If Loretta Lynn’s success is a testament to her singular gifts and force of personality, then it’s also inextricably linked with her marriage to Oliver Vanetta Lynn Jr. Known to most as Mooney, Doolittle, or just plain Doo, he was a controversial presence in her life: an alcoholic, an abuser, and a notorious philanderer who nonetheless played a crucial role in getting her started in music and inspired many of her most enduring hits.
In fact, it was Doolittle who gifted Loretta with her first guitar, a $17 Harmony acoustic that he had bought for her at a Sears Roebuck store in 1953. She’d never played one before, but Doolittle enjoyed the singing she often did around the house and he wanted her to learn the instrument. “I could never have done it on my own,” Loretta admitted in her 2002 memoir, Still Woman Enough. “Whatever else our marriage was back in them days…without Doo and his drive to get a better life, there would have been no Loretta Lynn, country singer.”
Loretta and Doolittle’s Early Introduction
Doolittle entered her life like a force of nature. He was a brash storyteller with big dreams and even bigger tales of the outside world. Born August 27, 1926, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, he got the nickname “Doolittle” at the age of 2 for reasons lost to time. (Not, however, because he was lazy — as his wife was quick to clarify.) His family moved to Washington state when he was young so his father could search for work. With the outbreak of World War II, his mother brought the kids back home to Kentucky, before Doolittle enlisted in the Army. Loretta admitted to knowing little about his time in the service, other than that he served in France and Germany.
She first spied Doolittle in his uniform sometime after his return from overseas. She later remembered her future husband fondly as a “toy soldier.” Their first meeting, however, came at a pie social that Loretta helped organize for her school. Local boys bid on pies baked by the girls, whom they were then entitled to walk home if they won. Doolittle won Loretta’s pie with a hefty $5 bid, and later that night he gave her her first kiss.
A Bride at Age 15
One month later, the couple were married, on January 10, 1948. Loretta was a child bride, still only 15 at the time — though, due to confusion over her age, she was long believed to have been as young as 13. Such marriages were common in Appalachia then, and remained legal in Kentucky all the way until 2018. However, Loretta’s parents were wary of their daughter’s rabble-rousing suitor. He was already a known womanizer who ran moonshine instead of working in the coal mines.
Loretta admitted to being too young to know what she was getting into. She referred to herself in Coal Miner’s Daughter as “just a kid” when she wed. Doolittle even gave her a children’s doll while they were dating. “He just about raised me since I was a girl,” she wrote. Between her dad, Ted Webb, and her husband, the singer added, “there’s always been a man telling me what to do.”
Moving on to Motherhood
She grew up fast. Despite her parents’ wishes that Loretta stay close to home, even with coal mining prospects on the decline following the war, Doolittle decided to return to the Pacific Northwest and the town of Custer, Washington, close to the Canadian border and almost 3,000 miles away from Butcher Hollow. By then, Loretta was already pregnant. Barely 16 years old, she didn’t even know what the word “pregnant” meant. “We just called it having a baby,” she told NPR in 2010.
While Doolittle found logging work — which didn’t leave the family much better off than they’d been in Kentucky — Loretta spent the next 10 years as a full-time mother, giving birth to four children in a six-year span. She cooked, cleaned, farmed, and grew and canned her own vegetables. She even made lunches for Doolittle’s entire 30-person crew each workday. Had it not been for Doolittle, that might have been all there was to it.
Making Her Way Into the Music World
Finally, in the late ’50s, he convinced his shy young wife to begin performing in public. He got her an audition with a local honky-tonk group and she began playing regular Saturday night gigs around the area. Her very first came at the Delta Grange Hall in Custer, where the governor of Washington was said to be in attendance. After singing with a number of existing acts like the Pen Brothers and Westerneers, she pulled together her own small band called the Trail Blazers, which included younger brother Jay Lee Webb, who followed her out to Washington in 1959.
A Tumultuous Relationship
As Loretta’s career took off in the coming years, Doolittle spent more time watching their eventual six kids and later tending to their estate in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, where he oversaw the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch. But he never stopped his unfaithful ways, and their marriage — which lasted 48 years, until his death from complications of diabetes in 1996 — remained turbulent throughout. “She lived a lonely life, a lonely life and so did Dad,” daughter Cissie Lynn told CBS News. Loretta admitted there were times she didn’t want to come home, knowing if she did that she would have to deal with the consequences of his drinking.
Despite Doolittle’s abusive tendencies, Loretta wasn’t afraid to fight back. “He never hit me one time that I didn’t hit him back twice,” she boasted. Once she even knocked out his two front teeth. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m dead.’ But, you know, he laughed,” she recalled in the 2016 PBS documentary, Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl. “He went around forever with two teeth missing. He was kind of proud of it.”
A Sacrifice for Her Children
It was one of the many contradictions in Loretta’s life that she, the outspoken advocate for women’s independence, would remain so loyal to someone like Doolittle. “I didn’t need him, but he was my kids’ daddy,” she reasoned. “Why leave hearts laying on the floor for me? I had to think of my kids.” More than that, however, she never stopped believing that she owed everything to him. “He thought I was something special, more special than anyone else in the world, and he never let me forget it,” Loretta wrote in Still Woman Enough. “That belief would be hard to shove out the door. Doo was my security, my safety net. And just remember, I’m explainin’, not excusin’.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Loretta Lynn.
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