Loretta Lynn’s warmth and honesty helped make her a top country music star of the 1960s and 1970s. She was born Loretta Webb on April 15, 1935, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Loretta was raised in poverty, the second of eight children living in a small cabin without running water or electricity. A bright spot of her youth was listening to the Grand Ole Opry, the Saturday night radio show featuring the best acts in country and western music.
In 1949, 14-year-old Loretta met Oliver Vanetta Lynn, who was also known by the nicknames “Doolittle” and “Mooney” (the latter a reference to his affection for moonshine whiskey). After a month-long courtship, the two were married. Mooney took Loretta to live in Custer, Washington, where he worked in the timber industry. By the time she was 18, she had four children to care for. Encouraging Loretta’s love of singing, Mooney bought her a 20-dollar guitar, which she taught herself to play by listening to records by country legend Kitty Wells. Mooney soon was pressuring her to play and sing in public. Though initially Loretta was too shy to enjoy performing, slowly she began to warm to playing in clubs and on a local television show hosted by singer Buck Owens. In 1959, Loretta Lynn inspired a wealthy fan to establish Zero Records, solely to market her music. To sell her first record, “Now I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” she and Mooney took to the road. In their 1955 Ford, they covered some 80,000 miles, traveling from radio station to radio station to promote “Honky Tonk Girl” to disc jockeys. Amazingly, their grassroots efforts moved the single up the country charts, where it peaked at number 10.
The Lynns moved to Nashville, and Loretta secured a record deal with Decca in 1962. The next year, she was made a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Singing regularly in clubs and at fairs, she often opened for PATSY CLINE, who took the young singer under her wing. After Cline’s death in a plane crash in 1963, Lynn effectively took over her spot as the leading female country singer. Like other female stars of the genre, Lynn primarily sang about the troubles of rural women in traditional marriages. Unlike them, however, her songs were often rally cries for assertiveness, many of which she wrote herself, drawing on her own experiences. Among her hits that had special meaning for her female fans were “Don’t come Home ADrinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind,” “One’s on the Way,” “Fist City,” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Particularly notorious was Lynn’s song “The Pill” (1975), a celebration of the personal freedom birth control gave to women. Released at the height of the women’s movement, the record was deemed so controversial that many radio stations refused to play it.
After a string of hits, including a series of popular duets with Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn emerged as crossover phenomenon by the mid1970s. Although her sound remained faithful to traditional country, she appealed to a mainstream audience, in large part because of the homespun wit she displayed in her concerts and in television appearances. The public’s fascination with Lynn as a personality peaked in 1976 with the publication of her best-selling autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter. Her engaging rags-to-riches story became a successful film in 1980. Her popularity took its toll on her health, however. Exhausted by constant touring, Lynn collapsed onstage several times and suffered from migraines and ulcers. In the 1980s, she began to slow her pace; at the same time country music began to embrace a pop sound. One example of the new style of country was the music of Lynn’s younger sister, Crystal Gayle, who had become one of the genre’s brightest stars. As the music scene changed, Lynn began to restrict her public appearances, especially after the drowning death of her son Jack Benny in 1984.
In 1993 Lynn teamed up with two other country legends—TAMMY WYNETTE and DOLLY PARTON—to record the album Honky Tonk Angels. During the rest of the decade, however, little was heard from Lynn. She retreated to her mansion outside of Nashville to care for Mooney, who was ill from diabetes. Over six years, he lost his eyesight, his hearing, and both of his legs before dying from the disease in 1996.
Four years later, Lynn made her long-awaited return to studio recording with Still Country, her first album of new songs since 1988. She also wrote a second autobiography, Still Woman Enough (2001). While promoting her comeback projects, Lynn acknowledged that, during her absence from the music business, country had become more slick and pop-infused than ever before. But with characteristic confidence, she refused to recast herself to suit popular tastes. “I never left country music, everyone else did,” Lynn claimed in a 2000 interview. “It’s made me a good livin’. Why should I go in another directionfi”
Lynn, Loretta, with George Vecsey. Coal Miner’s Daughter. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Biography: Loretta Lynn. A&E Home Video, VHS, 1996.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). Universal, VHS, 2000.
Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection. MCA, CD, 1994.
Loretta Lynn: In Concert. Mercury Nashville, VHS, 1992.