Loretta Lynn, America's groundbreaking country titan whose frank lyricism delving into women's experiences with sex, infidelity and pregnancy touched the nerve of a nation, died on October 4th, 2022 at 90 years old. Lynn saw a number of her edgy tracks banned by country music stations, but over the course of more than six decades in the business, she became a standard-bearer of the genre and its most decorated female artist.
Lynn's early life was immortalized in her 1970 self penned iconic song "Coal Miner's Daughter", a staple on lists of all-time best Country songs. Later, it became the theme song for a 1980 movie about her life starring Sissy Spacek, who won an Oscar for the role. Not only is Loretta Lynn herself legendary in her accomplishments in Country music, her very life history is also through her music also legendary.
At just 15 years old, the artist married Oliver Vanetta Lynn, who she remained married to for nearly 50 years until his death in 1996. They moved to a logging community in Washington state, and Lynn gave birth to four children before the age of 20, adding twins to the family not long after. It was her husband, who as an admirer of his wife's voice, bought Lynn a fateful gift, a guitar in the early 1950s.
Loretta, a self-taught musician penned lyrics inspired by her own early life and her real life experiences as a married woman in an often tumultuous relationship. She started her own band, Loretta and the Trailblazers, and began playing bars, prior to her cutting her first record , Unlike many of her contemporaries, Lynn wrote a great deal of her own material, beginning with her first chart hit, 1960’s “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” Lynn's pointed songs captured traditional honky-tonk themes like infidelity and divorce, but were uniquely written from the woman’s point of view, at that time a rarity in Country music. Although Lynn's twang was warm and languid her lyrics had a searing precision portraying often her own marriage growing pains and giving voice to issues facing women that had long been kept quiet.
"Most songwriters tended to write about falling in love, breaking up and being alone, things like that," Lynn told The Wall Street Journal in 2016. "The female view I wrote about was new. I just wrote about what I knew, and what I knew usually involved something that somebody did to me."
The Lynns began touring nationwide to promote the singer's work to radio stations, and she made her debut on the iconic Grand Ole Opry in 1960, going on to become one of the Nashville institution's most acclaimed acts. She dominated the charts in the 1960s and '70s (when she was second only to Dolly Parton), ringing up 11 No. 1 country hits in her own right and another five chart-toppers with Conway Twitty. In all, she charted 51 top-10 country singles.
"Dear Uncle Sam’" became Loretta’s seventh Top 10 country hit and, significantly, the first that she wrote herself. As an artist who always pushed the boundaries with her work, “Dear Uncle Sam” was one of the first Country singles that dared to broach the subject of the Vietnam War. Lynn “played” the wife appealing to Uncle Sam, the federal government, as her husband was drafted to enter the conflict. While protest songs over the war were popular in other genres, few Country artists were even acknowledging the war. Lynn’s position in the song was clear: she loved her country, but she also loved her man. "Dear Uncle Sam" was one of the era's first Country tracks to document the tragedy of the Vietnam War.
Also in 1966, Lynn made history when she penned, "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)," which went straight to the top of the charts and made her the first woman in country to pen a number one hit. “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” is also the title track of Loretta Lynn’s second studio album, which was a Number 1 Country album in 1966. As the story goes about this song, Lynn, always open to her fans, wrote the song after hearing the plight of a young woman who confided in her before a concert. The woman complained of a rival who was trying to steal her husband. Looking into the concert audience to see the rival, who “was really painted up,” said Lynn , she assured the worried fan, “Honey, she ain’t woman enough to take your man." Lynn reportedly returned to her dressing room and wrote the song in ten minutes.
Lynn wrote a string of hits unprecedented for their take-no-crap women narrators including the aforementioned, "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. 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 her 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.
