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The "First Lady of Country Music," Loretta Lynn's rise from a Kentucky cabin to the pinnacle of Nashville success was the quintessential American showbiz dream. Married at 13 and a mother of four by 18, Lynn taught herself to play guitar and write songs. Thanks to her talent, her husband's persistence and a little luck, Lynn broke into the music industry with her self-penned "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl." She achieved her greatest successes writing and singing a string of feisty, feminist songs the likes of which had never been heard on country radio, including "You Ain't Woman Enough" (1966), "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)" (1967) and "Fist City" (1968), singing for (and on behalf of) working-class women everywhere. Throughout the 1970s, she continued to top the charts, both alone and together with Conway Twitty in a series of successful duets, but it would be her autobiographical song "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1970) and the subsequent Oscar-winning movie (1980) that made Lynn a household name around the world. The winner of countless awards and accolades, Lynn created her most critically acclaimed work at age 70, the Jack White-produced LP Van Lear Rose (2004). Simultaneously...
The "First Lady of Country Music," Loretta Lynn's rise from a Kentucky cabin to the pinnacle of Nashville success was the quintessential American showbiz dream. Married at 13 and a mother of four by 18, Lynn taught herself to play guitar and write songs. Thanks to her talent, her husband's persistence and a little luck, Lynn broke into the music industry with her self-penned "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl." She achieved her greatest successes writing and singing a string of feisty, feminist songs the likes of which had never been heard on country radio, including "You Ain't Woman Enough" (1966), "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)" (1967) and "Fist City" (1968), singing for (and on behalf of) working-class women everywhere. Throughout the 1970s, she continued to top the charts, both alone and together with Conway Twitty in a series of successful duets, but it would be her autobiographical song "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1970) and the subsequent Oscar-winning movie (1980) that made Lynn a household name around the world. The winner of countless awards and accolades, Lynn created her most critically acclaimed work at age 70, the Jack White-produced LP Van Lear Rose (2004). Simultaneously representing a classic country influence as well as forward-thinking feminism, Lynn's impact on the genre and professional reputation were unmatched.
Born April 14, 1932 in Butcher Hollow, KY, Loretta Webb was literally born a coal miner's daughter, the second of eight children of Clara Marie and Melvin "Ted" Webb. Named after the movie star Loretta Young, she took the last name Lynn professionally after her marriage; her youngest sibling, Brenda Gail Webb, would later become the singer Crystal Gayle. The family eked out a hardscrabble living in the small mining community up in the mountains, although they shared a strong bond of love, religion and music. The young girl sang in churches and at a variety of local concerts, as well as with her family. Her life changed forever when she met 21-year-old Oliver Vanetta Lynn (aka "Doolittle," "Doo," or "Mooney," for moonshine) at a pie supper. Fresh from a stint in the military and determined not to become a coal miner, Doo married the 13-year-old Lynn and the two eventually moved to Custer, WA.
A mother of four by the age of 18, Lynn received a guitar from her husband as a present and taught herself to play it. The family was so poor that at times they had to subsist on dandelion greens, but Lynn discovered a talent for songwriting as she went about the duties of being a mother and housewife. At Doo's insistence, she began singing locally, and won a televised talent contest in Tacoma, where she was spotted by Norm Burley, who founded Zero Records just to record her. The young couple traveled the country, stopping at every local country radio station to promote her first single, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl." Written by Lynn, the song became a minor hit, and opened the door to the Wilburn Brothers' Publishing Company when the Lynns reached Nashville. Her demo records for the Wilburns served as an entrée to a major label, Decca Records, and she played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1960.
At the time, there were only a handful of successful female country singers, like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline - the latter of whom would take the young Lynn under her wing, coloring her sound and becoming her mentor as well as her best friend. In fact, Lynn's first Top Ten hit, 1962's "Success," reflected Cline's influence. As a personal thank you, Lynn named her youngest children, twins Peggy and Patsy, after Cline. Lynn's honky tonk hits from the period included 1964's "Before I'm Over You," "Wine, Women, and Song," and a string of duets with Ernest Tubb, starting with "Mr. and Mrs. Used To Be." Lynn racked up three additional solo hits in 1965: "Happy Birthday," "Blue Kentucky Girl" and "The Home You're Tearing Down." The 1966 single "Dear Uncle Sam," which tackled the Vietnam War, was the first song Lynn wrote to hit the Top Ten, and also represented an artistic shift, which saw Lynn writing more personal music. That same year, "You Ain't Woman Enough," a feisty challenge to a would-be husband stealer became a huge hit and a signature of Lynn's new style. Like so many of Lynn's songs, it was based on Doo's extramarital exploits. The two would have a lifelong rocky marriage, made even more difficult as Lynn's stardom grew and Doo's role became secondary.
