In the summer of 2007, Rodney Atkins’s “These Are My People” hit country radio with an emphatic, if not triumphant, chorus, proclaiming, “These are my people!/This is where I come from/We’re givin’ this life everything we’ve got, and then some/ It ain’t always pretty/But it’s real/It’s the way we were made/Wouldn’t have it any other way/These are my people.” If the chorus might lead the audience to believe that they are listening to an uncritical celebration of the lifestyle that Atkins sings about, however, the verses tell a different story. In the first verse, Atkins describes childhood and high school years spent shooting BBs at old beer cans and singing along to the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd; when, at the end of the verse, he concludes, “We were good, you know,” it is with more than a hint of self-deprecation, as if Atkins is poking good-natured fun at his younger self.
“These Are My People” is hardly the first song in which a country singer declares kinship with his or her presumed audience; in fact, examples of this type of song are too numerous to count, with recent examples including Little Big Town’s 2006 hit “Boondocks,” which opens with the declaration, “I feel no shame, I’m proud of where I came from, I was born and raised in the boondocks,” and Faith Hill’s 2005 song “Mississippi Girl,” in which she assures her audience that “a Mississippi girl don’t change her ways just ’cause everybody knows her name.” The fact that such songs are such a ubiquitous part of the country genre is telling, as Jocelyn Neal notes in “The Voice Behind the Song: Faith Hill, Country Music, and Reflexive Identity,”
Within the tradition of country music, artists are expected to connect with their fans through shared biographical experiences and the relevance of their personal backgrounds to a stereotyped country identity. These tokens of authenticity amplify the genre-identity of an artist’s output – Loretta Lynn’s coal mining roots, Merle Haggard’s time on the wrong side of the law, or Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain upbringing are all frequently invoked as synonymous with the content, meaning, and impact of their music (111).
In country music, then, there is the expectation that singers have actually lived the experiences they sing about. Of course, everyone knows that this is not always the case; Johnny Cash didn’t really do time at Folsom Prison, the Dixie Chicks didn’t really kill Earl. Yet when a singer like Atkins sings about “his people” – working class people, people not unlike his intended audience – as if he were one of them, it stands to reason that the audience might expect that his life before becoming a singer was very similar to the life he sings about. It is even possible that the audience might feel lied to if they learned that this was not the case.
Preserving the illusion that one’s offstage life is exactly like the life presented in song can be difficult in an age where a fan need only visit CMT.com to learn that Atkins’s education does, in fact, extend past a brief stint at junior college; he was a psychology major at Tennessee Technical University and worked at a counseling center to fulfill his degree requirements. This information is unlikely to matter much to fans due to the fact that other aspects of his background do match what Neal calls a “stereotyped country identity”; his CMT.com profile further states that he was adopted at a young age by a mother from a coal mining family and a father who endured poverty and abuse as a child (“Rodney Atkins: Biography”). However, the fact remains that in this highly media saturated age, representations of country singers’ lives are available in multiple forms, from magazine articles to online features to songs to music videos to, in some cases, written biographies, biographical films, and documentaries; thus, there are many opportunities for fans to know whether or not the songs that a country singer performs are actually true. A country singer’s perceived authenticity might be threatened if these competing mediations contradict one another or contradict the persona the singer is trying to project.
It is unsurprising, then, that these competing mediations are often closely scrutinized by fans and critics. Further, such mediations are often evaluated by standards of authenticity that are not identical to the standards of authenticity applied to country music. For example, when Coal Miner’s Daughter, the 1980 biopic chronicling the life of Loretta Lynn, was released, it was praised by many critics for being “authentic”; The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold called it “down-to-earth, modest, affectionate, [and] authentic,” while the Christian Science Monitor’s David Sterritt noted that the film’s smaller roles were “handled with grit and authenticity by a large and colorful cast” (C1, 17). The critics do not explain what “authenticity” means; though authenticity is a concept that has been debated, defined, and redefined by country music scholars, when film critics and scholars use the term in relation to the biographical film, they rarely offer a definition. Arguably, the definition offered by country music scholar Richard A. Peterson in Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity – that authenticity “centers on being believable relative to a more or less explicit model, and at the same time being original, that is not being an imitation of the model” – could easily be applied to the biographical film (220). This is complicated, however, by the fact that a biographical film is evaluated relative not only to the “country” model of authenticity, but to models specific to the biographical film.
