to him and see what he comes up with.

When you worked with him, you made him a meal of chicken and dumplings. Is that your signature dish?

I thought, Well, maybe every­body don’t like beans and fried pota­toes and corn bread like I do. They were a little cold, because he got down here a little late. I live 100 miles outside of Nashville, which is a good thing: that way you write your own songs and you don’t listen to someone else telling you what they want to hear or what they want you to sing.

In the documentary, he describes watching you pull out dozens of song sheets to record. How many unreleased Loretta Lynn songs are you sitting on?

Hundreds of ‘em, let me tell you. People get lazy. When they get a hit out, they think every one they put out is going to be a hit. Most of the time it’s a one-record wonder. But you can’t work on one record. I had to have sense enough to know when I started writing and singing that I had to have more than just one record to work the rest of my life. So I kept writing hits. You can’t depend on somebody else writing them.

Do you think about trying to record them all?

I want to record them before I quit singing. But I ain’t figurin’ I’m quitting. As long as I can sing, I’m going to be out there singing.

Are you offended when people ask if you’ll retire?

Somebody asked Tammy Wynette one day, “Why don’t you move over and let us younger singers take over?” Tammy said, “Why don’t you try and move me?” Tammy told me that, and I laughed because I’ve had stuff like that happen to me. Try to move me! I could work every night if I wanted to. I won’t let them book me that strong, but I could work every night.

Do you ever get tired of singing your signature songs?

Oh, I’ve been tired of them thangs for years. When I write one, I throw it aside and I’m already tired of it. But the people don’t get tired of it. We have to figure that out. People start hollering for my records when I hit the stage.

So how do you get through singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” week after week, year after year?

You know, that’s one song I’ve never gotten tired of because I still live that song. I’m still a coal miner’s daughter.

Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com.

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