Dave Thornhill reckons he has played every Loretta Lynn hit at least 10,000 times. After all, he was lead guitarist in her band for 9,953 days, give or take a few.
“I could tell Loretta Lynn stories till the cows come home,” confessed Thornhill, 80, who for the past 14 years has been a deputy with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.
So, he begins his musical odyssey with “the coal miner’s daughter” in 1967 when he and his pals performed as the staff band at the Frontier Ranch in Columbus, Ohio, playing backup for touring artists like Jim Ed Brown, Carl Smith, Lynn Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Merle Travis and other country music stars.
Of that life-changing first encounter, Thornhill recalled, “Loretta was late arriving, and as she walked across the stage past me, I told her ‘We know all of your songs in the right key and the right arrangements.’ She walked to the mic and pointed to me and said, ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough,’ because the lead guitarist had the intro.
“She later told the audience, ‘I’ve played all over the world and this is the only band that did all my stuff just like the record. If I could ever afford a band, this is the only band I’d like to have.’
“And two years later, all five musicians were in her band,” reported Thornhill, whose fingertips know the country music legend’s biggest hits (“Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’,” “Fist City” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter”) so well he likely could play them in his sleep.
Thornhill was a coal miner’s son, born in Pike County, Ky., about 40 miles from Loretta’s home place in Butcher Hollow. Dave and his twin, John, were the last of 10 kids in the family. John, too, played in Lynn’s band.
“I was always messing with music. I remember playing a guitar when I was 2 years old. I used a kitchen knife and played it like a steel guitar. Later, I played rhythm guitar while my sisters were singing and washing dishes,” he said. “My dad was real conservative Church of Christ. I traded a BB gun for a guitar and had to hide it in the coal shed, and when he was working, I would play it. He never did know I had it.”
Among his earliest guitar influences were country pickers Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, but he also was captivated by the jazz stylings of Les Paul.
Thornhill’s first paying job came fiddling in a bluegrass band when he was 13. A few years later, after the family moved to Otway, Ohio, he and John began playing in local bands.
“We’d play seven nights a week in clubs: rockabilly and country. Just about every band had a girl singer who sang Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells songs,” he reminisced.
In 1960, he went to work in a factory in Bellefontaine, Ohio, where he labored as an electrician nine years, but the entire time he plucked his guitar in clubs, playing everything from country and rockabilly to bebop and easy rock.
One Friday afternoon he decided he had put in enough time at the factory, so he quit and told his wife, “Go to the bank and draw out my life savings: $300. In the morning I’m going to Nashville. I’m gonna make it or break it.”
Joining Loretta’s band
Sure enough, on a Saturday morning in October 1969 he lit out for Music City. Arriving that evening, he paid for a spot to park his trailer for a week and then drove downtown to see what was cooking. Of course, he brought along his guitar.
“I discovered it was Deejay Convention week. Every hotel was at capacity with people and bands. I wandered into the Andrew Jackson Hotel and a bunch of guys were jamming. I knew a few of them. They said, ‘You got your guitar?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Bring it in and join us.’ So, we’re all sitting in a circle playing,” Thornhill said.
“We’re sitting playing for three hours. This guy comes over and whispered in my ear, ‘I hear you’re looking for a job?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, I work for Loretta Lynn. She needs a lead guitar player.’”
Nothing more was said.
Thornhill returned to his trailer and shivered all night as it was cold and he had no heat. The next morning, he found a trailer park that rented mobile homes with heat. He paid for one and sold his trailer
With no job in hand, he searched for employment as an electrician and lined up an interview at Curry Radio and TV on Church Street for Tuesday morning. Mr. Curry offered Thornhill a job repairing radios and TV sets and asked him if he could start Wednesday morning. “I’ll be there,” he told him.
