Her last name has opened a lot of doors for Tayla Lynn over the years, but not all of them through which she’s stepped have led to opportunity.
Some, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently, led to places of long shadows and sharp teeth. Her journey, like that of so many individuals in recovery from addiction, is a cautionary tale, but it’s also one filled with an abundance of hope and grace on the other side of that darkness.
These days, she’s found the serenity she and her peers in recovery pray for regularly, and it’s a full-circle sort of life. She and her husband and children make their home on the famous ranch of her grandmother — Loretta Lynn — in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, where she makes time to tell her story between a vet visit for an ailing mare and the rambunctiousness of young boys who thunder through the household with all of the wild energy of horses themselves.
It's a good life, even if it is cacophonous at times. Because these days, Lynn said, she takes the time to center herself daily — in God, in family and in her recovery.
“I wake up every morning, about an hour earlier than everyone else, and hit my knees and pray so I can turn my day over to God,” she said. “Then, I read some sort of uplifting devotional, spiritual or recovery-related or some sort of something. And then I meditate, and then I drink a pot of coffee, and then I reach out to another alcoholic to try to be of service some way, somehow. And I always share what’s going on inside of my head, or else I’ll get in that space of shame and secrets.”
Shame and secrets took their toll on Lynn’s life for a long time, but no more. All of the things she came so close to losing — her marriage to husband Jon Cody Finger, the soulful relationship with her grandmother, the unwavering faith she has in Christ — are things she gives thanks for daily … as well as to the sobriety from which that renewal springs.
Tayla Lynn and the family ties that bind
It's a funny story how Tayla came into existence: Her grandfathers — including Oliver “Doo” Lynn, Loretta’s husband — met through the local coon hunting association of which they were both members. Tayla’s mother, Cindy Plemons, and Cissy Lynn — Loretta and Doo’s daughter — were roughly the same age and became best friends, Tayla said. Cissy brought Cindy home once, and her daddy — Ernest Ray, Cissy’s brother — took a liking to Cindy.
“Daddy always said that when Cissy brought mama home and she started talking to him, he fell in love with her right then,” Tayla said.
The couple married when they were 18, but three years later, they divorced around the time that Tayla was born. For most of her childhood, Tayla lived with her mom and stepfather, Roger, in Franklin, Tennessee. She saw her dad off and on, but he started playing as a member of Loretta’s band and was on the road most of the time. When his daughter joined him, she naturally gravitated toward the loving arms of her adoring grandmother.
“I would crawl in the back of the bus with her and spend day after day with her, snuggling and sharing a bed, so I’ve always felt very connected and close to Memaw,” Tayla said. “I don’t know that there was ever a point that I didn’t understand she was famous — I mean, the movie (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) came out when I was 5 — but because I grew up with my mom, she wouldn’t let us talk about it to people, because she didn’t want us to act entitled or brag about it, so it never had a luster to it, because my mom wouldn’t allow it.”
In hindsight, that disassociation from Loretta’ fame allowed Tayla somewhat of a normal childhood, but it wasn’t until she was older that she came to see why her grandmother was and is revered as the “Queen of Country Music.”
“I remember wishing she was Reba when I was little!” she said with a laugh. “Reba had songs on the radio and videos on (Country Music Television), and I wasn’t seeing that from my grandmother at the time, so I didn’t think she had done very much! I had no idea about everything she had accomplished in the ’60s and ’70s, so I just had no idea that Reba was her biggest fan.”
In 1997, her grandmother asked her to go on the road as an opening act, and the experience opened Tayla’s eyes to just how big of an impact her grandmother has had on popular music.
“I was shocked at the crowds and the way they sang every song, the way they looked at her, the way they treated her, just the way they drank her in,” she said. “It was almost fanatical. I’ll never forget standing on the side of the stage and watching her sing ‘Here I Am Again,’ and her manager (Lane Cross) at the time was standing in the wings on the other side of the stage. He started crying when Memaw started singing, because he knew Memaw was singing about my grandfather. And then I looked out, and every person in that house was crying, and then I started crying.
“That’s when I realized she’s a living legend. She just has this grace about her, because even when she was out doing a concert all over the world, she would talk to everybody like she does in our living room. She is just precious and 100 percent present in the moment. She really loves people and is just always thankful.”
Music City's siren song
There’s a great deal of Loretta in Tayla, who combines her grandmother’s grace with the sass of her daddy’s attitude. Sobriety, however, has taught her to find herself outside of the silhouette of her famous last name, but when she was just starting out, she relied on it to open some of the darker doors that stood along the path.