In 1969, she released one of her most controversial songs, "Wings Upon Your Horns," which describes a teenager through religious metaphor, losing her virginity. As her runaway success continued she dominated the 1970s with hits such as 1972's "Rated X," which triggered an outcry in discussing the stigmas faced by divorced women. In 1975, she co-wrote and recorded "The Pill," which praised the freedoms and benefits of birth control. “The Pill”. Her recording “The Pill” spoke to married women who wanted to be able to space out their children and prevent unwanted pregnancies so that they could pursue educational and professional opportunities.. In interviews, Lynn discussed at length how female listeners flocked to her after concerts, elated to find a public figure comfortable to discuss birth control. It was a rare venture into the topic of women’s reproductive rights for Country music with Lynn approaching the issue from the perspective of a rural working-class woman. Not everyone was thrilled about the song and many male country disc jockeys banned “The Pill” from the airwaves. Nonetheless, the recording became Lynn's biggest seller in 1975 and cemented her reputation as a spokeswoman for working-class women.
It was the autobiographical song penned by Lynn, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, that gave her memoir its title, and reached No. 1 in 1970 that helped elevate her to legend status. In 1988, Lynn was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as one of its most storied legends. She has won virtually every arts honor available, including the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, given to her by Barack Obama in 2013.
Lorretta Lynn was universally beloved in the industry she deeply influenced, collaborating with scores of artists including Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. In 2004 she released the album "Van Lear Rose," produced by Jack White. In 2021, a month before turning 89, she released the album "Still Woman Enough," which featured re-recordings and new material. Lynn wrote more than 160 songs and released 60 albums. She had 10 No. 1 albums and 16 No. 1 singles on the country charts. Lynn won three Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, eight Broadcast Music Incorporated awards, 13 Academy of Country Music, eight Country Music Association, and 26 fan-voted Music City News awards.
Over the decades, she often collaborated with longtime duet partners and friends such as the late Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson, along with Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, Frank Sinatra and later unions with Elvis Costello, and Jack White . In between releasing 46 albums of her own material, Lynn also wrote songs for other artists, including tracks for sisters Peggy Sue and Crystal Gayle to The Osborne Brothers, and Warner Mack among others. Some of the songs that Lynn wrote with other artists include, “I Pray My Way out of Trouble,” The Osborne Brothers (1968) written by Loretta Lynn and Teddy Wilburn, "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came,” Elvis Costello (2009) written by Loretta Lynn and Elvis Costello and " I’m Dynamite,” recorded by Peggy Sue (1969), Peggy Sue and Lynn collaborated regularly in the early days with Lynn also writing several other songs for her younger sister, including their co-write “Love Whatcha Got at Home,” first recorded by Peggy Sue, You’re Lookin’ at Country, in 1971, “No Woman Can Hold Him Too Long” and “Mrs. Leroy Brown” for Peggy.
Loretta Lynn was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988, the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008 and in 2022 Loretta Lynn was inducted into the Women Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Loretta Lynn left her mark as the first woman in country to write her own songs. Lynn’s songs defied society's then expectations by connecting her musical themes and lyrics to broader social issues affecting working-class and rural women across the US. She wrote about so-called feminist issues specifically for a generation of women in the 1960s and 1970s who could not identify as urban or college-educated feminists, Lynn’s music encapsulated candid conversations about their relatable personal lives as women, wives and mothers. She did so successfully through clever and witty songwriting and lyrics that spoke the language of her audience with her resonant voice.
Loretta Lynn's music also inspired women in Country music who followed her to further explore issues of gender roles. Lynn’s legacy lives on in the music of such notable female Country artists as Reba McEntire and Miranda Lambert, who followed Lynn in creating music that confronts and triumphs over the societal obstacles that women face.
Loretta Lynn wrote songs that took on the unprecedented character of females who took no crap and were unafraid to stand up for themselves, in a genre that was void of such strong female voices. Loretta Lynn was Nashville’s down-home feminist revolutionary. and her music never shied away from tackling some of the major social issues of her time, While all of Country music mourns the death of Loretta Lynn, it is likely her female fans who will feel the loss the most. Loretta Lynn gave women a social and political voice through her song writing, and inspired Country music to become a genre much more relevant to societal issues as seen through the eyes of a women.
Rest in peace Loretta Lynn, your final song written.
By Deborah Gibson