She came from the humblest of beginnings, the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner who married when she was only thirteen years old. Before she turned eighteen, she was a mother of four. But she would emerge from her simple background to become one of the most successful and significant female artists in the history of recorded music, pushing the conventional lyrical boundaries of country music with her sharply-written songs.
Of course, the story of her life before she became a star is almost as interesting as the music that made her one. Born and raised in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, Lynn grew up in a small shack with an assortment of younger brothers and sisters. She sang at local church events and for the entertainment of family friends and relatives, and her mother taught her to sing the old country ballads of the mountains.
Though many fans learned of her background the film adaptation of her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, the depth of her family’s poverty was downplayed in the movie, and when Loretta married Oliver “Mooney” Lynn, they moved all the way to Custer, Washington, to avoid the harsh coal-mining life. Soon, young Loretta was completely isolated from her family, and stuck in a cycle of domestic chores while tending to her brood of children. Music became her only outlet, and when her husband noticed her talent, he bought her a guitar at Sears.
She taught herself to play and began writing songs. By age 24, she was playing the local honky-tonks. Her husband Mooney, who she affectionately referred to as Doo, pushed her into a talent contest, which she won, leading to the president of the small Zero Records label financing a trip for Loretta to go record in Los Angeles. She recorded the single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl”, which was clearly influenced by Kitty Wells, right down to the title. Her husband shipped out copies of the single to stations across the country, and they set out on a three month road trip to promote the record, stopping at every radio station they could find.
The promotional trip pushed the record to #14 on the country singles chart, and the Lynns moved to Nashville to capitalize on its success. Lynn performed on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree, and he became a big early backer of Lynn, as did Patsy Cline, who also became one of her closest friends during her early days in Nashville. She was also helped along by the Wilburn Brothers, who were instrumental in getting Lynn signed to Decca, but also trapped her in a publishing contract that lost her a large amount of potential profits.
As the sixties progressed, Lynn became an Opry star, joining the cast in 1962. She began to score hits fairly regularly, including solo records like “Success,” “Wine, Women and Song” and “Blue Kentucky Girl”, and a series of hit duets with Tubb, the most successful being 1964’s “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be.” But she didn’t write any of her singles for Decca in those early years, even though she’d penned that one Zero Records hit that got the ball rolling.
It was when Lynn’s songwriting took center stage that she began making truly compelling music. It started with “Dear Uncle Sam”, her heartbreaking 1966 single that spoke candidly about the cost of war. Then, inspired by the women trying to win Doo’s affections, she released the biting “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, which made her a major star.
But it was her next single that truly broke down boundaries, as Lynn sang about her husband wanting sexual favors after he comes home loaded from a night out on the town. “Don’t Come Home a’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” was her first controversial hit, banned by many radio stations, but it still went #1, and the album of the same name was the first studio set by a female country artist to be certified gold, a mark it hit four years after its 1966 release.
Suddenly, Lynn was the biggest female star in country music, with Tammy Wynette her only rival for the title over the next few years. At the first CMA Awards in 1967, Lynn was named Female Vocalist of the Year. Emboldened by the success of her self-written singles, Lynn penned the bulk of her hits, creating several classics along the way. She continued to write about homewreckers on cutting hits like “Fist City” and she again tackled her husband’s cheating and drinking on “Your Squaw is on the Warpath.” But she also drew inspiration from her own childhood background, which led to her writing her signature tune.
Through the course of six verses, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” revisits Lynn’s childhood memories of Butcher Hollow. The song captivated audiences with its detailed recollections and strong statement of rural pride. Her producer, Owen Bradley, caught a grammar mistake that Lynn made in the opening line, “I was borned a coal miner’s daughter,” but left it in, as he felt it spoke to the authenticity of the song.
The early seventies brought Lynn to a peak in her popularity, as she won two more CMA Female Vocalist awards in 1972 & 1973, and became the first woman to win CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1972. The win was a shock. Even Mooney had skipped the show because he didn’t want to see her lose. She won the same honor from the ACM four years later.
Her top-selling records of the period were her fruitful collaborations with Conway Twitty. Their first collaboration, “After the Fire is Gone,” was an instant classic, winning them a Grammy and starting a four-year Vocal Duo streak for the pair at the CMAs. It was the first of five consecutive #1 singles for the duo, still a record among collaborations, and the ACM named their Feelins’ set Album of the Year. Their catalog sold so well over time that in the eighties, three of their releases were certified gold.
