Loretta Lynn has died at the age of 90.
A bona fide country music legend, Lynn was born in 1932 and raised in rural poverty in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. As a self-taught guitarist and songwriter, she also grew up with two talented sisters in Crystal Gayle and Peggy Sue.
She played and wrote many of her own songs at a time and in a genre when that was pretty rare, especially among female artists. When Lynn’s career took off, women’s work in general was shockingly underpaid, and a fifth of Americans were living below the poverty line.
Her father’s generation had also worked in appalling conditions – in his case as a coal miner – and he passed away from the miner’s disease black lung aged just 52. That’s what spurred her to write her career defining song, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’; every verse a short story that’s rarely been equalled, even in a genre where storytelling is the most prized asset.
This composition laid out her story in stark detail. Not only did she recount how her father worked as a coal miner and farmer, but also how her mother would read the Bible by a coal-oil light and have bloody fingers from constantly doing the laundry using a washboard.
Indeed, Lynn often tackled subjects that usually got brushed under the carpet, including relationships - ‘Fist City,’ ‘You Ain't Woman Enough’ - feminism - ‘Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)’, ‘Your Squaw Is on the Warpath’, ‘Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)’ - and crucially, one of her most iconic tunes, ‘The Pill’. This was all at a time when Nashville didn’t do feminism - and certainly didn’t talk about birth control.
Lynn already had a handful of kids and a husband, Oliver Vanetta “Doolittle” Lynn, who’d married her when she was 15 years old (he was in his twenties), by the time she started singing professionally. Their marriage was infamously fraught with violence and infidelity.
Lynn was fond of saying that every time “Doo” smacked her, she smacked back twice — once hard enough to knock out two of his teeth. Yet she always stuck with him – saying that her hard knock life was fodder for her songwriting and delivery. “The more you hurt,” she said, “the better the song is. You put your whole heart into a song when you’re hurting".
President Obama noted that Lynn began playing a $17 guitar and writing her own songs, saying of the instrument, “With it, this coal miner’s daughter gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted to talk about and saying what no one wanted to think about".
Throughout her career, Lynn was famed for her diverse range of collaborations. Her duets with Conway Twitty were massive hits – five consecutive number ones – that have remained classics of the genre.
Other collaborators and devotees include Margo Price, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Tanya Tucker, and Lynn’s producer Jack White. John Carter Cash simply said: “With Loretta you just turn on the mic, stand back and hold on.”
Another notable fan is fellow Kentucky star Carly Pearce, who said: “Loretta Lynn is definitely the real, first, true pioneer woman to write things that maybe other women were too afraid to say.” Minnie Pearl said: “Loretta sang what women were thinking. It was still a man’s world when this Kitty [Wells] and Loretta came in. But Loretta battered down all those barriers”.
She kicked down country music complacency and put up a flag for feminism and honky tonk directness. Infidelity, lechery, drunkenness – and even divorce and birth control – were grist to her mill. Country orthodoxy wanted their women to be meek and maybe sing something religious and uplifting. But she wouldn’t be fenced in; she wanted women to get the respect they’re due. Lynn herself said: “Most of my fan club is women, which is how I want it. We women have got to stick together.”
Loretta Lynn was not just a feminist, but also anti-racist, pro-worker and proud of her Cherokee Indian heritage. She will be much missed.
Loretta Lynn: 1932 - 2022