Loretta Lynn: First Lady of Country Music Dies at 90

The acclaimed singer and songwriter ascended from a small Kentucky coal-mining community to national country music stardom.

 

Lynn’s life story was memorably told in the Michael Apted-directed Coal Miner’s Daughter(1980) based on her 1976 memoir. Sissy Spacek won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the singer, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame since 1988.

She became one of the industry’s brightest luminaries, when men dominated country. She wrote much of her hit material, and it was sharply penned stuff, crafted from the point of view of a woman (usually a married one) who would take no guff from her man. And she did not shrink from controversial subject matter.

She was born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. “I’m always making Butcher Hollow sound like it’s the most backward part of the United States — and I think maybe it is,” she wrote in her autobiography.

The second eldest of coal miner Melvin Webb’s eight children, she grew up in sometimes dire poverty in the heart of the Great Depression. One of the few distractions she had was the radio; 11-year-old Loretta became enamored of the Grand Ole Opry and its early female star, Molly O’Day.

At age 15, she married Oliver Lynn, known by his nicknames “Doolittle” and “Mooney.” A year later, the couple moved from Kentucky to Custer, Washington, a town of a few hundred near Bellingham. By 18, Lynn had four children. (Two more would follow.)

Encouraged by her husband, Lynn began singing in Washington clubs. In 1950, Don Grashey of tiny Zero Records arranged a session for her in Los Angeles. Backed by top-flight guitarists Speedy West and Roy Lanham, she cut her composition “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” inspired in part by Kitty Wells’ 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonky Angels.”

A run of chart-topping country singles followed, sung in a warm voice but taking a tough-minded stance. Just the names of many of these hits telegraph Lynn’s point of view: “You Ain’t Woman Enough” (No. 2, 1966), “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” (No. 1, 1966), “What Kind of a Girl (Do You Think I Am?)” (No. 5, 1967), “Fist City” (No. 1, 1968) and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” (No. 3, 1968).

Other signature tunes by Lynn took an autobiographical tack; these included 1965’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” (memorably covered by Emmylou Harris) and 1970’s No. 1 single “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

In 1971, the year she charted her biggest solo hit, “One’s On the Way,” Lynn began a productive collaboration with labelmate Conway Twitty. The pair’s No. 1 duet “After the Fire Is Gone” was followed by a dozen more top 10 country singles.

In 1975, as the national debate over women’s liberation continued to roil, Lynn incited comment with her song “The Pill.” The tune, which reached No. 5 on the country chart, was, in her words, “about how the man keeps the woman barefoot and pregnant over the years.” It was one of the best examples of the no-nonsense spunk of her songwriting.

She reentered the scene at age 70 in 2004 through the agency of an unlikely fan and collaborator: Jack White, then of the popular Detroit garage-punk act The White Stripes. They teamed on the Interscope album Van Lear Rose, which was designed to reignite her career just as Johnny Cash’s series of American Records albums had returned him to prominence.

The album became the biggest of her career, and the Lynn-White duet “Portland Oregon” received wide radio play.