“I go back to my trailer and watch TV on a 5-inch screen. Somebody knocks on my door, and there ain’t a soul I know here. It’s a man and a woman,” he said. “The lady is Eleanor Carol, who works for the Country Music Association, and the man is Johnny Johnson, who works for the Wilburn Brothers. They said, ‘We been hunting you all day. We called your wife to find out where you were.
“Johnny Johnson says, ‘Loretta Lynn is desperate for a guitar player. Could you come audition for her tomorrow and be there at 10 a.m.?’ I said, ‘I’ve got a job. Can I audition at 5 o’clock?’ They said, ‘Yes, come to Doyle Wilburn’s apartment.’
“I went to work the next day and I fixed five TV sets. Then I drove over to 16th Avenue, and I walk in and Loretta is sitting on the arm of a couch and her band is sitting around. She said, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ ‘Yes. A couple of years ago I played for you.’ She said, ‘You told me your band knew all my songs.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“She said, ‘You got your guitar? Let’s go through a few songs.’ The band counted off a song. I knew the intro like I had played it for years because I had. I played songs for 30 minutes with the band and Loretta singing … I got on the bus that same night for a show in Florida and stayed on the bus with Loretta Lynn for 27 years,” Thornhill said.
“I had not been in the band two weeks, and Loretta came to me and said, ‘The steel guitar player ain’t working out. Can you find one?’ ”
So, he called Bob Hempker, who had played with the Frontier Ranch staff band and brought him onboard. Over the next five months, Thornhill filled Lynn’s band with the same musicians who played for her that night two years in Ohio.
One of the guitar man’s biggest thrills came early in his career when he and his brother, John, were picking for Lynn in a theater in Williamson, W.Va. “The curtain opened and who’s sitting on the front row? My dad. He was proud of his twin boys,” the musician said.
Thornhill enjoyed a long run on the road playing for Lynn. Most of that time he also drove one of her buses.
“Loretta wasn’t too demanding. I played her music just like she recorded it. I always got along with her just fine. We stay in touch,’ he said of the singer-songwriter, 87, who lives in Hurricane Mills at her home on Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, a major Tennessee tourist attraction, about 75 miles west of Nashville.
The real boss over the boys in the band says Thornhill was her husband, Mooney Lynn, who Lynn nicknamed “Doo” for “dolittle.”
“Mooney was a crude businessman. It was his way or the highway. He and I got along,” recalled Thornhill, adding that his starting salary was $150 a week.
“In 1971, the band members came to me and said, ‘We need a raise.’ I went to Loretta and told her, ‘The band is pressing me for a raise. They ain’t had a raise in a couple of years.’ She said, ‘Honey, you have to talk to Doo about it.’
“She called Mooney and told him about it. We’d heard that Mooney said, ‘I’ll fire every one of those s.o.b.s.’ We were all scared we were going to be fired. Mooney called me, and said, ‘I’d like to have a meeting with you. You and the band meet me tomorrow at the swimming pool.’
“I told the band the Loretta called him, and he might fire us all. We all dreaded meeting with him. When we got there Mooney had two No. 3 wash tubs iced down with beer and cold watermelon. We ate watermelon and drank beer and swam.
“Then Mooney asked me, ‘I understand you want to ask for a raise?’ Now I was gonna ask for a $15 a week raise. I said, ‘Yes.’ The first words out of his mouth were, ‘How about $25 a week?’ ‘I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You got it.’
“Later we began touring with Conway Twitty, whose band got paid more, and word got around, so that was good,” said the reluctant negotiator.
The movie and reunion
One of the highlights of his career was portraying himself in the feature film, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. Forty years after its release in theaters, he still receives royalties for his performance.
He and the other Coal Miners band members made the acquaintance of Sissy Spacek, who starred as Lynn, well before filming began and sort of helped her step into Lynn’s shoes.
“Sissy rode the bus for about three months with Loretta to hang out and learn her character. We would give her pointers. We would eat in truck stops and tell her, ‘That ain’t how Loretta would say it. That ain’t her voice.’ Sissy would ask, ‘Well, how would she say it?’ In three months, she was living Loretta to a T.”
