Sissy Spacek's Best Actress Oscar win for playing Loretta Lynn created a rarity in the Academy's history in that the real-life Loretta Lynn was in the audience witnessing the victory. That same evening, boxer Jake LaMotta was in the pavilion audience when Robert De Niro won the Best Actor statuette for his portrayal of LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), making the event even rarer.
According to Loretta Lynn, her husband Doolittle wanted nothing to do with Tommy Lee Jones, who was playing him, until shortly before shooting began in Butcher Holler. Jones rented a Jeep, got drunk on moonshine, and went tearing through the town in the vehicle, only to get arrested for drunk driving, beat up for resisting arrest, and jailed. Doolittle liked him immediately after that.
Sissy Spacek was reluctant to take on the lead role, instead favoring a project by Nicolas Roeg. She had insisted on doing her own singing for the film in hopes of scaring the producers off. The real Loretta Lynn prematurely announced that Spacek was going to play her on a talk show, so Spacek was torn between the decision to star in the film, or choose the other project. She was advised by her mother-in-law to pray for a sign on what to do that evening, which she did. Spacek later went for a drive with her husband in her mother's car, where the radio was tuned into a classical music station that changed formats every evening. As the car pulled out of the parking garage, "Coal Miner's Daughter" by Loretta Lynn came on the radio. Spacek then accepted the role.
Although Loretta Lynn handpicked Sissy Spacek to portray her on screen, the first director of the film was against the casting, feeling that Spacek didn't have enough of a resemblance to Lynn. Universal Pictures felt otherwise, bought out the director's contract and hired Michael Apted to direct.
Sissy Spacek praised Michael Apted and his design team for the high degree of authenticity they lent to the story without falling into the cliché of portraying "hillbillies" living in squalor. "The costumes were perfect, and the sets were exquisitely accurate, from the corn cribs in the back of Loretta's home to the newspapers used for wallpaper inside the cabin to keep out the drafts," she later wrote.
Sissy Spacek expected fellow Texan Tommy Lee Jones to be a good old boy, but soon learned he was a sophisticated Harvard graduate. "I can honestly say, he's always the smartest person in the room," she wrote in her autobiography. "Tommy Lee had great instincts about the film. He elevated my performance in every way."
The film places strong emphasis on the story that Loretta Lynn was married at the age of thirteen, which is actually false. In May 2012, the Associated Press unearthed Lynn's Kentucky birth certificate, which revealed the singer has been lying about her age for decades. She was actually sixteen at the time of her marriage.
When Sissy Spacek was Grammy-nominated in the Best Country Vocal Performance category for her rendition of the title song, Loretta Lynn's sister, Crystal Gayle, was nominated in the same category for her, "If You Ever Change Your Mind". Both ladies lost out to Anne Murray's song "Could I Have This Dance?".
According to Loretta Lynn, Tommy Lee Jones went to meet her husband with his hair dyed red to match Doolittle's youthful color, but Mr. Lynn did not warm to him or help him out. "He was jealous of him," she said, noting that it wasn't until Doo had to teach Tommy Lee to drive a tractor that he began to thaw. Eventually, as Loretta put it, "Doo ended up falling in love with Tommy Lee." Doo also showed Jones how to get the most speed out of the old World War II Jeep he drove in the film.
In the scene where Loretta Lynn is making her first record, the recording engineer is actually the real Doolittle Lynn (Loretta's husband). There is one part of the scene where the camera shows him and Tommy Lee Jones, as Doolittle, face to face (an obvious intent from the director to show them both together). However, Doolittle's name or that character appears nowhere. It doesn't even show as 'uncredited' on this site.
Sissy Spacek had high praise for Levon Helm, a musician acting for the first time on film. "He knew that character in his bones, and his portrayal has such dignity and grace that it literally anchors the film."
According to Sissy Spacek, Michael Apted and cinematographer Ralf Bode would watch the actors rehearse a scene and design the shot around them, rather than having the shots planned out in advance and directing the actors to conform to the visual plan. "Michael Apted trusted his actors," she said. "It felt extraordinary--even revolutionary."
In the funeral scene, everybody was supposed to be singing "Amazing Grace" around the body of Loretta's father. In the middle of the take, Levon Helm sat bolt upright in the coffin insisting they were singing it wrong. He told them it had to be done in the old call-and-response style. Phyllis Boyens-Liptak luckily had her father on set. Nimrod Workman was a well-known singer, coal miner and activist, and it is he who we hear calling out the lines while the others sing them after him.
During the filming of the funeral for Ted Webb, Levon Helm refused to lie in the casket, as it seemed too morbid to him. To allay Helm's fears, Michael Apted got into the casket himself and did a few takes to show Helm it was okay. Helm finally agreed to try it once, and the scene was done in one take.