“My stepdad was a full-blown alcoholic; my dad always drank, obviously; and even though Memaw never really drank anything, there were alcoholics all over the family,” Tayla said. “Because my mom never let me talk about Memaw, the minute I got to go live with Loretta and live on the bus, that’s when I started throwing that name around. I was going to bars with a fake ID and hanging out with all these country musicians.
“That’s when Nashville was becoming kind of crazy, and that’s when I started hanging out with the country music star crowd and doing cocaine. That’s really where my addiction started.”
Her grandmother, she added, ran a clean ship, and life on the road was never the party that some country singers experienced. But when she wasn’t opening shows for Loretta, she fell into patterns familiar to many who suffer from addiction and alcoholism.
“Immediately, the first time I drank, I got drunk, blacked out, threw up and did it again the next day,” she said. “I wanted to do it again and again, and I could just tell early on that I was different. I could see that I was doing it different than anybody around me. People would talk about how wild I was, but the phenomenon of craving did not start until the first time I did a (opioid) pain pill.
“That was the moment I went, ‘Oh, OK! This is what I’ve been missing. This is the breath I’ve been needing to take. I can remember the alcohol being the excitement I always wanted to experience and the pills being the breath I always felt like I needed to catch but could not.”
Around the time that addiction sank its claws in, Tayla struggled to find another door, one that would lead to a country music career that paid homage to her famous last name but allowed her to stake a claim on her own sound. Her grandmother had brought her on stage to sing occasionally when she was younger, but in the late 1990s, she pushed Tayla toward the edge of the nest.
“She asked me to go on the road and open up shows, so I would go out there, even though I was probably not even very good at that point,” she said with a chuckle. “I didn’t even talk on stage, and Memaw would say, ‘Babe, you’ve got to say something out there! How about a joke?’ She just taught me everything I knew in those years. I tried out different songs, and we would figure out what worked for me and what didn’t, and that’s when I started talking to some record labels.”
And that, she added, is when her addiction truly began. For the next seven years, until July 18, 2004, she disappeared into a maelstrom of alcohol, pills, cocaine, crack and eventually heroin.
“It was all pretty fast,” she said. “I would come up every now and again. I would almost make it, and then I would almost make it again, and the closer I would get, the more I would mess it up. I had to get sober before I could start again.”
Tayla Lynn gets sober (take one)
Her grandmother couldn’t bear to watch Tayla spiral out of control, and she was also the first one to get Tayla into rehab. Tayla first went to treatment at Sierra Tucson when she was 19, and there, she was introduced to recovery. But it wasn’t until 2004, at Cumberland Heights in Nashville, that she began to embrace its concepts.
“Immediately, the promises of recovery started coming true for me when I got sober and started walking with other alcoholics,” she said. “I got record deals and publishing deals, houses and cars, but more importantly, I learned who I was. I let go of so much shame, and I became a woman of integrity.”
She addressed the self-esteem issues that fame and self-doubt had foisted upon her, and through the work of a recovery program, the internal whispers that told her she was never pretty enough or talented enough started to fade. She became part of a country music trio, Stealing Angels, that notched a few minor country music hits in 2010 and 2011. She toured the country, and she performed for American troops stationed in Iraq and Kuwait.
“All of the things I dreamed about doing in the music business, I was doing,” she said. “I went back out on the road with Memaw full time for years, and I started a relationship with my father that I still have to this day. I got to forgive myself and tell my family I was sorry and clean up the wreckage of my past. I did that for years and years, and every year was better.
“To this day, my grandmother and I are soulmates, and neither of us say that lightly. Something in our relationship was formed 25 years ago that is still a light for both us. There’s a tenderness and a knowing in our relationship that allows us to truly see each other, and without sobriety and God and Jesus, which is so important to both of us, that wouldn’t be possible.”
In sobriety, her faith grew even stronger … but so too did life’s pressures. Stealing Angels released a third single, “Little Blue Sky,” in late 2011, and the band’s record label, disappointed in the numbers and sales of the band’s previous two efforts, put little effort into marketing it. She met Finger and got engaged after a month. But then life on life’s terms showed up: She found out she was pregnant with her son, Tru … lost her publishing deal … lost her record deal … and Stealing Angels broke up, almost at the same time.