The feminism Lynn espoused in her work was of a down-to-earth, country-rooted variety, appealing to the women who did not have the option to go to college, hold down a glamorous job, or burn a bra; who were instead forced to negotiate a man's world while raising children. Lynn was truly a pioneer, the first country music star to advocate for equality between the sexes and to sing with passion and a wicked sense of humor through her wordplay about a woman's right to stand up for herself. The battle cry of 1967's album and Lynn-penned "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (with Lovin' on Your Mind)" gave Lynn her first No. 1 single and gold record. The following year, she returned to the top of the country charts with the hit "Fist City" from the album of the same name. No one was writing music like Lynn's sassy anthems, and she not only sang to the beleaguered working woman, but also for her. Always quick with a clever song gimmick, she followed that up with the successful album/single "Your Squaw is on the Warpath" in 1968, and topped the charts in 1969 with "Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)."
Recognized as the biggest female star of her genre, Lynn was given the honorary title of "The First Lady of Country Music." She wrote herself a new sobriquet with her 1970 chart-topper "Coal Miner's Daughter." A stirring autobiography in song, "Daughter" paid tribute to the love and sacrifice of her parents as well as a long lost way of life. Powerful and heartfelt, the song immortalized Lynn's legend and became her ultimate signature song. Starting in 1971, Lynn launched a series of successful duets with Conway Twitty, hitting No. 1 with 1971's "After the Fire is Gone," 1971's "Lead Me On," 1973's "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," 1974's "As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone" and 1974's "Feelins'" as well as racking up seven Top 10 hits and a shelf-load of Country Music Association Awards. On her own, Lynn took the charming "One's on the Way" to the top of the charts in 1971 and had a Top 10 hit with her upbeat, self-penned anthem "You're Lookin' At Country." In 1972, Lynn became the first woman to win the CMA's most prestigious award, "Entertainer of the Year." In 1973, she returned to No. 1 with the comedic exploration of the troubles divorced women have, the controversial song "Rated X," and became the first country singer to appear on the cover of Newsweek. The next year, "Love Is the Foundation" flew to No. 1, she made the Top 5 with the bouncy "Hey Loretta," and again invited scandal with her 1975 ode to "The Pill."
Lynn's autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter, co-written with George Vecsey, came out in 1976 and was a runaway bestseller, featuring the outspoken and highly quotable singer's thoughts. One of the first country music biographies, the book became the standard against all others would be measured and won Lynn waves of fans across the spectrum. In 1977, she recorded a tribute album to Patsy Cline, sending Cline's former No. 1 hit "She's Got You" back to the penthouse, and the following year, took home her last No. 1, "Out of My Head and Back in My Bed." It was the film version of "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), however, that cemented Lynn's place as a cultural icon across the board.
A painstakingly crafted view of Lynn's life, the film starred Sissy Spacek as Lynn in an Oscar-winning performance, and co-starred Tommy Lee Jones as Doo and Beverly D'Angelo as Patsy Cline. An enormous hit with critics and audiences alike, the film also boasted a killer soundtrack - featuring Spacek and D'Angelo providing their own vocals - that wowed audiences and earned Spacek her own record deal. The success of the film augmented Lynn's growing legend, and became one of the best big-screen musical biographies. Her touring bus and her Tennessee ranch became familiar icons for fans, and she continued to draw crowds all across the country. A household name even among non-country fans, Lynn notched appearances on everything from "The Muppet Show" (Syndicated, 1976-1981) to "Hee Haw" (syndicated, 1969-1992) as well as commercials and several primetime TV specials. Despite these career high points, off the stage, real-life tragedy touched the star when Lynn's son Jack drowned in 1984.
While she continued to have chart success in the 1980s, country music audiences and tastes were changing, and Lynn, along with her contemporaries, struggled to find airplay and promotion. Instead, she focused more on touring and caring for her husband, whose health was declining. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988, Lynn earned another success with the 1993 trio album Honky Tonk Angels with Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, which featured the hit "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." The project's quiet success was bittersweet, however, because while it renewed interest in the careers of the three country icons, it also revealed how little room there was on the modern country scene for these veterans.
The Lynns' turbulent, often violent marriage ended in 1996 when Doo passed away. Although he was an alcoholic philanderer, Lynn acknowledged how crucial he had been to her success and how difficult his death was for her. She recorded the song "I Can't Hear the Music" on her 2000 album Still Country in tribute to him, but her days of chart dominance had passed. On the literary front, however, she enjoyed successes with her 2002 follow-up autobiography Still Woman Enough and her 2004 cookbook You're Cookin' It Country. Considered a mighty influence by subsequent generations of performers, Lynn was an idol of indie superstar Jack White, who had achieved great success as one-half of the band The White Stripes. To pay homage to her, the 28-year-old White produced the 70-year-old Lynn's 2004 album Van Lear Rose, which was an unexpected critical and commercial breakthrough, exposing new generations to the iconic country singer and winning her the best reviews of her career. Writing every song on the album save one, and singing them with her famous fire and conviction, Lynn won two Grammys: Best Country Album and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for her duet with White, "Portland, Oregon." Many critics considered the album not only the best of Lynn's career, but also the best album of 2004, bar none.
By Jonathan Riggs
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