There are many artists whose life experiences have been interwoven into their music, and resulted in the purest form of what has gone on to be recognized as “country music” around the world. But few, if any—especially from the feminine perspective—had the same grace, the same truth, the same impact that the songs of Loretta Lynn did.
Know affectionately as the Coal Miner’s Daughter, and also considered nothing less than a Queen of the country music genre, she will go down in history as one of the very most important and iconic artists to ever grace the genre, singular in her impact, Mount Rushmore-esque in her momentous contributions, and more than significant in how she moved the American culture in way that resonated well beyond country, and well beyond music.
Mother, grandmother, strong woman, proud daughter of Kentucky and a coal miner, Loretta Lynn was the voice of the rural woman, singing through the struggles and scars in a way that still conveyed an eternal beauty. She was country music incarnate, defining what country music was for nearly a century. She was an institution. She was a voice for those women without one. She was a mother and wife to all of us. And now, that legacy will be cemented into eternity.
A simple statement came from the family Tuesday morning, “Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, October 4th, in her sleep at home in her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills,” it read. And now the country music community and the rest of the world mourns.
Telling the story of Loretta Lynn’s life almost feels redundant, since so many fans of her music, as well as many people beyond, can cite it from memory since it was found right there in her songs, and memorialized in the award-winning film from 1980, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and earned Sissy Spacek Best Actress honors. She was born Loretta Webb in Butcher Holler, Kentucky on April 14th, 1932. Her father was a coal miner.
Lynn married the notorious Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn when she was just 15—only as month after they had met. They moved to Washington State for work when she was seven months pregnant. In 1953, Dolittle bought her a $17 Harmony guitar. Initially, Loretta Lynn didn’t want to pursue music. It was Doolittle’s coaxing that unearthed the passion for it within her. By the time Lynn cut her first record in 1960 called “Honky Tonk Girl,” she already had four children.
But nothing was going to get in the way of Loretta Lynn once she was determined to become a star in country music. Though Doolittle was often the foil and villain for her songs, he was also her biggest cheerleader. The two drove all around the country, hand delivering records to radio stations, begging them to play it. By the 60s, the pair had moved to Nashville and began embedding themselves in the music industry. She found an early champion in Ernest Tubb, who gave away his spot one night on the Grand Ole Opry to Loretta Lynn to allow her to make her debut. She then became a mainstay on Tubb’s Midnite Jamboree that broadcast from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop after the Opry on Saturday nights where Lynn slowly morphed into a star.
She found another champion in Patsy Cline, who despite the few opportunities for women in country music at the time, did not see Loretta Lynn as competition, but as a sister. Loretta Lynn had many “moments” while performing on the Midnite Jamboree, but none may have been bigger than when she sang Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” and dedicated it to Patsy who was laying in a hospital bed after a car accident on June 14, 1961.
Loretta was still an up-and-comer, and Cline was an established star. Many people heard the performance on the Midnite Jamboree, and it struck a chord with them. One of them was Patsy Cline herself, who sent her husband Charlie to get Loretta and bring her to the hospital. At first Loretta was worried Patsy would be angry for singing her song. But it was the beginning of a sincere friendship.
It was Loretta Lynn’s assertive songs of strong womanhood that separated her from the rest of country music performers. Passionate, principled, and sometimes outright mean, she gave a voice to all of the women of rural America, and the men who loved them for their dogged and rugged determination and feisty nature. Sometimes it was even a little too feisty for traditional country radio, and certain Loretta Lynn songs were banned from being broadcast in some instances.
But other songs have gone on to set the standard of what country music is within the country music canon. “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Fist City,” “One’s on the Way,” “Rated X.” During an otherwise repressed era for rural culture in America, Loretta Lynn waled right up to lines, and even dared to cross them upon occasion. What gave her cover was that she was always singing the undeniable truth. And even though some over the years have attempted to politicize her career due to songs like “The Pill,” which was a Top 5 hit despite the controversy it sowed, the only side Loretta Lynn ever took was for women, and for country music.
When she sang “You’re Looking at Country” in 1971, she meant every word. Unlike some other women from country music’s past, present, and future, Loretta Lynn never strayed from her stern country roots, or attempted to cross over into pop. She was one of the genre’s preeminent gatekeepers herself. She won the 1972 CMA Entertainer of the Year, and Female Vocalist of the Year in ’72 and ’73.
Loretta Lynn also found great success as a duet partner, especially with Conway Twitty, which resulted in one of the most legendary and successful pairings in country music history. Though Conway was a hitmaker, he was also seen as a gimmick by some in country music. Loretta Lynn’s presence legitimized Conway, and resulted in his only CMA Awards. The CMA’s Vocal Duo of the Year award was basically built for the pair, and they won it every year between 1972 and 1975.
Later in life when country music had mostly moved on from the music of classic country artists such as Loretta Lynn, Jack White stepped up to revitalize Lynn’s career in their collaborative album Van Lear Rose in 2004, presenting the music of Loretta Lynn to an entirely new audience, and generation. It won two Grammy Awards, and was nominated for three more. Loretta won three Grammy Awards in total, and was nominated for 18.
Even with the hard life she lived, the country music community was graced with Loretta Lynn’s presence all the way into her 90th year, where she became not just one of the most venerated artists in the history of country music, but one of the oldest living links to the music’s Golden Era past. Most country music fans, Americans, and Loretta Lynn fans from around the globe do not know a world without Loretta Lynn. And luckily, due to her legacy being so indelible and ironclad through her influence and the timeless nature of her music, they never will.
But the mortal being known as Loretta Lynn, she has ceased to be present with the rest of us here in life. It is the end of an era, and the end of one of the most important lives to ever grace the pages of country music’s continuing legacy. Tuesday, October 4th is the day that Loretta Lynn died, today, and forever.