More than twenty-five years after its release, Coal Miner’s Daughter remains the standard by which other biopics, country or otherwise, are judged. For example, when What’s Love Got to Do With It?, which chronicled the life of Tina Turner, was released in 1993, The Boston Globe touted it as “the best musical biopic since Coal Miner’s Daughter,” while in The Washington Post’s 2005 review of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Ann Hornaday lamented that Coal Miner’s Daughter was “the last of the great examples of the genre” (C01). Loretta Lynn herself has even noted the popularity and staying power of the film, noting in an interview on the 25th Anniversary Edition of the DVD of the film that, “People’ll say, ‘I’ve watched your movie seventy-some times.’ This is no lie. Everybody that tells me this, it’s seventy-some or a hundred, I mean, it’s never three times” (“An Exclusive Interview…”). This indicates that the film is beloved among fans as well as respected by critics; it is unlikely that fans would bother with repeat viewings if they disliked the film or thought that it defamed Lynn. Clearly, the film has had a tremendous impact both on fans of Lynn and on the way we critique biopics. The necessary question that must necessarily stand at the center of any analysis of Coal Miner’s Daughter, then, is why? Why has the film had staying power, and why did it become the standard by which other biopics would be judged? Answering such questions is imperative because doing so helps us understand what tropes, narrative conventions, and even life events are considered “preferable” to audiences and critics, and allows us to consider why audiences and critics might respond to such elements while rejecting others. It is with these concerns in mind that I argue that Coal Miner’s Daughter was considered successful because it negotiates the concept of authenticity relative to four different models, which I have identified and defined after examining existing scholarship on both country music and the biographical film: the country model; the narrative model; the emphasis model; and the time and space model.
Before examining the ways in which Coal Miner’s Daughter meets the standards of country authenticity, it is important to note that female country performers are held to different standards of authenticity than their male counterparts. In “Recycled ‘Trash’: Gender and Authenticity in Country Music Autobiography,” Pamela Fox further explains this distinction; as she notes, women in country music “embody ‘home.' From its inception in the late 1920s, traditional country mythology has made the family its centerpiece, envisioning distinctly gendered roles for that institution’s maintenance and protection” (244). Though she acknowledges that this construction has changed somewhat as women’s roles in society have changed, in the decades in which Lynn was building her career, “country ideology equated femininity squarely with the domestic sphere, especially motherhood” (244). Fox recognizes the complications inherent in this construction, noting that country musicians are often on the road touring which takes them out of the domestic sphere; for this reason, for female country musicians, success automatically renders them “distinctly gendered ‘failures’ of country authenticity…By ‘choosing’ the tour bus…they lose their claim to ‘home’ altogether” (244). With this in mind, it stands to reason that an “authentic” representation of a female country musician’s life will emphasize both her southern working-class roots and the conflict she feels at being away from the home.
Coal Miner’s Daughter can be seen as doing precisely this. The first third of the film further works to emphasize the poverty that Loretta grew up in; for example, when Loretta’s father brings home a boxful of shoes from the Sears Roebuck catalog for Loretta and her siblings, it is depicted as a special day, and Loretta is shocked when she receives a dress in addition to shoes. In a later scene, when Loretta sits listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, she is chastened to turn it off, not because it is too loud or because listening to such music is a waste of time, but because they do not have money to replace the batteries. The filmic version of Loretta Lynn’s life, then, can be seen as reinforcing the identity that Lynn has already projected in song, and in the book on which the film was based; watching the recreation of her life is likely to make Lynn seem even more “authentic” to fans of her music.
The film further emphasizes the gender-specific elements of her identity crucial to country authenticity by highlighting the anxieties she feels, and the problems that arise, as a result of her leaving the domestic sphere. Though Loretta’s husband, Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones), plays a large role in jump-starting her career, he begins to feel emasculated after she begins to make it big, and there is little left for him to do. She tells him seriously that if her career is going to break them up, she’ll quit. He tells her that successful people don’t quit. Thus, the scene highlights that Lynn’s life “on the road” and the fact that she has become the primary breadwinner in her household are causing such large problems that Loretta believes she might have to quit in order to save her marriage. Later, scenes of her on the road are juxtaposed with scenes of Doolittle interacting with their children: giving them rides in his Jeep, giving baths, and, in the most pointed illustration of the fact that she isn’t home with her family, watching Loretta sing on television. A particularly lonely image of her eating dinner alone on her hotel bed indicates that she is very aware of what she is missing. The film, then, repeatedly emphasizes the tension between life at home and life on the road.
