Take a look at any list of famous American popular music artists. If that list purports to cut across all genres and styles, and Loretta Lynn isn’t on it, then the list is incomplete. Loretta is not only a country music legend – she’s part of the grand tradition that is homegrown American music.
She was born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1934 in Butcher Holler, way up in the hills of eastern Kentucky. It’s another world up in that part of the state. Small villages that are barely more than wide spots in the twisty roads, stuck here and there amongst the Appalachian mountains and valleys. Good, solid country folk who know what hard work is and ain’t afraid of it because that’s all most of them have ever known. It was a hard place to live in those days, and it hasn’t changed much over the years.
Loretta was one of eight children born to Clara and Ted Webb (another of those kids would grow up to be singer Crystal Gayle). She was truly a coal miner’s daughter; her father worked the mines at night for many years. By day, he worked the family cornfields. Though they were dirt poor, just at the edge of poverty, Loretta has said that she and her family were happy, since “we didn’t know what we didn’t have, but we did have love.” Being the second eldest of the children, Loretta wound up helping to take care of her brothers and sisters, as so often happened in those large Kentucky families.
As she grew up, Loretta imagined her life wouldn’t be much different than her mother’s. She’d marry some local boy, maybe raise a pack of kids, and live out her days there in Butcher Holler. That’s the way things looked in 1948 when she met Doo -- Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. He was 21 years old and fresh out of the service, and Loretta was barely 13. The courtship didn’t take long and a marriage soon followed.
Doo didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with his life, but he did know that he didn’t want to spend it in the mines. He found work in Custer, Washington, and after a couple of years for him to get established, Loretta joined him there in 1951. It wasn’t long before the pack of kids came along – four of them: a son, a daughter, and two twin daughters (one named for her idol, Patsy Cline).
FROM HOUSEWIFE TO COUNTRY SINGER
By the late 1950s, their family had grown to six kids. Loretta used to sing to them, often, and once when Doo heard her, he told her that he thought she sang as well as any of the country singers they heard on the radio. He bought her a guitar for her 26th birthday in 1960 and encouraged her to learn to play it. Loretta learned and learned well. She got serious about her music, and started singing in local bars and roadhouses, on radio spots, anywhere she could get a gig.
One night at a club in Tacoma, Loretta impressed promoter Norm Burley enough that he started a record label just to get her songs on vinyl. Zero Records was that label and Loretta cut her first single for them, “I’m A Honky-Tonk Girl”, in 1960. The record started slowly, but it picked up when Doo and Loretta decided to do their own promotion. They loaded a stack of records in the car, and drove from Washington to Nashville. At every radio station they came to, Doo and Loretta left a copy of the record, urging the disc jockey to give it a try. They sent out hundreds of records to radio stations and record shops all over the country. The self-promotion paid off, and by the time they reached Nashville, “Honky-Tonk Girl” had entered the Billboard charts.
Doo and Loretta decided to stay in Nashville, and sent for the kids. Not too long after they arrived, Loretta approached Teddy Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers (then one of the Grand Ole Opry’s top acts), and Wilburn quickly recognized Loretta’s talent. Through his music publishing company, he agreed to take her on as a client and put her to work cutting demo records. Owen Bradley of Decca Records, the producer behind Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Bill Anderson, heard one of those demos and wanted the song, “Fool #1”, for Lee. The Wilburns gave him the song, but the contract included recording Loretta as part of the deal. Bradley refined Loretta’s sound, adding strings and horns, and gave it more of the polished quality of his other clients. It was a shrewd move, as Loretta’s first single for Bradley, “Success”, went right to the Billboard Top Ten in 1962.
“Success” was the first of a string of top hits that would run through the 1960s and 70s. Though Nashville songwriters wrote her first hits, such as “Blue Kentucky Girl”, Loretta soon discovered she could write her own songs. One of the first of those was “Dear Uncle Sam”, released while the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War. It’s a plaintive ballad about a woman who’s loyal to her country, but more than that wants her man back home from the war.
LORETTA TELLS ‘EM HOW IT IS
In the songs Loretta wrote and performed, she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, and did it in such a way that her listeners felt as if she might be singing about their own lives. Loretta knew some of what was on the minds of American women at the time, and it began to show up in her lyrics. As country comedienne Minnie Pearl once remarked, “Loretta sang what these women were thinking.” She could get tough, too; in songs like “Fist City”, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’”, and “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath”, Loretta showed she could get as down and dirty as any of ‘em. Once she heard about another woman trying to make time with Doo; Loretta told her exactly how it was in “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”.
