The Song Remains: Loretta Lynn (1932 – 2022)

Being a coal miner’s daughter provided the impetus to become one of country music’s greatest artists.

Loretta Lynn died peacefully at home in her sleep on 4th October 2022, and few artists have managed to put their own musical DNA into a genre as Loretta Lynn did with country music and even fewer women artists have managed a similar feat. One of the most successful country music artists of all time, by any measure from critical acclaim to chart success and awards, Loretta Lynn was also at one with her audience and used her own personal life experience in her groundbreaking songwriting. Not only did she help develop country music as a genre, but her songwriting, and her chart success, helped highlight and subsequently improve the lot of working-class women in America, particularly in the South. Despite her groundbreaking songs, Loretta Lynn never classed herself as a political performer, rather she was concerned with the social aspects of working-class women’s lives, rather than simple badge-wearing politics.

Born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to a part Cherokee family of coal miner and subsistence farmer Ted, and wife Clara, Webb.  Loretta was the eldest daughter and second eldest of seven siblings. In 1948 at the age of fifteen, Loretta Lynn married Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, and while the marriage was difficult at times, Lynn credited her husband with having the belief in her that gave her the confidence and support to succeed in music. Her career started after the Lynns moved to Custer, Washington, and after working locally she eventually signed her first record contract in 1960 with Zero Records and recorded four self-written singles in Hollywood with West Coast players. Lynn’s first recordings were a success and they brought her to Nashville where she joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1962 and signed with Decca Records. Patsy Cline was an early mentor and best friend, and Loretta Lynn had a string of singles success starting with her debut Decca recording ‘Success’. She recorded duets with Ernest Tubb and her ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ was later recorded by Emmylou Harris. Lynn’s first self-written song to crack the top 10 was ‘Dear Uncle Sam’, which highlighted the human cost of the Vietnam War.

In 1967 Loretta Lynn’s career moved to the next level when ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin (With Lovin on Your Mind)’ became her first number one. Success followed her into the ‘70s with the autobiographical ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ and a partnership with Conway Twitty, and all the time she kept women’s issues to the fore with songs like ‘Rated X’ which challenged the double standards for men and women, which was significant given the conservative nature of country music and its audience, at the time. Her career received a further boost in the ‘80s when a film starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones was released based on her 1976 autobiography, ‘Coal Miners Daughter’ which became one of the most successful films of 1980. The Band’s Levon Helm played her father Ted Webb, who died of a stroke at age 52 in 1959. The film soundtrack was also successful, being awarded CMA’s Album of the Year in 1980. Lynn’s career received a further boost in 2004 when Jack White, of The White Stripes, produced ‘Van Lear Rose’ which became her biggest crossover success and started a late-career resurgence.

Loretta Lynn may have been one of the most successful female country stars of all time, but she did so by using her early life in the coal mining communities of Kentucky, and a child-marriage to an alcoholic but supportive husband, to bring attention to the social injustices suffered by many working-class women in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was also one of the few real country stars who were able to achieve real cross-over success and respect later in their careers through a film of her life and an album recorded with a then-leading independent artist. Legendary and iconic are much abused and overused terms, but Loretta Lynn is one of the very few artists to which these terms can be applied unequivocally.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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[…] Following her death in October at the age of 90, this year’s special Songwriter Legacy Award goes to the undisputed country legend Loretta Lynn, whose groundbreaking songs, based on her own experiences, gave a voice to America’s working-class women. In a recording career spanning more than 60 years, she released 60 albums, had 16 number-one singles and, in 1972, became the first-ever woman to win the most glittering country prize, the CMA Entertainer of the Year. This achievement helped to change the perception of women in country music. The AMA-UK awards show will include a multi-artist performance of Loretta Lynn’s signature song, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter‘. You can read our celebration of her life here. […]