She was proud to be coal miner’s daughter, but Loretta Lynn was so much more than that: an original musical stylist, a bold and feisty pioneer for female artists, a succinct and truthful songwriter and a singer whose pliant voice could cut straight to the heart. She has died peacefully in her sleep, aged 90, but this giant of Americana has left an indelible mark as not just one of the true queens of country, but as one of the greatest and most important artists of her times.
Loretta Lynn was an unknown 27-year-old married mother of four when she released her debut single, I’m a Honky Tonk Girl, in 1960. It was the first song she had ever written, on a $17 harmony guitar given to her by the husband she had wed when she was just 15. It was a jaunty little number, distinguished by her high, weepy voice, the downcast emotion at odds with the upbeat strut of the music. Lynn and her husband promoted it themselves, driving from radio station to radio station to convince sceptical broadcasters to give her a break, until it crept up the Billboard country chart to number 16. After that, she never stopped writing and singing, pouring out her life in music.
Over 60 years later, she was still singing Honky Tonk Girl, revisiting her very first song on her 50th album, Still Woman Enough, released in 2021. Her booze-soaked, broken-hearted blues of lush life and abandoned love acquired a different flavour sung from the perspective of a widow, a grandmother and showbusiness superstar.
Lynn’s voice had grown several shades harsher and gnarlier with the passing years, yet was replete with all the notes, tones and idiosyncratic timing that made her storytelling so compelling, transforming her self-pitying lament into a flinty reminiscence from granny’s wild youth. Right up until the end, she remained a formidable talent.
The story of women making space for themselves in a pop culture throttled by male gatekeepers has become a key theme of our times. Yet long before the current wave of indomitable female voices; indeed, before such singer-songwriting pioneers as Joni Mitchell and Carole King felt empowered to express their inner lives amidst the social shifts of the swinging sixties - Loretta Lynn had blazed a trail by turning the narrative arc of good old-fashioned country to her own devices.
A smart, tough singer-songwriter with a no-nonsense swagger, her focus was the hard lives and tough choices of ordinary women. Reflecting the political conservatism of the genre, Lynn was ever reluctant to identify as a feminist, but she sang about poverty, motherhood, birth control, spousal abuse, drinking, cheating, loving and forgiving with wit, wisdom and finely tuned melodic songcraft, scoring 24 number one hit singles in the US, and 11 number one albums.
Lynn was something special, which is one of the reasons she endured as an artist and kept finding new audiences for her music. She broke out of country circles into the mainstream in 1967, with a song about a philandering husband Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind) that sold half a million copies in the US. In later autobiographies, she would make it clear that the man in question was her own husband, Drew Lynn. Though the couple remained together for 50 years, until his death aged 69 in 1996, she described her marriage as “one of the hardest love stories.”
Fist City was her second number one in 1968, a song of warning about what she would do to any woman who had eyes on her cheating man. “I fight like a woman,” she once warned. “I scratch and kick and bite and punch.” So while it certainly wasn’t all solidarity with the sisterhood, she also wrote powerful, pithy songs about birth control (The Pill), the onerousness of repeated motherhood (One’s On The Way); double standards for men and women (Rated X) and being widowed by the draft during the Vietnam war (Dear Uncle Sam). For a household name artist in a conservative musical genre, Lynn found herself frequently banned from radio play.
Her career had its first great resurgence in the 1980’s following the biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for portraying Lynn rising from abject poverty in Kentucky to Nashville stardom, taking no prisoners along the way. She remained an enduring star of the country scene, but found a new and younger audience once again in the 2000s, when rock guitarist Jack White of the White Stripes produced her album Van Lear Rose. Its grit and honesty reflected the timelessness of her art, its raw rootsiness demonstrated the enduring appeal of Americana. Like Johnny Cash, Lynn’s work seemed to deepen and mature with age.
Lynn stopped touring in 2017, after suffering a stroke and then a broken hip. But she kept recording and released a new version of her autobiographical classic Coal Miner’s Daughter last year, reciting the lyric to a melancholy fiddle. It felt like the completion of a circle, a memory of a memory viewed from so far away it has turned into a personal myth.
“Nothing lives here anymore,” croaked Lynn. “Only the memories of a coal miner’s daughter.” But by framing those memories so beautifully, by telling tales resonant with real life in heartfelt, uncompromising songs, Lynn has surely done enough to earn a place amongst the musical immortals.