Remembering Loretta Lynn
A pioneer for women in country music
October 7, 2022
Loretta Lynn’s life was a remarkable journey. Born April 14, 1932, Loretta Webb came from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, with her talent and grit and told the truth in stories about women’s lives, about herself and about the hard life she knew. In her songwriting, touring, and television appearances she became a celebrated and beloved American figure, especially for women. Then there was an Academy Award-winning movie about her life, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Lynn was the first woman to be named Entertainer of the Year (1972) by the Country Music Association and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988. She was a Kennedy Honors recipient in 2003. She received America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Obama in 2013. In achieving so much, she helped amplify the appeal of country music. Loretta Lynn died at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. She was 90.
Loretta Lynn was a songwriter and singer who broke through in the male dominated world of country music and influenced many young women trying to make it in Nashville. Her success came not only from her music, but her life.
She wrote three very personal books about her life, “The Coal Miners Daughter” (1976), written with George Vesey of the New York Times. It was followed by the film in 1980, which won an Academy Award for best actress for Sissy Spacek, who played Lynn. Tommy Lee Jones played her husband Oliver Lynn. The book was followed by a second memoir “Still Woman Enough” in 2002, which picked up the story.
In 2020 she wrote about her friendship with Patsy Cline in “Me and Patsy Kickin Up Dust,” about her friendship with the legendary country star who had a significant influence on Loretta’s life after she moved to Nashville
Loretta Lynn was married at 15 years old to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, also called Doo and Mooney. She had her first born when she was 16. By 19, she had 4 children. In all, they had 6 children. Doo was a former moonshiner who pushed and guided her career and helped her believe in herself. She often credited him for never letting her forget her talent, and when he was sick she put her career on hold to take care of him.
Their relationship, both loving and combative, is reflected in a number of the songs she wrote and performed including, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin (with Lovin on Your Mind).” Some of the songs were her warning to stay away from her man:“You Aint Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” and “Fist City” (1968).
Marissa R. Moss, writing in New York Magazine, said: “she wrote true stories ripped from real rural life about what it meant to be a woman: the red letter of divorce, the freedom of birth control, the desire to clock a feisty husband who is philandering around time and the refusal to cater to his drunken desire to get laid when he stumbles home.”
Doo Mooney died in 1996, after 48 years of marriage. He had played a huge role in her career including an early first hit, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” which brought her to the attention of Nashville.
In interviews, Loretta Lynn did not say she was a feminist but she was, in so many ways, a champion of women. The songs she wrote and performed told their story, explained their feelings, and reflected their struggle. It was her story, her life. She told women to be strong and things would be different.
In 1978 she wrote “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” and in 1972, “Rated X”. She did it all within country music alongside traditional stories of a hard life. There were some contradictions: while supporting freedom for women she also supported politicians who were on the other side.
Loretta Lynn also took note in song with important social moments in the history of women, writing and singing about the liberation women felt from the development of the birth control pill. The song was “The Pill.” It was written in 1975 and was a poem for contraception. Chris Richards, in The Washington Post, called it “probably the most famous song ever written about the ongoing fight for women’s bodily autonomy.”
Lynn also had a number of musical partnerships, most notably with Conway Twitty in the 1970’s and 1980s. They made hit singles and were country music’s vocal duo of the year. They also won a Grammy for “After the Fire is Gone.” Later, with Jack White of The White Stripes, she won a Grammy for “Portland Oregon. Her studio album in 2004, Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White, won two Grammys. Lynn continued her recordings into her eighties, working with John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny Cash. Her last album in 2021 was “Still Woman Enough.”
Three things stand out about the life of Loretta Lynn:
She had huge musical talent as singer and songwriter, and courage which she used to become a pioneer for women in country music.
She never forgot who she was and where she came from. She told her fans: she was them and they were her.
She leaves a legacy for courageous truth telling from a woman’s experience, expressed in her ability to feel, write, and sing those feelings that so many women knew but couldn’t express as well. President Obama, in bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said Lynn was “saying what no one wanted to talk about and and saying what no one wanted to think about.” In the end, that is what great artists do: express in uniquely talented ways what so many others feel but can’t express.
And one other thing: she did it all with skill and hard work.
With all the honors a grateful society can bestow, she always said she was no different from anyone else. But she was. And I suspect she knew it. Women certainly knew it. She was like all pioneers, strong and determined, and clear in who she was and what was right and wrong.
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