If country music is a state of mind, then Loretta Lynn is its conscience. The legendary singer, songwriter and performer died on October 4th 2022, but her legacy has only just begun and will live on in the determination of Brandi Carlile, the drama of Amanda Shires and the desire of Carrie Underwood. And that’s to name but a few. Lynn’s final album, 2021’s ‘Still Woman Enough’, was produced by her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and son-of-Johnny-and-June John Carter Cash, and featured country heroes such as Reba McEntire, Margo Price, Tanya Tucker and the aforementioned Underwood. That was the pull and respect 90 year-old Lynn still commanded and the record now enters the country music pantheon as the final of the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner’s half century of hits.
Country Legend: Loretta Lynn
Born in a place she made famous around the world, the mining community of Butcher Hollow in Appalachian Kentucky, Loretta Lynn grew up around the kind of living that makes great country songs. Her backwoods storytelling and tales of wayward men and women chronicled the Americana way of life and stands tall today as a noble and authentic body of work as art can aspire to be. “I’m country proud to say, I’ve seen a lot of changes but I ain’t never changed,” she sings on the title track of her last album and the ghosts of one thousand lonely housewives clutch their hands close to their hearts. ‘Still Woman Enough’ took its inspiration from one of her most famous hits, 1966’s ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)’, and though both songs appear to bookend Lynn’s wonderful career neatly, the truth is far more interesting…
Confounding expectations was Lynn’s stock in trade. From warning shots to drunken husbands, through teaming up with Frank Sinatra and Jack White, to her support of Donald Trump and indifference towards feminist groups (“I’m not a big fan of women’s liberation,” she once said), the lady wasn’t for turning. But she was full of the contradictions all great artists live with: “You can feed the chickens and you can milk the cow, This woman’s liberation, honey, is gonna start right now,” she declared on 1973’s ‘Hey Loretta’ and though often derided for old time convictions, closer inspection of her work reveals here was an artist way ahead of the curve and looking through the other side of the mirror. “She set an example for women in country music that can be felt throughout the ages,” says Brandi Carlile. “She’ll never be gone as long as the ones she looked after continue to pay all her love and attention forward to the younger generations.”
Lynn was countrypolitan before the term was invented, never mind became a pejorative. Beneath the diamantes and rhinestones, however, lay a soul that would bare itself through music time after time and reveal truths to those who dared to lend an ear. Always a fighter, here stands an artist who spoke the hard truths of her life and times and of the lives and times of those she shared spaces with. Married for nearly 50 years to a man nicknamed ‘Doolittle’, Lynn lived a full life and filled her home with six children and lots of laughs and tears. “We fought hard and we loved hard,” Lynn once said of her marriage. “I married Doo when I wasn’t but a child, and he was my life from that day on. But as important as my youth and upbringing was, there’s something else that made me stick to Doo: he thought I was something special, more special than anyone else in the world, and never let me forget it. But he was an alcoholic and it affected our marriage all the way through.”
Though she had to fight men throughout her life, both personally and working in a sexist music industry from the early sixties, Loretta Lynn teamed up with many great male artists across the decades and had huge success with duets. There was a string of hits with the legendary Conway Twitty, before collaborations with George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello worked their way into the country music repertoire. But it was her 2004 hook up with modern American music hero Jack White that surpassed all expectations. ‘Van Lear Rose’ was a career highlight and carried Lynn from her country roads home back into the mainstream. Her 42nd album brought with it an international rebirth that was richly deserved and was a record brimming with great songs, righteous music and a lightness of touch that had perhaps been missing from her latest work. “I said years ago that I thought she was the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century,” White told Billboard upon hearing of her death. “Loretta used to say to make it in the business, you had to either be great, different or first… and she thought that she was just different and that’s how she made it. But I think she was all three of those things and there’s plenty of evidence to back that up.”
In recent years Lynn received many awards and accolades for her groundbreaking role in country music. She was the most awarded female country recording artist in history and the only ever female Academy Of Country Music ‘Artist of the Decade’ for the 1970s. Her health began to suffer, however, and she brought the curtain down on nearly 60 years of touring following a stroke in 2017 and a broken hip in 2018. Perhaps the last word on Loretta should go to actor Sissy Spacek, who formed a firm friendship with Lynn following playing her in the story of her life in the acclaimed 1980 biopic ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’: “Loretta Lynn was a great artist and a strong, resilient country music pioneer,” she said. “The world has lost a magnificent human being.”
Behind The Song – ‘The Pill’ (from ‘Back To The Country’, 1975)
“This old maternity dress I’ve got is going in the garbage,” sings Loretta Lynn on her 1975 hit ‘The Pill’. Eleven words that willed a world to appear, the song is a defiant broadside to new freedoms in a changing world, one that was finally opening up to many women to whom motherhood was now going to be something they would control, Of course, there was a backlash and the song was banned by more than 60 radio stations. But the gatekeepers couldn’t stop the march of history and the progressive paean is now recognised as one of Lynn’s – and country music’s – most famous tunes.