04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
PEGGY AND PATSY LYNN DIDN'T write the book on sibling rivalry, but the identical twin daughters of Loretta Lynn could probably add a new chapter or two. They rib each other constantly and compete for the final word on everything. "We'll fight over the time of day," says Patsy, "but we don't fight over our music." Peggy agrees. "If we walked around singing all the time, we'd never have a cross word to say to each other."
Harmony is what their music's all about. Since Peggy and Patsy, 33, released their debut album, The Lynns, last month, they have racked up two chart singles and an Academy of Country Music Award nomination for New Vocal Group or Duet. (The awards will be presented April 22.) While their backwoods blend of country and honky-tonk blues has drawn comparisons to a certain coal miner's daughter, the duo are earning their own respect. "They're so pure," says country-music critic Robert K. Oermann, "not all varnished and perfecto. They sound like real people." As well they should. "I told them many times, 'You don't come to Nashville and mess up,' " says Loretta, 62. "I'd say, 'Now, girls, if you slide in on your back, you'll slide out on your belly' "
No doubt in different directions. "From age 13, Patsy and I took separate roads," says Peggy. "I was more conservative. She was more on the edge." Patsy takes a more psychological view: "When you are identical twins, you fight hard to be an individual, so you go as far away from each other as you can."
Only their love lives ran a parallel course. Like their mother, who married at 13, Patsy and Peggy were both young brides—16 and 18 respectively—and the marriages of both lasted only a fraction of their parents' nearly 50 years. By the time she was 30, Patsy had two ex-husbands and three children, Darren, 14, Megan, 12, and Anthony, 10. She married a third time last Valentine's Day to musician Phillip Russell, 31, with whom she shares a log cabin-style house in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. Meanwhile, Peggy, who lives in a two-bedroom home in Nashville, married singer Jimmy Collins, 35, in 1993 and has a daughter, Jasy, 12, from her first marriage. "Music is like a ghost," says Peggy. "It haunts you and it taunts you. Put someone else into that equation and there's very little left of you."
Growing up in Hurricane Mills, the youngest of Mooney and Loretta Lynn's six children, the twins were inspired by their mother and molded by their father, a rancher who died in 1996 of complications from diabetes. With Loretta on the road some 300 days a year, "Daddy was today's equivalent of a single mother," says Peggy. "Without him, we wouldn't be what we are today." Whenever he took them to see their mother perform at the Grand Ole Opry, he would afterwards whisk them across the street to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge to let them show off. "Daddy would set us up on the bar," recalls Peggy, "and we would entertain you for as long as you wanted." Despite then-early promise, Loretta didn't encourage them. "It's very hard to do this well," says Loretta. "They realized this when they saw their mommy come home tired, be home a day and back out again."
Undaunted, Peggy and Patsy embarked on unsuccessful solo careers in the late '80s, only to reunite as backup singers on their mother's 1990 tour. Loretta midwifed their getting their acts together the night she taught them the words to "All I Have to Do Is Dream," the '50s Everly Brothers hit. "The whole back of the bus filled up with these two voices and these harmonies," recalls Patsy. "Individually we felt strong, but together it was complete." Five years later they were back at Tootsie's, performing as the Honk-A-Billies, a name they took to hide their lineage. "People would come up and say, 'Loretta Lynn would sing something like that,' " says Peggy. "We'd just laugh and think, 'That's the gene pool' " Eventually the duo caught the ear of a Reprise Records representative, and the label offered them a deal.
And while they're happy to continue one of the more important legacies in country music, the Lynns will succeed or fail on their own terms. "I'm proud that they're determined to do it that way," says Loretta. "If I had done it for them, they wouldn't appreciate it half as much. They're finding out how hard it is."
BARBARA SANDLER in Nashville