For serious country music scholars, it’s good to exercise caution with autobiographies. They’re fun and engaging, for sure, but they may also embellish facts or romanticize certain stories.
There’s a few, however, that are essential reads anyway, mostly because they aim for a larger scope and are brutally honest. Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter is one such example – a inside look at Lynn’s childhood and journey to Nashville that, while perhaps romanticizing the darkest aspects of her childhood, never shied away from actually delving into what her upbringing truly was like. It was witty, insightful and all-around fun to read with Lynn at the narrative helm.
One such chapter, though, was kept brief – Lynn’s friendship with Patsy Cline, both because of the pain Lynn felt when writing that chapter and also because, in reality, that time period itself was brief. Now, by reading Lynn’s newest book, Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship With Patsy Cline, it all makes sense. By that, I mean two things: one, if her book was to cover her entire life, Lynn would certainly need more than just one chapter to show how much Cline meant to her. And two, when you hear Lynn’s righteous edge in her own material, that’s because Cline showed her how to navigate Nashville’s brutal business climate.
To be fair, it’s still a brisk read; the two artists ultimately spent less than two years together, and most chapters are merely a page or two long. And though it is, inevitably, about country music, too, this is a book about friendship, spanning everything from the toughest moments to the tiniest, mundane details that, naturally, are told through Lynn’s perspective.
That may be Lynn’s greatest strength, both as an author and a songwriter; she’s able to invite listeners into her world and help them see scenarios just as she sees (or rather, saw) them. Her conversational tone is full of wit and helps an already quick read go down smooth. It’s frowned upon to write the way one talks, but I’d argue that’s how the personality shines, which is Lynn’s greatest asset anyway. Early on in the book, in regards to her way of constantly bursting out into song in her hometown of Butcher Holler, Kentucky, she shares this story: “Daddy hollered, ‘pipe down, Loretta! Everybody on the mountain can hear you!’ I hollered back, ‘Don’t matter. They’re all our cousins!’ ”
Of course, it’s not just about Lynn; it’s about two artists – different as they may sound, stylistically – coming together to navigate a male-dominated industry. Here, Cline acts like a big sister to Lynn – someone who’s more familiar with the ropes and knows how to get what she wants in spite of the way things work. They’re both forceful – Cline in a general sense, and Lynn with her ambitious “Honky Tonk Girl” promotion, in which she and husband, Oliver “Mooney” Lynn, drove from one radio station to another themselves to promote Loretta’s debut single. They both also come from impoverished pasts – Lynn recalls her childhood through humor and nostalgia; meanwhile, it’s evident, through here, that Cline wants out, not only for herself, but to help her family, too.
Perhaps what’s most surprising of Lynn here is her admittance of naivety when it came to her expectations for the country music industry. She had the same drive and passion as Cline, but it was Cline who taught Lynn how to properly exercise it. It’s mostly story after story of Lynn and Cline’s time together, and the book, arguably, hits its stride toward its final few chapters. Up until then, it’s a heartwarming read that’s never short on levity, though there are moments – such as Cline’s depression and anxiety felt in the wake of her 1961 car crash – that add a deeper shade and emotional complexity to the human behind these artists.
Once Lynn recounts the fateful plane crash that took her friend, though, it’s henceforth a much heavier read. If there’s any criticism of Lynn’s writing, it’s that she tends to romanticize certain aspects of her stories here and there. But when reading about the depression she felt not only from Cline’s death, but from similar artists who died or were injured around the same time period just traveling from one show to the next, it’s a dark turn that’s among the most moving pieces Lynn has ever written. The world eventually moved on from Cline’s death, but one can tell from here that Lynn never did.
My Friendship With Patsy Cline ends on a positive note, though, as Lynn, now in the present day, recalls her birthday party from last year. There, she sees artists influenced by her and Cline, all there to honor her. That may be the most beautiful aspect of this book – that metaphorical thread running from one artist and their influences to the next generation. Cline inspired Lynn to want to become a country music star, and even Lynn herself criticizes mainstream country music’s lack of support for female artists, if only because that thread has to continue.
I’ll end this review by saying that, if it didn’t convince you to give this book a read, perhaps Lynn offering her top 10 favorite Cline songs will; because I’m certainly not telling you (and I can’t say for sure if No. 1 will shock you or not).