Nancy Russell worked in the Nashville music industry for decades, managing stars like Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood and, at the time of her Grammy-winning comeback in the early 2000s with “Van Lear Rose,” the late and great Loretta Lynn. Russell now lives in Southern California, consulting on independent music projects while focusing on screenwriting. She shared her memories of Lynn with Variety.
The first time I saw Loretta Lynn in person was at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 1986, about a year before I moved to Nashville. Dressed in sparkly turquoise spandex and a white blouse, she belted out her hits with warmth and spirit, engaging with each member of the audience. I never imagined that 15 years later she would have the privilege of being her manager.
We will never see another “girl singer” (as she calls herself) and songwriter like her. She kept writing until the end and had endless lyric notebooks, including stacks of them stored under an old tanning bed in her house.
He had an exceptional way of making people feel comfortable, whether on stage or backstage, making everyone feel special. I have seen countless people, from all walks of life, bask in the glow of your attention. While most of the performers traveled on tour buses without identification, Loretta insisted that her name be displayed. Her late husband, Doo, had told her that “free advertising” also brought visitors to the vehicle. But she loved her fans like she loved her family. And she sure loved her family.
In 2003, Loretta was honored by the Kennedy Center Honors, so we headed to the White House. Because she never beat around the bush, she told President George W. Bush that she was “lucky to have Colin Powell around to help him run things.” Minutes later, in an elevator, she and her fellow honoree James Brown decided they were going to tour together. Next, at the cocktail reception, a smitten Donald Rumsfeld stood three feet from Loretta, staring and not saying a word. His wife whispered to me that he had been in love with Loretta for as long as she could remember.
He wasn’t the only one. With her high, defined cheekbones, seductive blue eyes, and irresistible smile, Loretta was a stunning beauty well into her old age. I remember after a “60 Minutes” shoot, an enthralled Mike Wallace stayed behind the crew to escort her on a leisurely walk through her home in Hurricane Mills.
Introducing Loretta to Jack White and being a part of creating the “Van Lear Rose” album remains one of the highlights of my career and life. After Loretta agreed to try out a couple of demos with Jack at Eric McConnell’s home studio in East Nashville, she and Jack immediately dove in, producing what is now considered a masterpiece. Working with White introduced Loretta to a new generation and reinvigorated her career. I don’t think there is anyone who could have done a better job of producing it for that album than Jack. With enormous respect for Loretta, she tenderly guided every note, chord, voice, and nuance throughout the recording, mixing, and mastering of the album. She was a genuine fan.
On a break while sitting on McConnell’s old wooden front porch one afternoon, Loretta and I shared a can of beer, the only time I ever saw her drink. (And by that I mean she took a few sips.) She told me and her daughter, Patsy, that this was the way she recorded in the early days and that she loved it. It lit a spark in her. She even said that she wanted to go out “honky tonkin'”, starting with Tootsie’s. We never did that, but it was something she talked about us doing for years. I think just talking about doing it was fun for her and she didn’t need to go through with it.
As hard as it is to imagine now, Nashville record labels had dropped iconic artists in the years before “Van Lear Rose,” including Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash and others. Loretta also had no record deal. As the manager of Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood, I was called to the Nashville establishment and was sure we would get a record deal locally. That trust weakened as we were rejected one by one, so I turned my eyes to New York and Los Angeles. Fortunately, Paul Kremen from Interscope and I went to see Jimmy Iovine, and he loved it. Loretta would return to Universal after many years, where his entire MCA catalog was and where he wanted to be. It hurt that the country music world ignored the record at award shows and on radio, but Loretta won two Grammy Awards in the country category, something that had eluded her since she duetted with Conway Twitty in 1971. ( Since then, I think country music has tried to make up for it, nursing it with numerous tributes and honors.)
Beyond the genius of the music that she leaves us, there is the feeling that in reality, she was always one of us. She wrote and sang exactly what she thought. She understood the challenges of life and love, especially for women. She was our voice. After all, if Loretta was able to come from those humble beginnings and make a good living out of the hardships she faced, couldn’t we, too?
Of course, his music was for everyone and his wisdom was often wrapped in wit. I remember when author Odie Lindsey visited the bus, while Loretta was getting her hair done for a show. She turned and asked him how he felt about going bald, finally concluding, “Honey, only one of us got perfect, and they hung him on a cross!”
Perhaps my favorite memory is driving it around Memphis. She looked out the window and named all the weeds along the path. She shared how they would choose them and “her mommy” prepared them for dinner. So we talked about how my birth mother was born in rural eastern Kentucky, not far from Butcher Holler. While I never thought of Loretta as a mother figure, more like a friend, she embodied the origins of my own mother, who died at age 30, leaving me an orphan at six. Like Loretta, my mother was also an artist, painter, and sculptor. While Loretta was the daughter of a coal miner, my mother was the daughter of a liquor dealer. Both women had moved to Washington state early in their lives. Telling this to Loretta, she said, “Nancy, honey, I always knew we were related.” That will always remain close to my heart.
It was the honor of a lifetime to work with Loretta and I am grateful to have called her my friend.