For over four decades now, Loretta has fashioned a body of work as artistically and commercially successful and as culturally significant as any female performer you'd care to name. Her music has confronted many of the major social issues of her time, and her life story is a rags-to-riches tale familiar to pop, rock and country fans alike. The "Coal Miner's Daughter" the tag refers to a hit single, an album, a best-selling autobiography, an Oscar-winning film, and to Lynn herself has journeyed from the poverty of the Kentucky hills to Nashville superstardom to her current status as an honest-to-goodness American icon.
Her Grammy award-winning album, the Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, reminds the world yet again of Lynn's power as a vocalist and her skill as a songwriter. As she puts it on "The Story of My Life," the album's closing track: "Not half bad for this ol' KY girl, I guess... Here's the story of my life. Listen close, I'll tell it twice."
Loretta was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, the second of Clara and Ted Webb's eight children. Just as she would later sing in "Coal Miner's Daughter," Loretta's family eked out a living during the Depression on the "poor man's dollar" her father managed to earn "work[ing] all night in the Van Lear coal mine [and] all day long in the field a-hoein' corn." As she also notes in that song, "I never thought of leavin' Butcher Holler." But that was before she met Oliver Lynn (aka Doolittle or Doo, or "Mooney" for moonshine), a handsome 21-year-old fresh from the service who swept the young Loretta Webb off her feet. The couple married when Loretta was barely 14.
Looking for a future that didn't require him to work the mines, Doo found work in Custer, Washington, and Loretta joined him in 1951. The following decade found Lynn a full-time mother four kids by the time she began singing seriously in 1961 of precisely the sort she would one day sing to and for. In her spare time, though, with Doo's encouragement, she learned to play the guitar and began singing in the area. During one televised talent contest in Tacoma, hosted by Buck Owens, Loretta was spotted by Norm Burley who was so impressed he started Zero Records just to record her.
Before long, Loretta and Doo hit the road cross-country, stopping every time they spotted a country radio station to push her first Zero release, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl." By the time they reached Nashville, the record was a minor hit and Loretta found work cutting demos for the publishing company of Teddy and Doyle Wilburn. One of these, Kathryn Fulton's "Biggest Fool of All," caught the ear of Decca Records producer Owen Bradley. He thought the song would be perfect for Brenda Lee, but the Wilburns worked a deal you can have the song if you record Loretta. Soon, Loretta was in the studio cutting sides with Bradley, producer at the time not only for Lee but Patsy Cline, Bill Anderson, and Webb Pierce.
At this early stage of her career, Loretta was greatly influenced by Kitty Wells, the groundbreaking "girl singer" who turned the tables on several decades worth of male double standards with the 1952 classic, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." Like Kitty's, Loretta's delivery on "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" was twangy and nasal, rhythmically straight up and down, plainspoken and emotionally understated. Such a down-home vocal style was Loretta's birthright; it was more or less the way she had sang back in Kentucky, it was the style she took with her to Washington, and it was a vocal approach particularly well-suited to the duet sides she soon made in Nashville with honky-tonk legend Ernest Tubb. ("Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be," from 1964, was the pair's first and biggest hit.)
Working with Bradley in Nashville, however, Lynn quickly fell under the musical spell of new friend Patsy Cline. Patsy's distinctive style, marked by dramatic slides, growls and crescendos, was more modern and "pop" sounding than that of Wells' and the other female country singers of the day. It's not surprising then that "Success," the 1962 single that became Loretta's first Top Ten hit (and that was later covered by Elvis Costello on his Almost Blue album) showcased Loretta in a full-throated, string-backed setting that's more than a little reminiscent of Patsy Cline.
Out of these influences, Lynn soon fashioned her distinctive style a mature fusion of twang, grit, energy and libido an approach she first perfected in the songs of other writers. In "Wine, Women, and Song," "Happy Birthday," and "Blue Kentucky Girl," each a Top Ten hit in 1964, Loretta played a plucky young woman who alternated between waiting for her wayward man to walk back in the door and threatening to walk out herself.
Such hits were early hints of Loretta's undeniably strong female point of view a perspective unique at the time both to country music specifically and to pop music generally and a trend in her music that became further pronounced as she began to write more of her own songs. In her first self-penned song to crack the Top Ten, 1966's "Dear Uncle Sam," Loretta presented herself as a woman who was going to fight to keep what was important to her, even if that meant questioning the wisdom of her government. Indeed, "Dear Uncle Sam" was among the very first recordings to recount the human costs of the Vietnam War. "Doo encouraged me to write that one," she recalls today. "I was wondering what it would be like to have someone over there and what I would do if I did." (The song made a return to Lynn's live sets with the coming of the Iraq war).
