Loretta Lynn, who rose from a hardscrabble upbringing to become the most culturally significant female singer-songwriter in country music history, has died. She was 90.
Lynn’s family said she died Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
“Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning (Oct. 4) in her sleep at home at her beloved ranch,” her family said in a statement provided to USA TODAY.
Lynn was a mother of four when she launched her career in the early 1960s, and though many of her songs are filled with specifics of her wholly unique life, they had a universal appeal. She wrote about intimate matters – from her difficult, wearying childhood to fights with her husband – yet managed to strike a collective nerve.
Without ever mentioning politics or women’s liberation, her 1960s and 1970s hits helped change long-held notions about gender roles. “Rated ‘X’ ” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” were personal pleas – not political treatises – that sought an end to double standards.
Lynn did all this at a time when women were most often the voices through which men’s words and melodies were heard. She was Nashville’s first prominent woman to write and record her own material and was one of the first female music stars to generate her own hits.
When she was set to receive her Kennedy Center Honor in 2003, Lynn told The (Nashville) Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, that she wasn’t sure why people found her culture-shaking songs so remarkable.
“Cultural contributions? What’s that?” she asked. “I was just sayin’ it like I was livin’ it. People’d go around that, but I went right through the middle.”
She was the first woman named entertainer of the year at the genre’s two major awards shows, first by the Country Music Association in 1972 and then by the Academy of Country Music three years later.
In her 1970 smash hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn told the story of her upbringing, which helped her reach her widest audience yet.
“We were poor but we had love / That’s the one thing Daddy made sure of / He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar,” she sang.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” also the title of her 1976 book, was made into a 1980 movie of the same name. Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Lynn won her an Academy Award and the film was also nominated for best picture.
Long after her commercial peak, Lynn won two Grammys in 2005 for her album “Van Lear Rose,” a collaboration with rock star Jack White that featured 13 songs she wrote, including “Portland, Oregon” about a drunken one-night stand.
“She is the single most important female singer-songwriter of the 20th century,” White told The Tennessean at the time.
Born Loretta Webb, the second of eight children, she claimed her birthplace was Butcher Holler, near the coal mining company town of Van Lear in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. There really wasn’t a Butcher Holler, however. She made up the name for the purposes of the song, based on the names of the families that lived there.
Before Lynn’s ascendance into country music royalty, it wasn’t even on most maps. For Lynn, it was a place of hardship, poverty and danger.
Her father, Ted, worked the night shift at the Consolidated Number Five mine, while her mother, Clara, tended to the eight kids and read books by a kerosene lamp until he came home. In her first autobiography, Lynn looked back on her father’s work as something heroic. “He kept his family alive by breaking his own body down,” she wrote.
Her daddy played the banjo, her mama played the guitar and she grew up on the songs of the Carter Family.
When Lynn was 13, she met Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn at a pie supper. He was 21, had served in the Army and already had a reputation for wildness. The two married in January 1948, when she was 15, and he took a job in the coal mine.
Their union was troubled from the start – he left her for another woman that same year, when Lynn was four months pregnant, then returned before she had their first child – but they remained married until his death in 1996.
He bought her a Sears & Roebuck guitar as a gift, encouraging her to play and sing, and she always credited him for her career in music. At first, she sounded too much like her idol, Kitty Wells, to be branded an original. But she had talent and conviction, and her blunt, truthful compositions began to set her apart from other female country singers. She wrote her first hit single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” released in 1960.
The Lynns drove across the U.S., visiting radio stations in hopes of gaining airplay for the single. (It peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard country singles chart.) When they reached Nashville in the fall, Lynn made a guest appearance on the “Grand Ole Opry.” She was 28.
Audience reaction at the Opry was immediately positive, and Nashville saw something different in Lynn: a female singer-songwriter who strayed significantly from the prim, near-Victorian model of the time.
She scored top 10 hits with “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “Wine, Women and Song,” but it wasn’t until 1966 that she became recognized as a writer of import. In that watershed year, Lynn released “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’.” The former was a prideful rebuke to someone who threatened to bust up a marriage, the latter a strong, funny slice of life. Both were major hits.
“At the time, girl singers were doing I-love-you-truly kinds of things, but I came in fightin’ over my man ’cause he was stepping out with somebody else,” she said in a 1980 “Penthouse” magazine interview.
Lynn wrote and recorded songs that weighed in on women’s roles in a changing America, including “The Pill,” which celebrated birth control as a sexual and social equalizer. Her songs insisted on something resembling fair play between the sexes, reaching a segment of the female population that found little sense in marches and bra burnings.
“She was burning down walls between men and women,” White said.
Lynn also teamed up with singer Conway Twitty to form one of the most popular duos in country music with hits such as “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” and “After the Fire is Gone,” which earned them a Grammy Award.
She moved to Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, outside of Nashville, in the 1990s, where she set up a ranch complete with a replica of her childhood home and a museum that is a popular roadside tourist stop.
In October 2010, Garth Brooks sang with Lynn at a Grammy Awards-sponsored celebration of her 50 years in music.
“You just don’t forget where you come from,” she said at the celebration. “All I do is close my eyes, and I know where I’m from. I go back to that little old one-room cabin where I lived until I was 11.”
Hers was an unprecedented story that will be retold but not repeated.
“God gives you life, and you do with it what you want to,” she told The Tennessean. “If you turn out bad, that’s up to you. If you turn out good, that’s up to you, also. But still, from the time I was born, I think he probably held my hand or held me in his arms. Or else I’d have never made it.
Source: USA Today