For over four decades, Loretta Lynn has fashioned a body of work as artistically and commercially successful-and as culturally significant-as any female performer you’d care to name. Her music has confronted many of the major social issues of her time, and her life story is a rags-to-riches tale familiar to pop, rock and country fans alike. The Coal Miner’s Daughter-the tag refers to a hit single, an album, a best-selling autobiography, an Oscar-winning film, and to Lynn herself-has journeyed from the poverty of the Kentucky hills to Nashville superstardom to her current status as an American icon.
Loretta was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. Just as she would later sing in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta’s family eked out a living during the Depression on the “poor man’s dollar” her father managed to earn “work[ing] all night in the Van Lear coal mine [and] all day long in the field a-hoein’ corn.” As she also notes in that song, “I never thought of leavin’ Butcher Holler.” But that was before she met Oliver Lynn (aka Doolittle or Doo or “Mooney” for moonshine), a handsome 21-year-old fresh from the service who swept the young Loretta Webb off her feet. The couple married when Loretta was barely 14.
Looking for a future that didn’t require him to work the mines, Doo found work in Custer, Washington, and Loretta joined him in 1951. The following decade found Lynn a fulltime mother. In her spare time, though, with Doo’s encouragement, she learned to play the guitar and began singing in the area. During one televised talent contest in Tacoma, hosted by Buck Owens, Loretta was spotted by Norm Burley who was so impressed he started Zero Records just to record her.
Lynn soon fashioned her distinctive style-a mature fusion of twang, grit, energy and libido-an approach she first perfected in the songs of other writers. In “Wine, Women, and Song,” “Happy Birthday,” and “Blue Kentucky Girl,” each a Top Ten hit in 1964, Loretta played a plucky young woman who alternated between waiting for her wayward man to walk back in the door and threatening to walk out herself.
Such hits were early hints of Loretta’s undeniably strong female point of view-a perspective unique at the time both to country music specifically and to pop music generally and a trend in her music that became further pronounced as she began to write more of her own songs.
Over the next few years, Loretta wrote a string of hits unprecedented for their take-no-crap women narrators. In “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” [#2, 1966], “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” [#1, 1967], and “Fist City” [#1, 1968], among others, Loretta presented a new character on the country scene: a woman unafraid to stand up for herself, just like real women did.
The immense popularity of these songs, as well as other straight shooting hits like “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Women of the World (Leave My World Alone)”, and “You’re Looking at Country,” culminated in 1972 when Lynn won he second Best Female Vocalist award from the Country Music Association-and when she became the first woman to win the CMA’s most prestigious award, Entertainer of the Year.
Sprinkled among her many solo hits was a series of amazing collaborations between Loretta and her dear friend, singer Conway Twitty. Indeed, Loretta also won her first Vocal Duo of the Year award in 1972, with Conway, a title the team held onto through 1976. The pair’s close harmony style and dramatic song selections-especially, “After the Fire Is Gone,” “Lead Me On,” “As Soon As I Hang up the Phone,” and “Feelin’s” explored adult romantic relationships as wrenchingly as any records ever made.
Through the next decade, Loretta scored more and more hits-and became more and more famous beyond her country base. In 1973, she appeared on the cover of Newsweek; in 1976 her autobiography (written with journalist George Vescey) became a New York Times Bestseller; in 1980 the book was made into a hit film starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. By the time of her last major hit “I Lie,” in 1982 Lynn could count 55 Top 10 hits and 27 #1’s.
Loretta Lynn spent the ‘90s largely away from the spotlight, caring for her ailing husband Doo and, after he died in 1996, grieving his loss. The music scene has changed considerably in her absence but it’s also a scene she helped create. Indeed, it would be all but impossible to imagine the likes of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” and Deana Carter’s “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” or any number of Dixie Chicks hits, without her.
In 2004, Lynn teamed up with White Stripes guitarist Jack White and released Van Lear Rose, which was met with both surprise and awe. The album quickly became popular and Lynn embarked on tour to support it. Van Lear Rose won two Grammy Awards, including best country album in 2005.