The guitarist’s lengthy career with Lynn began to wane after her husband’s health became an issue in the mid-1990s. After Mooney’s death due to congestive heart failure in August 1996, the singer canceled her concerts and took off for five months. The players in her band had to find other work. Thornhill took a job as a bus driver with Gray Line Tours.
The band assumed Lynn was finished performing, but she decided to do two dates at the “Grand Ole Opry” in January 1997 so Thornhill and the other band members returned. One of those nights, Lynn discussed matters with Thornhill in her dressing room.
“She said to me, ‘I don’t know what I would do without you.’ A few weeks after that I got a termination letter saying, ‘We no longer need your services.’ All the time I was with her I never went out on her bandstand under the influence of liquor or drugs. As band leader I had to set an example for the others. I gave her 27 years of what I call pure service. I got that letter and was upset about it for years,” Thornhill said.
“She had hired a new guy, and he tells her, ‘The band is costing you so much. I can save you thousands by not paying their insurance.’ I could not afford being a musician without insurance. I didn’t quit. I was fired.”
One day in about 2002, after finishing a run for Gray Lines, he came home and found a message from Lynn on his coda phone asking him to come see her. He drove to Hurricane Mills, the two sat in her kitchen, and she told him the worst mistake in her career was letting her old band get away from her.
She told me, “I went on the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ one night with the band, and I didn’t even know their names. You reckon you can get the old band back?”
Thornhill made some phone calls and proved successful in getting all except for one member into saying they would return. Once they began discussing salaries, “The idea was dropped like a hot potato,” he said.
However, the “coal miner’s daughter” and her Coal Miners would enjoy a homecoming of sorts in April 2017.
“Loretta’s daughter, Patsy, called three years ago, and said, ‘Mama is wanting to do an old Coal Miners Band reunion show.’ We rehearsed and did the show at the Ryman,” Thornhill recalled.
Later that year, he got another call from Patsy. She told him, “Mama needs you back. We got a guitar player whose wife is deathly ill.” Thornhill agreed to do six dates on the road with Lynn.
“I went down a year ago (to Hurricane Mills), and Loretta and I sat and talked and laughed and told war stories. There were a million of ’em. I’ve been approached to write a book but can’t do that while two of us are alive,” he said with a laugh and mentioning that he and two other long-time Coal Miners, steel guitar player Bob Hempker and drummer Ken Riley plan to visit Lynn soon.
The law enforcement gig
Thornhill and his wife of 58 years, who died last February, moved to Lebanon in 2004, and he became a county deputy 14 years ago.
“I do courthouse security and work the X-ray machine and magnometer. I’ve been at the courthouse seven years and first was a reserve deputy. I work 20 hours a week,” said the lawman, who enjoys fishing for bass and crappie.
As for his first love, the guitar, he says, “I play four or five little gigs a year. I’m very particular about who I play with. I like to rehearse. Every now and then somebody calls me for a special gig. I stay on top of it. I play about every day.”
And while he’s spent countless hours picking country tunes, he’s passionate about jazz.
“Country music is so simple compared to jazz. Country music is like falling out of bed compared to jazz,” said the picker who has a home studio where he has recorded two jazz albums.
Among the hundreds of sentimental memories stashed in his memory bank and his remarkable collection of classy guitars, Thornhill has one more treasured keepsake from his journeys with Lynn.
“When we finished shooting ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ the last scene was the breakdown scene filmed in Municipal Auditorium. After everybody cleared out, I checked the dressing rooms to make sure nobody left anything. I found the original script that Sissy Spacek used,” he said. “I had Loretta sign the front of it.”
Sure enough, he pulls out the bright red script. On the cover in bold black letters the woman he traveled a million miles with has inscribed: Your friend, Loretta Lynn.