Lynn’s frustration over her publishing deal led her to stop writing in the mid-seventies, but her music still made an impact. She again courted controversy with her hit “The Pill,” which spoke about the joy of having sex without having to worry about getting pregnant. She also had one of her most popular albums in 1977, I Remember Patsy, her tribute to her friend and mentor. Lynn brought “She’s Got You” back to the top of the charts, fifteen years after Patsy first made it a hit.
in 1976, she released her acclaimed autobiography, which was turned into a film in 1980. The movie helped transform Lynn from a country singer to an American folk hero. Lynn attended the Academy Awards the following year with Sissy Spacek, who won Best Actress for her portrayal of Lynn. Spacek also won CMA Album of the Year for the movie’s soundtrack.
The increasing slickness of Nashville productions in the late seventies and early eighties led to a softening of Lynn’s sound, one that she never quite sounded comfortable with, and she had her last top ten hit in 1982 with “I Lie.” Though she recorded occasionally for the rest of the decade, including an attempt to do modern country on 1988’s Who Was That Stranger, she mostly focused on touring, where she remained a top draw.
Lynn was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988, the first female artist to join since her idol, Kitty Wells. In 1993, she had a top-selling album in Honky Tonk Angels, her collaboration with fellow legends Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. But Lynn faded from public view soon after, to care for her ailing husband, who passed away in 1996.
In 2000, Lynn released her first solo album in twelve years, Still Country, which again found her saddled with a contemporary sound, but was a much-needed return of her songwriting talent, as she penned the heartbreaking “I Can’t Hear the Music,” a tribute to her late husband, and one other track on the set.
Then, Lynn heard that a rock band called the White Stripes had dedicated an album to her, and invited them to dinner at her home. Thus began an unlikely partnership which produced her stunning 2004 album, Van Lear Rose. It was the first time since her Zero Records days that she wrote all of the songs on one of her albums, and White Stripes frontman Jack White produced it the old-fashioned way, forgoing modern studio technology to better replicate the spirit and sound of Lynn’s original records.
The album was a huge critical and commercial success, and won Lynn a pair of Grammys, including one for Best Country Album. While she had followed up her book Coal Miner’s Daughter with another autobiography, Still Woman Enough, she finally followed up the song of the same name. On the title cut, “The Story of My Life” and “Little Red Shoes,” she recounted more stories of her childhood and the long, strange journey that followed it. The brief but potent “God Makes No Mistakes” recalled her classic gospel hit, “Who Says God is Dead!” She also paid tribute again to her late husband, on the stark ballad “Miss Being Mrs.”
Van Lear Rose was a brilliant reminder of Lynn’s talent, not only of its depth but of the unique experiences that it draws from. She’s a solid singer, without a doubt, but it has been her incisive writing that has most made her a legend. Her pen was not only powerful enough to demolish the walls guarding taboo topics, but also to preserve an entire way of life that will never fade from the country’s collective consciousness as long as there’s someone, somewhere playing “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
- “Wine, Women and Song,” 1964
- “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” 1966
- “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” 1966
- “Fist City,” 1968
- “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” 1970
- “After the Fire is Gone” (with Conway Twitty), 1971
- “One’s on the Way,” 1971
- “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (with Conway Twitty), 1973
- “The Pill,” 1975
- “Portland, Oregon” (with Jack White), 2004
- You Ain’t Woman Enough (1966)
- Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind) (1967)
- Who Says God is Dead! (1968)
- Fist City (1968)
- Coal Miner’s Daughter (1971)
- I Remember Patsy (1977)
- Honky Tonk Angels (1993)
- Van Lear Rose (2004)
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1972, 1974, 1975 & 1976
- ACM Top Vocal Group (Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn), 1972, 1975, 1976 & 1977
- ACM Album (Feelins’), 1976
- ACM Entertainer, 1976
- ACM Artist of the Decade, 1980
- ACM Pioneer Award, 1995
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1967, 1972 & 1973
- CMA Entertainer, 1972
- CMA Vocal Duo (Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn), 1972, 1973, 1974 & 1975
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“After the Fire is Gone”), 1972
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Van Lear Rose), 2005
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“Portland, Oregon”), 2005
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1988