Loretta Lynn, the country-music singer-songwriter who revolutionized the role of women in Nashville, has died at the age of 90. Her family has confirmed that she passed away at home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
“It is not enough to say today that country music has lost Loretta Lynn, but rather the world has lost a true music legend,” says Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association. “Loretta was a woman whose contributions and impact inspired countless artists and transformed the country genre into a universal art form.
“She was a Country Music Hall of Fame member and the first woman to receive a CMA Award for Entertainer of the Year. As a trailblazing songwriter, she bravely wrote about socially and culturally relevant topics that came to define a generation. I’ll personally remember Loretta for her spirit, artistry and genius that rivaled contemporaries like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney.”
From her hardscrabble beginnings as the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in the mining town of Butcher Holler, Kentucky, where Lynn married and had four children before 20, to the indomitable twang of her distinctive voice, Lynn epitomized country music for generations of fans. When she sang, “If you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at country” in 1971, it wasn’t an idle boast.
That song was a Top 5 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country singles list and among dozens of chart hits Lynn scored during the ’60s and ’70s, including 11 solo number ones, plus five more with duet partner Conway Twitty. She had no fewer than 51 Top 10 singles, won three Grammy Awards, was the first woman named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year (in 1972), and was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In the new millennium, Lynn’s profile was buoyed again by her 2004 collaboration with Jack White of the White Stripes, Van Lear Rose.
Lynn’s early recordings had the strings and vocal choruses of the sweetened early-’60s ‘countrypolitan’ style. By mid-decade, her records became more unadorned and direct, both musically and lyrically, in the classic honky-tonk tradition. Chart-topping songs like 1970’s autobiographical, assertive “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” 1972’s lament of sexual double standards for divorced women, “Rated ‘X,’” and “The Pill” in 1975, broke down lyrical and thematic barriers for women singers in the country field. They also caused considerable controversy, including radio station bans.
Owen Bradley, who signed Lynn to Decca Records in 1960, saw her popularity as consonant with the rise of feminism. “Women’s lib was also coming on at that time,” he told Rock’n’Reel in 2016. “You have to be in the right place at the right time. And I think Loretta was standing right there.” In a 2004 interview with Uncut, Lynn would recall that Bradley had told her, “You’re the only girl singer who’s not afraid to walk in, tell it like it is, and walk out. I want you to keep that with you your whole recording life.” (The best overview of Lynn’s classic period is the 70-song Honky Tonk Girl, on Spotify.)
Lynn was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, on April 14, 1932. (For years, Lynn shaved three years off her age; prior to 2002, she was believed to have married at 13, not 15.) She and her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, had four children and lived on little money, but that would change after he bought her a guitar in 1953. Soon afterward, he persuaded a local country band to let Loretta sing. “I started singing and they put me right on the air,” Lynn recalled in a 1971 interview for The Great Speckled Bird. “But six months later I left this band and got my own.”
In 1960, Lynn issued her first single, “I’m a Honky-Tonk Girl,” on Zero, a small Canadian independent. Within months, Lynn and her family had moved to Nashville, and she signed with Decca Records. Her first country Top 10 hit, “Success,” came in 1962, the same year she joined the Grand Ole Opry. Lynn was part of a new breed of modern-minded country singers and songwriters – including Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, Bill Anderson, and Harlan Howard – who came to prominence in early-’60s Nashville and helped renew the style for a younger audience.
Lynn’s first No.1 hit came in early 1967. The saucy “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” co-written with Peggy Sue Wright, set her lyrical agenda in stone. In Rock’n’Reel, Lynn credited her success to “singing it like women lived it.” She also sang many songs by women writers, including three of her number ones.
It wasn’t just the music. Lynn’s personal struggles resonated intimately with her fans – a tumultuous marriage (Doolittle cheated on her repeatedly, she said after he died), and the drowning death of her son, Jack Benny Lynn, in 1984.
Lynn, in turn, was tightly connected to her fan community. Years before social media made it common for entertainers to interact one-on-one with their followers, Lynn nurtured her fan club. In 1972 she co-founded the annual Nashville Fan Fair, a week of meet-and-greets featuring many of country music’s biggest stars. For many years, Lynn held an annual ‘Pow Wow’ banquet for members of her fan club at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel during Fan Fair.
Lynn didn’t write all of her hits, but she penned many of the most important. In 1970, Decca issued Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em, a compilation of new and old music. The title cannily positioned her in the post-Dylan singer-songwriter lineage, the first of her many crossovers to the rock market.
Indeed, Lynn was one of country music’s shrewdest self-marketers. She was only the second Nashville star, after Johnny Cash, to write a memoir. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1976), co-authored with Donald Vecsey, became a bestseller, and that crossover intensified with a 1980 film adaptation directed by Michael Apted. Coal Miner’s Daughter was one of the year’s top-grossing films, earning a reported $100 million and critical plaudits (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film “fresh and immediate”). Sissy Spacek won a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrait of Lynn.
Lynn’s sales dipped through the eighties, but her legacy remained undimmed. In the mid-’80s, a new generation of Nashville stars, dubbed “neo-traditionalists,” were looking to Lynn’s unadorned style. Talking to Billboard in 1984, Reba McEntire dubbed her style “new Loretta Lynn.” In other words, Loretta Lynn was country music, just as she had said.
Lynn spent most of the 1990s attending to her husband, who died in 1996, just shy of 70. After a year of grieving, Lynn went back on tour. “I called my management and said, ‘Get me on the road – I’m losing it,’” she told the Detroit Metro Times in 2003. “I had to do something to get my mind straightened out, because it had stopped somewhere along the line.”
She returned to recording in the 2000s, most famously in 2004, with Van Lear Rose, produced by the White Stripes’ Jack White. The band’s 2001 album, White Blood Cells, was dedicated to Lynn. “My management called me and told me,” Lynn told the Detroit Metro Times, “[T]hey said, ‘Did you not know that they have “Rated X” out also?’ . . . I was shocked! . . . He did a great job.” Lynn found an unused song called “Portland, Oregon,” while preparing to record Van Lear Rose with White. “It’s a little uptempo thing, and I think he’ll like that one,” she said. The song became the album’s lead single, getting heavy Alternative Rock radio play.
Afterward, Lynn hardly slowed down despite physical ailment. In May 2017, she suffered a stroke, followed by a broken hip in January 2018, and became unable to tour. In 2021 Lynn issued Still Woman Enough, a set including guest appearances from some of Lynn’s artistic progeny – Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood, Margo Price – and spry remakes of several of her classic hits.
Reflecting on her run of news-making as well as chart-making hits like “Fist City,” “Rated X,” and “The Pill,” Lynn said, “I think about five songs that were banned for me, yet they went to number one and sold more than the others.” She continued, “But I thought, you know, let ’em holler. I just kept writing and singing.”
Listen to Loretta Lynn on uDiscover Music’s Outlaw & Disorder: Country Rebels playlist.