Longtime Billings DJ reflects on helping launch Loretta Lynn’s career

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BILLINGS — The county music world has lost a legend. Loretta Lynn, the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” whose songs about the harsh realities of being a working-class woman made her the voice of a generation, died at her Kentucky home early Tuesday morning. She was 90 years old.

But long before she became one of the most famous country singers ever, an aspiring radio DJ caught a glimpse of her in a small bar and started her down the path to stardom.

“When I woke up this morning, I woke up to pure sadness,” Lonnie Bell said.

Tuesday was a tough one for Bell. By the time the sun was up, the 98-year-old Billings man had multiple messages of condolence, informing him of Lynn’s passing. After all, he’d known her longer than just about anyone else on the planet.

“I met her when she was 24 years old,” he said.

CASEY CONLON / MTN News

Lonnie Bell reads a passage from his autobiography about meeting Loretta Lynn and sending her on the path to country music stardom.

It all started near Seattle, Washington. Bell was just beginning his career in radio and also had a small band he’d sing with.

“I told (my partner) Bill, ‘We need another singer,'” Bell recalled. “He said, ‘I know a girl who sings pretty good. She’s been coming to Bellingham and singing at the American Legion every Wednesday.'”

So Bell took a recruiting trip he’d remember for the rest of his life.

“I get there, and all of a sudden here comes Loretta. Wow,” Bell said. “She starts singing, and I thought, ‘Lord, have mercy.’

“I was the only person in the club at that time. I went up to the bartender and said, ‘Do you hear that singing?’ He said, ‘I hear her every Wednesday.'”

Lonnie Bell book

CASEY CONLON / MTN News

Chapter 5 of Lonnie Bell’s autobiography, ‘Hey Loretta,’ details the two’s meeting in 1956 near Seattle, Washington.

Bell befriended Lynn and convinced her to come sing in his band on Saturday nights. He recorded one and played it on his show.

“I started getting all kinds of mail asking for more Loretta Lynn,” he said. “The girl was a hit right there.”

Lynn only lasted three weeks with Bell’s band because her husband and manager Doolittle ‘Mooney’ Lynn said they were looking for something bigger. Bell knew they’d find it.

“All she had to do was be heard,” he said.

A few months later, she signed a record deal and the rest was history. Both Lynn and Bell went on to 60-year Hall of Fame careers, crossing paths as often as Bell could arrange it. He’ll never forget one encounter.

“In 1974, I went to Denver and caught the show,” Bell said. “Mooney said, ‘Where you been? I ain’t seen you for 10 years!’ I told him that I figured they were doing okay so I didn’t bother them.

“He said, ‘You’re in Billings now, huh? Billings is a pretty small town for us.’ Imagine that. Here’s a guy who was begging to get on my show. Things, they do change.”

The arenas might have, but the music never did.

Loretta Lynn Lonnie Bell

CASEY CONLON / MTN News

A picture of Lonnie Bell introducing Loretta Lynn during her concert at MetraPark in Billings hangs in Bell’s house on his ‘Wall of Fame.’

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