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Emmy Russell on Carrying Her Grandma Loretta Lynn’s Legacy: ‘Her Essence Is Literally in My Blood’

Emmy Russell has vivid memories of her childhood, riding in the tour bus alongside her grandmother — or Meemaw as Russell calls her — Loretta Lynn. She’d sometimes join her onstage or they’d sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” together.

It took years, though, for Russell — who lives in Nashville and recently auditioned for American Idol — to finally embrace the “gift” Lynn always said she had.

“All the time, she’d be like ‘When are you going to come back and do what you’re made to do?’” she tells Rolling Stone. “She would always say, ‘If you have these gifts, don’t bury them under a rug. Use them.’”

During her audition on American Idol, Russell wowed judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan with her performance of an original ballad titled “Skinny” about her struggles with an eating disorder. They were also surprised by the fact that she was the granddaughter of a country legend and daughter of country singer Patsy Lynn. 

“I think there’s a reason why I think I am a little timid, and I think it is because I want to own my voice, and I wanna own it,” she told the judges. “That’s why I wanna challenge myself and come out here and really step in and be like, ‘OK, come on, Emmy.’”

She did exactly that on the show, earning props from Perry for her “A+ songwriting” and she advanced in the competition. In a new interview, the singer reflects on her love for music, her grandmother’s advice, and the special moment when Lynn gifted her a guitar at the Ryman Auditorium.

How have you taken in the reaction to your audition?
I sometimes wake up in the morning and I’m just crying because of how grateful I am. The fact that the audition did translate to the crowd is powerful for me. I wasn’t trying to be anything — I was just myself, and so for that, I’m really grateful. I didn’t try and create a character like I used to. It was just like, “Here I am.” Before I was changing everything like, gosh, I’d get four spray tans in a day and not eat any food, turn up my country accent, and write music that I hated — that wasn’t true for me. Just everything was false. 

What’s been the reaction from your family in general to this whole American Idol moment?
I think they were a little nervous because of how nervous of a human I am, but now they’re like, “Own it, go up there.” They were all telling me, “Maybe you shouldn’t audition. We don’t want you to humiliate yourself.” I just felt this underlying peace. I had so much makeup on, I kind of looked like a little bit like a clown. I took it all off and I was like, “Here I am.”

Wow. You were going to wear a different outfit?
Everything was going to be different than how it was. But I just really wanted to show up as myself. I mean, I’m wearing a sweatshirt right now. I’m a very comfy human.

What was it like to watch your audition? And open up about your eating disorder with the song?
I was like, “Thank you, Emmy, that you had the courage to show up as yourself. Thank you for being brave.” About the music, it’s been people commenting that they relate to my song. That means a lot. It’s why I make music.  At first, it was embarrassing to talk about [the eating disorder], but then I saw it resonate with people and it’s still vulnerable every time I play it. I haven’t played it since the audition.

Let’s talk about your grandma, Loretta Lynn. Was that information something that you always planned to hold in?
That was my childhood. If my dad’s a doctor and I grew up being a doctor, you would talk about your dad being a doctor. So, for me, that’s my normal.  I didn’t know that Katy Perry was going to know who Loretta was either because she’s an older artist. I think I still get shook by how awesome Meemaw is. I call her Meemaw. They didn’t get that on camera, but Katy Perry shook my hand and was like, “That’s so cool.”

What would your grandma say about you auditioning for this show?
I think that she would just be like, “Thank you, honey. If you’re going to use your gifts, I’m happy. Please use them.” She was always really mad at me. I was a missionary for five, six years, and every time I’d come back from Brazil, she was like, “When are you going to come back and do what you’re made to do?”

Wow. She always knew that you had this gift?
Yeah. When I was 15, she passed me down her guitar at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. “Only you’re the one that I feel is supposed to carry this.” But at 15 you don’t know how to carry a weight that heavy. And so my process has been interesting. My musical journey has been very interesting with learning how to carry it correctly rather than letting it crush me.

Do you feel like that’s a responsibility though?
I do. Meemaw did give me this guitar, so there is something to that. She saw something in me and she’s got a lot of grandkids that sing, so there must be something there. I always write, I’ve always just been a creative human, and so maybe there is a legacy there that I can carry, but in a different way than what I thought. I thought I had to be just like her. I feel like I’m more like her than I was whenever I was trying to be like her. 

Her essence is literally in my blood. And so it’s like, what if our thing that’s alike is the confessional truthfulness? What if I’m not as country as her? What if we don’t sing about the same things, but we’re still honest within our songs?

Was there any other advice that she would share?
Gosh, she always said, “God doesn’t give a plumber tools not to use them.” Some things are probably a little too inappropriate for this conversation. She would say, “Don’t wear dresses too short. Or they’ll say something they don’t want to.” She was so funny.  She thought I wrote like a 40-year-old woman.

You mentioned being a missionary for five or six years. Have you put that aside?
I hope that I can be all of it. I hope that I can be a singer. I hope that I can travel the world and serve in any way I can. I think it’s all going to be a part of me. God, who do you say that I am? I know that I’m wanted and loved. I am love. It’s just my moral compass. I will always carry that compass inside, even if I’m in L.A. with all that pressure. 

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What did you learn about Lynn’s performances and music?
She would communicate with the crowd. As she was on stage, someone would say, “I love you, Loretta.” And she’d be like, “I love you too, honey.” There was just a conversation, the entire show, always conversation. It wasn’t like talking at you, really with you like you’re sitting across from her. She would turn to them and say, “They want to hear ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin.’ Hit it.” She would make the show for the audience. 

What can we expect from you during American Idol‘s Hollywood Week?
There’s a lot of conquering. I’m a nervous human being, so getting on there is anxious, fighting through it. I did sing a very personal song called “Like That” on guitar. I was really nervous playing that one, but I’m trying to own it a little bit more. You’ll just see a slow incline. I’ll be getting a little stronger.

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