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Beaumont-Born Music Legend Barbara Lynn Wins A National Heritage Fellowship Award

Barbara Lynn in the KUT Public Media Studios.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Barbara Lynn in the KUT Public Media Studios.

From Texas Standard:

On September 26, in the stately Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, a Texan from Beaumont will receive one of the highest honors awarded to folk and traditional artists, a national heritage fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

But "folk and traditional artist" does not come to mind when you see Barbara Lynn doing her thing on stage.  She slings a Fender Stratocaster, left-handed, playing blues-infused Gulf Coast soul with the presence of a pop star. She's had hit records, been invited to perform on American Bandstand, and her songs have been covered and sampled by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Lil Wayne and Moby. But she never cultivated the whole celebrity thing.  Indeed, Barbara Lynn has never been much for playing by the rules.

Rule-defying started for Lynn when she began playing guitar in Beaumont clubs in the late 50s. She says her mother often had to go with her, because Lynn was so young.

"I couldn't let my principal at the school know that I was playing in clubs," she says. "So that was like sort of on the down-low."

Lynn was unusual in another way, too. She made her name as a guitarist – a left-handed one – which were two unusual choices for a woman at the time she began performing. Lynn says she didn't like the piano lessons her mother encouraged her to take, and that she "wanted to play something odd."

Lynn's mother got her a $12 ukulele, and Barbara taught herself how to play the instrument, before graduating to the guitar.

Even if you don't know Barbara Lynn by name, you've probably heard her most famous song, "You'll Lose A Good Thing."

"Everywhere I go," she says. "I'm still working off of the strength of that one song."

Lynn wrote the song about a boyfriend who was cheating on her. She says she's still friends with the subject of the song.

"A lot of people call him 'the good thing man.'" she says, laughing.

"The good thing man" played saxophone in a band Lynn was also in. When she spotted him out with another woman, she confronted him with the line that would become the title of her song.

"I said, 'Sylvester, if you lose me, you gonna lose a good thing.'"

After the song reached Number 1 on the charts, Lynn says she "laughed all the way to the bank."

Lynn's songs have been covered over the years, and she's highly-regarded among those who appreciate the rootsy, bluesy music she plays. She says she didn't end up becoming a household name because the record companies who produced her music didn't always give her the promotion she needed.

"Some of the songs that should have been hits was not," she says. "But I continued working."

Because people in the business knew and respected her, she has kept working, and her songs kept turning up on the albums of others with more name recognition than she had.

Lynn is 76, and still playing gigs. She says she thanks God for her career – past and future.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.