The year was 1972 and Loretta Lynn was a power house in the country music scene. With three chart toppers and numerous top ten songs under her belt, Lynn was still celebrating the iconic success of her biographical 1970 hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, which would later serve as the impetus for her bestselling autobiography and oscar-winning biopic of the same name. Lynn was by every definition at the absolute height of her career; a seemingly untouchable icon within the world of country music. Enter Rick Cornett, a shy little boy from the midwest with big dreams and a lasting love for the country queen herself. It is through Cornett’s unique and lasting relationship with Miss Lynn that we have the distinct privilege to examine a lifetime of memories throughout the famed singer’s career. Rick Cornett, started as a fan- a young fan- in 1972. Now a lifelong friend of Lynn’s, Cornett sat down to chat with us about what it’s been like to grow up with Lynn as his friend and mentor and to watch her career blossom and transition from super stardom to legend.
“I first saw Loretta on the 1972 CMA awards and I just loved how she looked,” Cornett recalled of discovering Loretta Lynn at the age of nine, “She reminded me a lot of my mom and I loved her for it. That year she swept the awards; she won female vocalist, duet of the year with Conway Twitty, and entertainer of the year. The next day I opened the newspaper and there was this big picture of her with coverage about her big win. I cut that photo out of the paper and started my first scrapbook of Loretta. In 1973 she came to Toledo and my parents took me to see her at the Toledo sports arena and I actually got to meet her for the first time. We developed a friendship and it’s been amazing. Most people never get to meet their idol, much less become personal friends with them.”
There was a time before the advent of social media and the twenty-four hour news cycle when fame did in fact seem a little more innocent; where fan clubs were run like businesses with heavy involvement from stars themselves, and where it was downright possible for a friendship like this to happen. Now-days we are constantly exposed to our favorite stars in the form of their instagram accounts; we see what they are up to backstage when they are filming or in rehearsals or on vacation with their loved ones, but rarely do we have meaningful or genuine interaction with them they way we once could. Loretta Lynn, however, has always had a unique way about her; rather than letting fame build a layer between her and her fans, the more well known her name became, the closer she pushed herself to the people who made her that way. This is a trait that runs solidly through her family line; one can often find her granddaughter Tayla Lynn standing in the lobby of the theatres in which she performs with her duet partner, Tre Twitty, until well after midnight signing autographs, snapping photos, and giving hugs to the fans who have come out to see them sing. Her daughters Peggie and Patsy can often be found on their family ranch in Hurricane Mills greeting friends and fans alike for a multitude of events throughout the year, including motocross, the Tennessee Motorcycles and Music Revival, and several Chuckwagon events. Loretta herself still pops in when her schedule allows, delighting fans both in person and via phone. The entire Lynn family takes it to heart when they say fans are family; a precedent the matriarch herself set on her own rise to fame in the 60’s and 70’s with folks like Rick Cornett.
Become friends they did. What started as a meet and greet at the age of nine for Cornett blossomed into a lifelong mentorship. “I met her at the age of nine and it just kind of snowballed from there. I joined her fan club and started collecting on her. I had all of her records and my parents would take me to see her throughout the 70’s in the tristate area of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. When I started to drive it took off big time. I’d see her twenty or twenty five times per year. Through all that she became familiar with my face, through the autograph lines and writing her and sending her my school photo every year, and we developed a true friendship. I’ve now seen her in concert over six hundred times, I’ve run her fan club, and we’ve had such a great time visiting throughout the years. She’s something else; she’s like no other entertainer.”
Lynn provided Cornett both with focus and guidance as a young man, personally and by watching her conduct herself within the scope of her career. “As a child I had trouble learning to read and was in special education courses, so having an interest in Loretta gave me a focus. Her autobiography came out in 1976 so with my struggling to read, wanting to be able to read that really gave me a focus. My teachers were able to actually use her book as a learning tool because it was of interest to me. In terms of Loretta having a personal impact on my life, she’s really taught me to never get too big for my britches. I look at her and I admire her and she just has never gotten too big for hers. The woman treats everyone as an equal and she has never met a stranger. I’ve tried to learn and grow from that because she’s really a role model for so many in those aspects of life. That’s a quality I’ve always admired in her; it doesn’t matter how successful she is or how much money she makes, she’s still just Loretta. She’s still somebody’s neighbor or sister or grandmother.”
Not only did Lynn add focus to Cornett’s life, but a sense of comfort, and a place to belong. As a gay man growig up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the often conservative country music community didn’t seem like a logical place to find that belonging, but Cornett was welcomed with open arms by Loretta and the entire Lynn family – without question of his identity. Cornett commented “Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in that more conservative country music community it was refreshing and felt like such a huge wave of support to have her [Loretta’s] unconditional love regarding who I really am. Loretta has a huge LGBT fan base, and I don’t know if they know the extent of her acceptance and understanding toward them. And it wasn’t just Loretta. It really was the entire Lynn family, always and without question.”
As Cornett grew into a man and into his own career, he kept his unbreakable bond with Loretta, running her fan club, seeing her in concert, and visiting her on tour and in her personal home. He summed it up best when he said “It’s interesting to try to explain it to others. People want to know what we talk about, what we say. They think it’s always us talking about her career and her next tour and album and her awards. When we speak that’s not what it’s about. I don’t want her to feel like it’s an interview. She shows interest in my life and I show interest in hers. It’s a real, genuine friendship. That’s what I enjoy most about her; there’s no pretense. She’s just a woman I look up to and love; she’s my friend. That’s what I enjoy most about being with her; just sitting in the house and talk about everyday stuff, watching tv together, eating a bowl of corn flakes, seeing her dressed down in the house without the hair and the ball gowns. It’s a privilege and an honor to see that side of her.”
Perhaps it was the innocence of the time, before social media gave us an inside track and a constant hunger for more exposure. Perhaps it was the nature of country music and the philosophy that we are all family in Nashville. I’m going to choose to believe it is the magic of Loretta herself and a dash of God. We all have heroes, but rarely are we so lucky to be mentored and loved directly by them. Loretta, however, or Memaw as so many of her fans and friends have come to know her, is unique in her ability to wrap her arms so lovingly around those who love her. That this little boy from the midwest, with his big heart and his big dreams, and this rising star with her big ambitions and her band, became the most unlikely of pals is no accident. It was very much on purpose thanks to the concerted efforts of two hearts meant to be intertwined through decades of shows and miles on the road. Thank you, Rick and Loretta, for the powerful reminder that country music is in fact at its core one big family. Congratulations to Loretta Lynn on all of her achievements and congratulations to everyone in her life who held her hand along the way. It has certainly been a remarkable journey for all.