Over the next few years, Loretta wrote a string of hits unprecedented for their take-no-crap women narrators. In "You Ain't Woman Enough (to Take My Man)" [#2, 1966], "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)" [#1, 1967], and "Fist City" [#1, 1968], among others, Loretta presented a new character on the country scene: a woman unafraid to stand up for herself, just like real women did. Drawing upon her own experiences as a harried young wife and mother, and upon a homespun sense of humor at once both pointed and hilarious, Loretta issued warnings to soused and philandering hubbies everywhere and to the female competition that she was not to be trifled with. In her words, "You better close your face and stay out of my way if you don't wanna go to Fist City."
[Note: As on most of Lynn's biggest solo hits, the studio band for the above numbers included members of Nashville's famed A-Team: guitarist Grady Martin, six-string electric bassist Harold Bradley, bass player Junior Huskey, pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harman, and pedal steel guitarist Hal Rugg.]
As the '60s turned into the '70s, Lynn forever solidified her reputation as an advocate for ordinary women. Typically, Loretta's brand of women's liberation was attuned specifically to the lives of her blue-collar audience, the wives and mothers who were far too overwhelmed by the demands of, say, childcare to place much stock in symbolic foolishness like bra burning. Indeed, while a guest on The Dick Frost Show, Loretta once famously dozed off while listening to the upper-middle class feminist Betty Freidan talk theory with the show's host.
Loretta was more interested in life as it was lived-in the kitchen and in the bedroom-by millions of working-class women everyday. For example, "One's on the Way," a Shel Silverstein-penned hit from 1971, let Lynn voice the concerns of a harried Topeka woman, worn out from raising her kids, cleaning the house, and dealing with a husband with enough free time to be calling her from a bar while she's home making dinner.
But it was with her own songs that Loretta best conveyed the complexity of women's lives. In "I Wanna Be Free," Loretta reveled in the possibilities a divorce might bring ("I'm gonna take this chain from around my finger, and throw it just as far as I can sling 'er"), while in "Rated X" she complained that new divorcees were inevitably treated like easy women. In "I Know How," she boasted of her sexual prowess; in "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill," she bemoaned the loss of desire that accompanies a bad marriage; and in "The Pill," a record banned by many radio stations in its day, she captured perfectly the power of birth control to let women love without the passion-dowsing fear of pregnancy: "The feelin' good comes easy now since I've got the pill!"
Each of the above songs was a Top Three country hit between 1968 and 1975, and Loretta Lynn (to paraphrase the title of a 1970 album) both wrote 'em and sang 'em. The same was true, of course, of her signature song, the 1970 chart-topper "Coal Miner's Daughter," which chronicled for all time the strides women were making in these years from country to city, from home to workforce and, in Lynn's case, from "girl-singer" to superstar.
The immense popularity of these songs, as well as other straight-shooting hits like "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath," "Women of the World (Leave My World Alone)", and "You're Looking at Country," culminated in 1972 when Lynn won her second Best Female Vocalist award from the Country Music Association and when she became the first woman to win the CMA's most prestigious award, Entertainer of the Year.
It didn't hurt that sprinkled among her many solo hits was a series of amazing collaborations between Loretta and her dear friend, singer Conway Twitty. Indeed, Loretta also won her first Vocal Duo of the Year award in 1972, with Conway, a title the team held onto through 1976. (And this in the years when the duet competition annually included Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton and George Jones & Tammy Wynette)! The pair's close harmony style and dramatic song selections especially, "After the Fire Is Gone," "Lead Me On," "As Soon As I Hang up the Phone," and "Feelin's" explored adult romantic relationships as wrenchingly as any records ever made.
Through the next decade, Loretta scored more and more hits and became more and more famous beyond her country base. In 1973, she appeared on the cover of Newsweek; in 1976 her autobiography (written with journalist George Vescey) became a New York Times Bestseller; in 1980 the book was made into a hit film starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. By the time of her last major hit "I Lie," in 1982" Lynn could count 55 Top 10 hits and 27 #1's.
Loretta Lynn spent the '90s largely away from the spotlight, caring for her ailing husband Doo and, after he died in 1996, grieving his loss. The music scene has changed considerably in her absence but it's also a scene she helped create. Indeed, it would be all but impossible to imagine the likes of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine" and Deana Carter's "Did I Shave My Legs for This?" or any number of Dixie Chicks hits, without her. Van Lear Rose, with its moody, propulsive arrangements, loud and rocking guitars and intimate songwriting, can only extend Lynn's profound influence into a new century and to a new generation of fans.