The death of Loretta Lynn has brought back memories to a B.C. musician who says he used to play in her band long before she became a country music legend.
Len Lemieux of Penticton, B.C., remembers performing with Lynn, who spent time in Vancouver and lived just south of the Canada-U.S. border in Washington state.
“She was just one of us,” Lemieux told CBC’s B.C. Today on Tuesday following news of Lynn’s death.
Lemieux, 89, says he played steel guitar in Lynn’s band, sitting in for her regular guitarist Roland Smiley at gigs in Blaine, Wash., before drawing the ire of local musicians and border guards.
He says when Lynn and her husband, Oliver “Mooney” Lynn, passed through B.C., they would stop at his Surrey home for jam sessions before heading out to play at a chicken coop, at what is now East Kent Avenue near Elliot Street in Vancouver.
The coop, which was owned by a couple named Ernest Clare ‘Mac’ McGregor and his wife Irene Loranger, was something of a music hot spot at the time, where the couple held country music jam sessions and hosted a variety of waltzes, prairie-style dances and hoe-downs.
During her career, Lynn was known for appearing in floor-length gowns with elaborate embroidery or rhinestones, but Lemieux recalls seeing her at a bar in Blaine performing barefoot. She later wore what he describes as Western outfits, he says.
“Nowadays they’d call it ‘ridiculous as hell’ but it fit right in for the outfits of the time,” he said.
Lynn was born to a Kentucky coal-mining family but moved to Washington state after marrying Mooney while still a teenager.
Lemieux said the couple led a hardscrabbled life that was reflected in her music.
He recalls a story where Mooney stole some chickens from a Washington state farm and took them to Smiley’s Bellingham home. There Smiley and his wife plucked and gutted the birds then cooked them in a large pot.
“We all came down and had a great day of music and chicken,” Lemieux said.
In 1959, Lynn’s talents caught the attention of some executives from a local Vancouver record label called Zero Records.
“They really liked the way she sang,” writer Rob Howatson told CBC back in 2017. “They signed her and helped her record her first hit single.”
Lynn and Mooney later travelled south in search of success, which was anything but assured.
“All of us that knew them thought, ‘Oh, what are they doing now? My God, that’s just a waste of time,'” Lemieux said. “None of us had even a thought of [how it] was going to end up.”
Lynn went on to become the first woman ever named entertainer of the year at the genre’s two major awards shows, first by the Country Music Association in 1972 and then by the Academy of Country Music three years later.
Lynn’s family says she died peacefully in her sleep Tuesday morning at home on her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.