“Within six to eight months, I lost everything I had gained in sobriety,” she said. “And then because I was pregnant, I lost my body. I learned later that I had used my appearance and my sexuality as a huge part of who I was, so suddenly I had lost my two best friends (her bandmates), our record deal, our publishing deal, I was married to a man I didn’t know who didn’t know me, I was 50 pounds heavier, and I no longer had a job.”
The couple picked up stakes and moved across the country to Seattle, where not longer after, she gave birth to Tru via C section.
“They gave me the pain pills when I was there, and I took them like I was supposed to, but then I remember thinking, ‘These aren’t so bad,’” she said. “I wanted things to go back to normal, but I didn’t even recognize that I had been bitching and complaining and resentful and in self-pity for months and months, and I wasn’t walking with another alcoholic, like I had been. And now I was living where nobody knew me, really.”
She started seeing a new therapist who prescribed her Adderall, and because the gate had been opened when doctors prescribed her opioid pills for her Caesarean, she didn’t decline the Adderall prescription. Within several days, she was “eating them like they were candy,” and the beast of addiction that eight years of sobriety had put away came roaring back, stronger than ever.
Tayla Lynn gets sober (take two)
“Whatever I was before I got sober was intensified times a million, but now with a baby and a husband during that relapse,” she said. “Within that eight months, I did more damage than I had ever done on crack and heroin in the times before. I lost the trust of people around me that I had worked so hard to get back, and even though I didn’t lose what I had learned in sobriety, I did lose trust.”
At first, it seemed she might lose her marriage as well, especially after Finger went through her phone and discovered her indiscretions.
“He just didn’t understand,” she said. “He knew he was marrying a recovering addict, but he just had no idea what the disease of alcoholism and addiction was. He thought it was, ‘Oh, she got in trouble once when she drank and put down the bottle.’ He didn’t understand it totally changes who you are and every piece of integrity you ever had is gone once you pick up.”
Tayla went to treatment again, this time to a women’s only program, followed by another 90 days of outpatient treatment. All told, her relapse lasted eight months, but the work in recovering from it has taken years. It’s work she’s engaged in gratefully, however, with her husband by her side.
“I just starting putting one day on top of the other, and after about two years, I started gaining people’s trust back again,” she said. “My husband was so devoted and loyal and hung on, but he also went through some therapy with me and got on the train, too. He’s also walked on this journey with me.”
This time around, she did even more work on herself, and the results began to manifest in more than just the trust from loved ones. She and her Stealing Angels bandmates — Carolina “Caro” Cutbirth and Jennifer Wayne — found one another again and became as close as sisters. Today, Wayne performs in the band she co-founded, Runaway June, and Cutbirth — now married and known as Caroline Cutbirth Hobby — hosts the inspirational podcast “Get Real.”
She started up her music career from the ground up, releasing an EP (“The Ranch”) in 2016 and is working on an album of original material dedicated to her mother, who died unexpectedly in 2018. She also tours and performs regularly with the grandchild of another country music legend — Tre Twitty, descendent of Conway.
“From 2016 until the virus hit earlier this year, we were booked nonstop, and it has been so successful,” she said. “And, it has Memaw’s and the Twitty family’s complete support. It’s just been wonderful, and then on top of that, I started this thing called Tay’s Soulshine Club, where I get on Facebook Live once a week.”
That’s been a powerful outlet to talk about the grief of losing her mother, she added, and how sobriety allowed her to experience the grief and the anguish without feeling the need to numb it with drugs and alcohol.
“We work with people as a group on grief and sobriety. We talk about Memaw, redneck fashion, current events and sing songs,” she said. “It’s a community that’s been going strong for almost two years, and it’s literally my lifeline that means more to me than most things I’ve done professionally.”
She’s also recorded a covers record of her grandmother’s songs that will be released soon on Heart of Texas Records, and she and Twitty are also working on their debut album, as well as a podcast, which will be self-titled as Twitty and Lynn.
It is, she added, a ridiculously full life — but one in which she finds herself greatly blessed and highly favored.
“Living out on 30 acres in the middle of nowhere is not at all what I thought my life would look like, but the peace and serenity I feel and to be married for nine years is insane for a person like me,” she said. “To hear God so clearly, to have lived on the farm for six years, to have consistency like that, to have made a living with music … all of that is only because I’m sober.
“I never could have done any of this when I was out using, and I fully recognize that I could be back out there tomorrow. And that’s why doing the work and being so open is so important to me, because I do realize it snuck up on me once, and I don’t want it to again. My life and all of the people in it are too important to me to let that happen.”