Loretta created a bit of controversy in 1972 when she wrote and recorded “The Pill”, a song that told of a woman who was fed up with being pregnant all the time. Lines like “I’m tearin’ down your brooder house, ‘cause now I’ve got The Pill” caused the song to be banned from radio play at first, but public demand forced the song back on the air. Throughout the furor, Loretta never backed down. Indeed, through the sheer force of her talent, Loretta changed the way people thought of the ‘girl singer’ in country music.
Also in 1972, Loretta teamed up with Conway Twitty for a series of duets. The best remembered of them, “After The Fire Is Gone”, went straight to #1 on the Billboard charts and won them a Grammy for best country duo. Loretta and Conway kept that title through 1976 with songs such as “Lead Me On” and “Feelin’s” (sic). Amazingly, they managed this while still scoring hits with their own solo efforts.
By 1980, Loretta had racked up an amazing string of successes. She’d scored 59 hit singles, with 22 in the Top Ten. She became a permanent member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1962, following a heartfelt introduction by Ernest Tubb. And there were awards as well: Loretta was the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award (1972, and again in 1975); she received the Lifetime Achievement award from the Association of Country Music; and received the Award of Merit from the American Music Awards. Loretta was a frequent guest on television talk shows as well, and even hit the lecture circuit for a while.
That was also the year she saw Coal Miner’s Daughter, her best-selling 1976 autobiography, become an equally successful movie. Sissy Spacek played Loretta, and with Loretta’s guidance and blessing, turned in a fine performance. Though not a singer herself, Spacek delighted moviegoers and fans by singing Loretta’s songs herself.
A NEW DIRECTION
Loretta spent the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s performing and releasing albums, even as country music was moving away from the type of music she knew. She entered a period of semi-retirement to care for Doo, now suffering from diabetes, but she still continued to appear on talk shows and the occasional concert venue. Doo passed away in 1996, and Loretta spent a year recovering from his death. Still, she kept up her Opry appearances, and returned to the recording studio for “Still Country” (2000). Though the disc was a modest success, it did little for Loretta’s reputation. It seemed her semi-retirement from recording might become permanent.
The story wasn’t over yet for Loretta, though. She still had a lot of fans out there, and among them was Jack White and his band, the White Stripes. Loretta’s daughter Patsy brought Jack and Loretta together after discovering that the White Stripes had dedicated their 2001 album, “White Blood Cells”, to Loretta. The meeting led to friendship and a shared performance in 2003 at a New York show. Jack believed that his music and Loretta’s weren’t that far apart:
As they grow older, they (music fans) realize that all music dates back to the blues, and all music, whether it's punk or New Wave or rock and roll or whatever it is, it's all leading back to the blues. And country is just another aspect of that. It's just another Southern take on that folk style, just as important and just as valid.
Loretta and Jack got on so well that when she was ready to cut a new album, she decided to give Jack a shot at producing it. Critics and fans wondered – what kind of record would come from pairing a country legend and a twentysomething rock musician? The result was “Van Lear Rose”, released in 2004. It’s already regarded as one of Loretta’s best, and that’s reflected in both reviews and sales. It’s still pure Loretta Lynn – but with an edge that harks back to some of her earlier work. Again, Loretta wrote all the songs, and her lyrics prove that the Coal Miner’s Daughter hasn’t lost her ability to “tell it like it is”. Loretta has recently announced that she has material for two more albums, both of which will be produced by Jack White.
As the title of the recent sequel to her autobiography says, Loretta Lynn is “Still Woman Enough”.
Lynn, Loretta, with George Vecsey, Coal Miner's Daughter. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2001 (reissue edition).
Article on Loretta's web site, “Van Lear Rose,” Loretta Lynn.com. <http://www.lorettalynn.com> (October 2004)
Country Music Television, “Loretta Lynn,” CMT Artists: Biography. <http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/lynn_loretta/bio.jhtml> (October 2004)
Great American Country.com, “Loretta Lynn,” GACTV News. 16 August 2004. <http://www.countrystars.com/legends/bios/lynn_l.html> (October 2004)
Launch Radio Networks, “Jack White Plans Two More Albums With Loretta Lynn,” Launch Music News. 12 May 2004. <http://launch.yahoo.com/read/news.asp?contentID=218126> (October 2004)