The scenes set in Butcher Holler and the scenes emphasizing the conflict between home and the road authenticate the film relative to the country model. However, as a film firmly situated in the biographical film genre, it must also prove authentic relative to the narrative model – that is, it must adhere to the expected conventions of the biographical film genre while at the same time being, in Peterson’s terms, “original, not an imitation of the model” (220). In Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, George F. Custen explains that “the producers of biopics articulated the strategy of greatness as a paradox: to find a way to declare that each life – and each film of a life – was unique within the confines of a production system that made certain all products, and lives, resembled one another” (148). As he notes, “In order to accomplish this difficult task, the biopic developed distinctive narrative strategies which, with few exceptions, offered particular ideologies of fame based on a limited menu of discourses and situations: romance, the role played by family and friends, and of the idea of fame as a kind of community judgment” (148-149). Thus, the biopic genre began to rely on a series of tropes that would continue to be repeated for decades. As an example of a biopic with a typical narrative structure, Custen offers The Lady with Red Hair, which chronicled the life of actress Caroline Carter, noting that, like most biopics, "The film opens in media res…Second, there is no mention of the leading figure’s family or background. Mrs. Carter thus creates her own identity as an actress…Third, heterosexual romance humanizes the character, and Mrs. Carter must choose, like many biopic figures, between love and career. Along this road, she labors to be accepted into the community of her chosen profession; initially ignored, then tolerated, she is ultimately triumphant" (150). He goes on to note that “professions as different as nurse…, artist…, inventor…, and athlete all contain some variation of the four elements above that fit disparate professions into a Hollywood imitation of life” (150). It stands to reason, then, that for Coal Miner’s Daughter to be considered authentic according to the narrative model, it must contain such elements while, in the interest of being “original” as opposed to imitative, also provide some divergence from the model.
Coal Miner’s Daughter does, in fact, both adhere to the generic conventions Custen identifies and deviate from them. There is, in contrast to the model Custen describes, much emphasis on Lynn’s family and background; this is unsurprising, as Lynn herself always emphasized that her family and background played a big part in her identity. It is further unsurprising that Lynn’s background is emphasized in a film about a country singer, as Lynn’s background has the characteristics of what Neal calls a “stereotyped country identity.” However, the individual members of Lynn’s family are only characterized to the extent that they had a role in influencing her. Her brothers and sisters, for example, are given very little individual characterization – more important than individual character traits is the sheer number of siblings that she had, which undoubtedly contributed to the family’s poverty. Likewise, her mother is not a particularly well-rounded character; she exists as the model for what Loretta’s future would have in store for her were she to stay in Butcher Holler. Her father is given the most extensive characterization; he is depicted as the family member closest to Loretta, as well as the character that illustrates the difficulty of the coal miner’s life: he is shown at work and frequently complains of headaches. Further, he is the character who begs Loretta not to “throw all them young years away” when, at age thirteen, she tells him that Doolittle Lynn, a grown man, wants to marry her. It seems, then, that members of a biopic hero’s family only figure into the story to the extent that they were influential on the hero. This point is further illustrated by more contemporary biopics; in Walk the Line, for example, Johnny Cash’s family is a strong focus in the first third of the film due largely to the fact that his brother’s accidental death had a profound effect on Cash.
Loretta’s father, however, is also important to Coal Miner’s Daughter as a contrast to Doolittle, the man that Loretta marries at age thirteen. If Ted Webb and his wife, Clary, are emblematic of Kentucky coal mining country and the life that Loretta seems destined for, Doolittle Lynn represents life outside of it. In the first scene in which the audience, as well as Ted, Loretta, and one of her younger brothers, see him, a store owner informs Ted that he has “just come back from the Army actin’ like a wild heathen”; Ted predicts that “he’ll calm down as soon as they slap a coal shovel in his hand.” We quickly learn that this is not what Doolittle has in mind for himself; he tells Loretta that there’s a “whole big world out there,” and he’s not going to spend his life buried in a coal mine. He repeats this later, after they are married, when he tells her that he wants them to move to Washington: “There ain’t nothing for me in Kentucky, Loretta, except a chest full of coal dust and bein’ an old man by the time I’m forty!” She reminds him that he’d promised her father that he wouldn’t take her far away from home. He responds that it is time for her to decide whether she is “his daughter or my wife.” The choice is clear: either remain in Butcher Holler or go off into an unpredictable future.
