Loretta Lynn always had a story to tell and the raw voice to go with it. But at the age of 19, dirt poor and already a mother of four with a philandering moonshiner for a husband, her prospects were not exactly glittering.
The coal miner’s daughter from a shack in “Butcher Holler”, Kentucky, one of the undisputed icons of American country music, died this week at her lush ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee. Yet her rise to fame and fortune — portrayed in the film for which Sissy Spacek, playing Lynn, won an Oscar in 1981 — did not appear to have altered her since those early days.
It was the lyrics of her songs more than the tunes which revealed a characteristic blunt honesty. She never had a memorable signature song, like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” or Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, but her words offered a woman’s perspective. “The Pill” was an anthem to reproductive rights. “Don’t Come Home A-drinking (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” was born of her own marital experiences which, she knew, were far from unique.
Lynn always denied she was a feminist but admitted she had learnt to stand up for herself against her husband when he was physically abusive, from a mentor, Patsy Cline, the established country star. She wrote songs warning women to stay away from her husband, among them “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take Away My Man)” and a number one hit “Fist City”, which warned of the consequences of doing just that. Her 1978 hit, “We’ve Come A Long way, Baby,” celebrated the women’s movement but late in life she was a vocal supporter of America’s flamboyant misogynist, Donald Trump.
Her husband of 48 years, Oliver Vanetta Lynn Jr, generally known as Doolittle or Doo, or Mooney after the whiskey he drank and peddled, was five years her senior when he married the 15-year-old Loretta Webb, who had already dropped out of elementary school to look after her siblings while her mother went to work in a nearby nursing home.
But her husband took her away from Kentucky to Custer, Washington, where, knowing she had a voice, he bought her a guitar and sheet music and encouraged her to go out and perform in local bars and radio stations, which produced her first commercial break.
Lynn liked teaching her kids traditional Appalachian and church songs (three of her siblings followed her into country music, including her sister Brenda Gail, who found success as the singer Crystal Gayle). And they all listened to the weekly Grand Ole Opry stage show broadcast from Nashville on a battery-powered radio — the cabin had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Her husband went on to manage most of her career before his death in 1996. Together they had six children, four of whom survive her.
The family moved to Nashville, country music’s beating heart, in 1961, where her career took off. She made the stage at the Opry, was frequently on local and national TV, had her first hit single “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” and produced her first album in 1963. Then followed collaborations with other country celebrities like Buck Owens and, most prolifically, in duets with Conway Twitty. In her penultimate album, in 2016, there was even a lovely little song, “Lay Me Down”, with another living legend, Willie Nelson. All told, she had over 50 singles in country music’s top ten and 16 reached number one.
Her music never strayed far from classic country themes, above all heartache and cheating, though some songs with Twitty strayed into the realms of pure sex. Her voice, with its characteristic Appalachian drawl, never changed. Petite and slim, she bounced on stage and hopped about during up tempo numbers.
Cline taught Lynn a lot, including how to dress in the approved sparkly country music manner and how to manage her business if she became a star. But Lynn had to discover for herself how to deal with the country music establishment, which was, and still is, male dominated and politically conservative. Lynn’s lyrics challenged the first in ways that few earlier women singers had but she seemed comfortable with the politics, possibly explaining her support of Trump, whose rallies reverberate with country music.
Honours beyond number came her way, not least the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by President Barack Obama in 2013 (the “rule-breaking, record-setting queen of country music”, he said). As she put it, “I can probably outwork anyone in Nashville,” which was probably true and certainly better than her prospects promised in Butcher Holler. Jurek Martin