Vancouver chicken coop unlikely location of country icon Loretta Lynn's big break

"The Coal Miner's Daughter" was first "discovered" in a backyard chicken coop in Southeast Vancouver.

Lynn recorded her first single after coming up from Washington State to perform at backyard dance in 1959

Loretta Lynn is one of the most successful and decorated American country music singers of all time. Her first big break was a backyard dance at a Vancouver chicken coop. (Handout)

Loretta Lynn — the First Lady of Country Music, the Coal Miner's Daughter, the original Honky Tonk Girl — got her first big break in the strangest of locations: a backyard chicken coop in southeast Vancouver.

Born in 1932, Lynn was part of a large Kentucky family with her father being the titular coal miner.

Loretta Lynn is a self-taught guitarist and songwriter. (honkytonkgirl.ca)

In 1948, at the age of 15, she married Oliver Lynn. A year later, the pair moved to Washington state.

In the early 50s, Lynn bought her first guitar and with her husband's encouragement, taught herself how to sing and perform.

In the meantime, north of the border, a couple named Ernest Clare 'Mac' McGregor and his wife Irene Loranger, were fond of holding country music jam sessions in a large backyard chicken coop they owned at what is now East Kent Avenue near Elliot Street in Vancouver.

"Mac liked to party and he liked to collect audio equipment," explained writer Rob Howatson. "He rigged that chicken coop with sound and it was a great place for him to hold dances for family and friends."

Howatson said the coop hosted a variety of wild waltzes, prairie style dances, and hoe-downs, with the floorboards sagging beneath the weight of the dancers.

"Occasionally the police would have to be called and sometimes, the ambulance," he said.

A picture of the chicken coop (circled) in southeast Vancouver. (Museum of Vancouver)

At one of those jam sessions in 1959 a talented young singer showed up, much to the delight of some executives from a local Vancouver record label called Zero Records.

"They really liked the way she sang. They signed her and helped her record her first hit single."

That singer, of course, was Loretta Lynn.

Armed with her first recorded single, Lynn was able to go to Nashville and kickstart her successful career.

A changing neighbourhood

Rob Howatson poses with the commemorative marker at the former site of the famous chicken coop on East Kent Avenue, near Elliot Street in Southeast Vancouver. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

The Southeast Vancouver of Loretta Lynn's day was very different from the residential neighbourhood it is today.

"At that time, the rest of the city hadn't caught up with this neighbourhood," said Howatson.

"The housing developments were still up the hill. Down here along the river, we've got railway tracks still here — they're not used very often anymore. There used to be a lot of sawmills down here."

Over the next decade, MacGregor and Loranger continued to hold their backyard jamborees but the neighbourhood around them was slowly changing.

Listen to the audio segment from CBC's The Early Edition:

Vancouver historian Rob Howatson explains how Lynn got her start after a Canadian label heard her sing at an informal dance held in a Vancouver chicken coop. 6:15

In the early 1970s, the couple sold their property and moved to B.C.'s Interior.

Soon after, the chicken coop was demolished. The land was subdivided and new residential houses sprouted in its place.

Howatson, who lives in the neighbourhood near the site of the old chicken coop, says remembering the site today is an important way of acknowledging of Vancouver's honky-tonk past.

"[We] had an active country music scene," he said. "This was an important place for Loretta's career."

Loretta Lynn is 85, and is the most awarded female country music singer of all time.

A closer look at the commemorative marker. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

With files from Margaret Gallagher