Though Doolittle plays a symbolic role in the story, he also plays a traditional one in the typical biopic narrative: that of romantic interest. Custen notes that in the traditional biopic “famous people…need heterosexual partners as a kind of gyroscope to balance them in the world” (175). Doolittle, however, is not simply Loretta’s romantic interest; he is the impetus for nearly every important thing that happens to her, from prompting her to leave Butcher Holler to jump-starting her music career. He buys her a guitar for an anniversary present, which she teaches herself to play; he then gets her her first gig, helps her to make a record, and takes her on a road trip shopping the record around to radio stations. The film also, as previously noted, highlights the problems that arise between the couple as Loretta begins to gain both financial and emotional independence.
This independence is partially prompted by her introduction to Patsy Cline, who plays another role that Custen notes is important in the traditional biopic – that of Loretta’s best friend. As Custen observes, “if the family is a site of resistance for the famous person, and romance is both a demand of all films and a stabilizing influence in most biopics, the role of the friend is more complicated, more problematic” (162-163). The friend, he notes, typically serves the dual function of “chronicler of the great deeds of the hero” and “that of the conscience” (163). Patsy Cline serves a slightly different role in Coal Miner’s Daughter. From even before Loretta really has a career, Patsy serves as her role model; Loretta listens to her on the radio and gushes that she could never be as good as Patsy. They meet when, after hearing that she is in the hospital, Loretta sings one of Patsy’s songs at a performance in Ernest Tubb’s record store in Nashville that is being broadcast over the radio. After the show, Patsy’s husband, Charlie Dick, invites Loretta to come meet her.
Patsy provides a marked contrast to Loretta; while we never see Loretta have a drink, Charlie sneaks a beer for Patsy into the hospital. When Loretta behaves awkwardly at their first meeting, Patsy asks, “What’s the matter with you? Ain’t you never seen no glamorous star before?” By this time, Loretta is becoming a star in her own right; she has performed on the Grand Ole Opry seventeen times straight. Patsy informs her that “people wanna know who you’ve been sleepin’ with that you’ve been on so many times.” Loretta’s eyes widen, and she worriedly asks, “Who’s been sayin’ that?” Patsy responds with a grin, “Gals that’ve been sleepin’ with everybody and still ain’t been on yet.” Patsy is as bold and confident as Loretta is shy and eager to please, and, unlike Loretta, who up to this point has followed Doolittle’s lead, is clearly in charge in her own romantic relationship; later, as the two couples talk, Patsy teases that she has to remind Charlie that “he ain’t nothin’ but a damn tax deduction.” Loretta, tickled, immediately turns to Doolittle and says, “that goes for you, too, Doolittle Lynn, and don’t you forget it,” demonstrating the influence of Patsy’s example. While in some respects fulfilling the traditional “friend” role, then, Patsy plays a more significant role in Loretta’s life.
Coal Miner’s Daughter achieves narrative authenticity by adhering to many of the genre conventions of the traditional biopic and including many of its traditional characters. However, it complicates this model by allowing the secondary characters to be better-rounded. Regardless, a biographical film about a country musician must not only meet standards of country and narrative authenticity; it must emphasize the elements that made the artist who they were. Robert A. Rosenstone highlights this point in History on Film/Film on History. Though he addresses the commonly held belief that people go to biographical films to learn the facts about a person’s life, he argues, “Interesting as they may be, facts could be delivered with chronicles and lists of data. If facts were the aim, we would have no need of the literary form of the biography as it has developed for over two millenia” (90). Further, in his analysis of biographical films Rosa Luxemburg, Korczak, and Frida, he notes that while all three films have been criticized for their depictions of their subjects, the criticisms have “had more to do with emphasis than with invention” (94). While critics did not claim that the films fabricated facts, they instead have voiced objections that the events highlighted did not paint accurate pictures of who the subjects were.
This was not the case with Coal Miner’s Daughter; by placing the primary emphasis on Loretta’s coal mining roots, her relationship with Doolittle Lynn, and her friendship with Patsy Cline, the filmmakers chose emphases that both captured who she was and fit the traditional narrative framework of a biographical film. Further, such emphases work to negotiate authenticity relative to a fourth model: the time and space model. As Walter Benjamin notes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (50). Thus, a biographical film could never be truly authentic because the events cannot be recreated in the exact time and space in which they originally occurred. Rosenstone supports this claim; in “JFK: Historical Fact/Historical Film,” he argues, "Like a history book, a historical film – despite Hollywood’s desire for “realism” – is not a window onto the past but a construction of a past; like a history book, a film handles evidence from the past within a certain framework of possibilities and tradition of practice. For neither the writer of history nor the director of a film is historical literalism a possibility. No matter how literal-minded a director might be, film cannot do more than point to the events of the past; at best, film can approximate historic moments, the things that were once said and done, but it cannot replicate them. (337)" It would be impossible, then, for Coal Miner’s Daughter to replicateaccurately the “time and space” in which the events depicted happened. However, I argue that a large part of the perceived authenticity of the film can be credited to the filmmakers’ efforts to do so, to firmly anchor the events in a very specific “time and space.”
The film’s primary emphases work to do this. The early scenes in Kentucky, for example, clearly place Loretta in a very specific location with a very specific set of options available to her. In such scenes, we are repeatedly reminded of the very specific problems facing coal miners. Loretta’s father suffers from headaches because of the coal dust, and when a minor character reminds Doolittle that the only three options available to men born in Butcher Holler are “coal mine, moonshine, and movin’ on down the line,” it is not simply to foreshadow Doolittle and Loretta’s eventual “move on down the line” – it is to remind the audience of the extremely limited options available to those living in the region.
Loretta’s life with Doolittle further places the characters in the context of a very specific time and space and further reinforces Loretta’s previously mentioned gendered country identity. In the first scene in which we see the two after their move to Washington, years have passed; Loretta is surrounded by four children, and when Doolittle comes home and asks her what she did that day, she responds with a list of household tasks – making seventeen quarts of apple butter, fixing the stopped up sink – all the while continually interrupting herself to tell this child to stop kicking his brother, that child that she cannot leave the table until she cleans her plate. Her life is quite typical of a working-class housewife; it only changes because of her talent as a singer. She is not removed from the world of her audience, but placed firmly in it. Further, she is once again placed in the traditional “country” discourse of the home.
Loretta’s friendship with Patsy Cline also firmly places her in a specific “time and space”; Loretta is positioned alongside other performers of the era so that even the viewer of the film who is unfamiliar with Lynn can be clear about the time period in which she is performing. Further, “time and space” are established by the presence of iconic Nashville landmarks. After falling asleep during a road trip with her husband, Loretta wakes to find herself alone in a parked car; when she looks out the window, her mouth falls open. The camera moves to follow her gaze, and the audience, along with her, instantly realizes that she is in front of the Ryman Auditorium. Merely the presence of this landmark serves to situate the film in “time and space”; the Ryman is recognizable to most country music fans as the original site of the Grand Ole Opry. Its presence both instantly indicates to the viewer that the movie has actually been filmed in Nashville and communicates a sense of history; many viewers might, upon seeing the building, share Loretta’s visible awe at the sight of a place in which so many noteworthy country musicians have performed. Other noteworthy Nashville landmarks (such as Legends Bar, which Doolittle visits during Loretta’s first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, and Ernest Tubb’s record store) perform a similar function. Though some of these landmarks – Legends Bar, for example – are not even named in the film, they are instantly recognizable to anyone who has been in Nashville, either in the past or in the present. Their presence works to convince the viewer that the actors are really in Nashville, that even though the events depicted in the film are being recreated years after they initially happened, they are occurring in the place at which they actually occurred. A kind of authenticity is achieved that would not be there had the same events been recreated on soundstages in Hollywood.
Of course, it should further be noted that whether or not it is even the aim of the biographical film to be truly authentic is a subject of debate. Michael Dunne, author of American Film Musical Themes and Forms, for example, denies that any sort of authenticity is a primary goal of the biographical film, arguing that “biographical accuracy is not really what these films are about. The songs…are their real subjects as well as the shows mounted…to showcase such songs” (146). When we look at a film like Coal Miner’s Daughter, however, it is hard to deny that authenticity is often an important aim of the biographical film; further, as Custen notes, “Hollywood biographies are not real because they are believable. Rather, one must treat them as real because, despite the obvious distortions ranging from the minor to the outright camp, Hollywood films are believed to be real by many viewers” (7). Thus, whether or not a given biopic is factually accurate, whether or not it even aims to be authentic, such films are viewed by many as “real” and must be treated as such.
With this in mind, when a film is considered authentic by as many different critics and audiences as Coal Miner’s Daughter was, it can provide us with a useful example with which to understand how other biopics achieve, or fail to achieve, the perception of authenticity. This is important in that authenticity continues to be the main standard by which both the biographical film and country music are evaluated. Coal Miner’s Daughter is useful, then, in that it provides us with a way of understanding what singers, tropes, and filmmaking modes are considered “authentic” by critics and fans.
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