Loretta Lynn (born 1932) is an award-winning, groundbreaking American country-western singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur whose career has spanned nearly 60 years. Her songs, including 16 number-one hits, draw their authenticity from her life as a child of the backwoods of Kentucky who struggled to make a living and keep her volatile marriage together while raising six children.
Hard experience and the struggles of working-class women have formed the core of Loretta Lynn's music. Famed for basing her songs on her challenging marriage, and with the active encouragement of her alcoholic, womanizing husband, Lynn gained a reputation for fearless songwriting, personal toughness, and being an advocate of ordinary women. She rose to fame in the 1960s and was an established country superstar by the 1970s, although she received criticism and censorship from the country-western media when her songs advocated women's rights. The biographical 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter made her a household name, and collaborations with rock musicians gained Lynn a wider following among new generations into the 21st century.
Loretta Lynn was born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932, in Kentucky's Appalachian mining community of Van Lear. Her family home was in Butcher Hollow (locally pronounced “Holler”), a small valley with miner's houses dotting its hillsides, and she was the second of eight children born to Melvin Theodore (“Ted”) and Clara Marie (“Clary”) Webb. Like most of their neighbors, Ted Webb was a coal miner working in one of the five mines located in nearby Van Lear. Created by the coal mining company that originally bought the land, and owned by a succession of coal companies, Van Lear drew workers from the surrounding hills. The Webbs, like most in their community, were extremely poor and were subsistence farmers as well as miners. They were also, like their neighbors, quite musical.
“I thought everybody sang,” Lynn commented in her website biography, “because everybody up there in Butcher Holler did.” Her many relatives all played and sang the traditional music of the hill country, as well as newer country songs heard on the radio. Young Loretta was no exception; she enjoyed sitting on the porch swing and singing so loudly that her father asked her to hush. “When I was growing up with my sisters and brothers, we all sang and rocked the babies to sleep, but that was as far as we ever did,” she also recalled in a National Public Radio interview in 2010. Lynn had no clue that she would one day be well paid for her talents.
The hardscrabble life of the Kentucky hills encouraged young people to enter marriage early because it meant fewer mouths to feed for their parents and the promise of a stable partnership. At age 15, Lynn married Oliver Vanetta Lynn, a 21-year-old who was nicknamed “Doolittle” or “Doo” due to his tendency to “do little” and avoid work. Doo was a recent veteran of World War II, a worldwide conflict that had ended in September of 1945 after involving most of the world's industrialized nations. The couple met in December of 1947 and married a month later, on January 10, 1948.
Wishing to avoid the miner's life, Doolittle found work in faraway Custer, Washington. He had visited the Pacificcoast state as a boy and remembered the pure air and beautiful scenery. So a year after their marriage, he and his young wife packed their car and headed northwest, with Lynn seven months pregnant with their first child. The Lynns first worked at a dairy farm, where Doo was a farm hand and Loretta cooked for the crew. Because it was not steady work, Doo would leave for days at a time in search of supplemental employment. Lynn stayed home with their growing family, cleaning house, taking in laundry, and picking berries to keep food on their table.
There were no modern conveniences during this era: Lynn did laundry using a washboard and tub, and she cooked on a cast-iron coal stove. She also gardened and became such an expert at canning what she grew that her canned goods consistently took first place at the local county fair. While she did her chores and minded her children, Lynn also sang.
The more Doo listened to his wife sing around the house, the more he recognized her gift. He bought her a guitar for $17 and encouraged her to learn guitar accompaniments to her songs. Lynn took his suggestion and bought a country-music songbook. As she paged through the book, she became less intimidated, realizing that the lyrics and music were fairly simple and straightforward. Months into teaching herself to play the guitar she was taking a break from picking strawberries when a song idea hit. Lynn leaned against an outhouse wall and scribbled the lyrics to her first hit song, “I'm a Honky Tonk Girl,” on a brown paper bag.
Doo was certain that his wife's talent would be enjoyed by the public. He took her to a popular roadhouse in Blaine, Washington, and introduced her to the house band, asking that they give her a chance to sing on stage. When the arrived, Lynn screwed up her courage and sang “You Are My Sunshine,” a popular song written by future Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis in 1939. Impressed by both her talent and the crowd's reaction, the band invited her to sing with them regularly, paying her five dollars a show.
Within a few months, Lynn realized that it was time to move on. Her brother Jay Lee Webb, who played lead guitar, had by now also moved to Washington and she recruited him, along with the steel guitar player from the Blaine roadhouse. With Lynn on vocals and rhythm guitar, they performed under the stage name Loretta's Trail Blazers and got a steady gig at a local tavern. More venues were soon to follow.
Although Lynn was not altogether happy about being the family breadwinner—she admitted in later years that she would rather have remained at home with her children—Doo would hear no objections. With his constant encouragement, she threw herself into her new career, playing shows and entering talent contests, which she frequently won. When she won a television talent contest hosted by country star Buck Owens, Canadian viewers Norm Burley and Don Grashey were so impressed with her voice that they formed Zero Records to record her vocals. With their help, Doo and Loretta left the children with her mother and drove to Hollywood, California. In February 1960, she stood in a Hollywood studio and recorded four of her songs with professional studio backup that included Speedy West on pedal steel guitar, Roy Lanham on guitar, Muddy Berry on drums, and Harold Hensley on bass.
With boxes of her vinyl discs (with “Whispering Sea” on one side and “I'm a Honky Tonk Girl” on the other) in the trunk of Doo's Mercury sedan, the Lynns drove across the country with a list of radio stations to visit. Because money was scarce, they slept in the car most nights, and sometimes pilfered fruits and vegetables from gardens they passed along the way. The sacrifice paid off, however, when disc jockeys aired her single “I'm a Honky Tonk Girl” and it took off nationally. Quickly climbing the country-western charts, it landed at Number 14 by the time the Lynns arrived in Nashville, Tennessee.
With a popular song already to her credit, Lynn was welcomed at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville's premiere weekly radio broadcast and concert. This media powerhouse included top performers and served as a showcase for the best of country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel music among listeners in nearly 30 states, including Kentucky, where Lynn's family were regular listeners on their one battery-powered radio. Opry regulars Teddy and Doyle Wilburn were charmed by Lynn's refreshingly original songwriting style and invited her to perform on their television show. They also helped her get a recording contract with Decca Records. Star singer Patsy Cline also took the new arrival under her wing, helping Lynn with her wardrobe, makeup, and professional stage presence.
Lynn's star power shone on the Opry stage, and her first album with Decca Records contained the first of many number-one hits. Over the next two decades, her solo recording and touring, as well as wildly popular collaborations with male country stars Ernest Tubb and Conway Twitty, won her awards, hit records, and a huge following. In 1972, Lynn became the first woman to win the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award.
Lynn's songs of heartbreak, steely resolve, and hard-won lessons had a very real source of inspiration: her marriage to Doolittle Lynn. Along with being her biggest supporter, Doo was frequently drunk and entertaining himself with other women. The couple fought and made up; when Lynn broke Doo's teeth with a misplaced punch intended for his shoulder, he wore the gap as a badge of pride until they could afford to get it fixed. The anger, infidelity, and alcoholism were real, but so was their devotion to each other. Lynn wrote songs as a way to deal with the pain of her husband's misbehavior, and in doing so, she gave voice to feelings that were familiar and relatable to millions of women.
At the height of her superstardom in the 1970s, Lynn penned Coal Miner's Daughter, an autobiography as down-home and real as she was. With actress Sissy Spacek cast as Lynn, it became a hit movie in 1980, receiving seven Academy Awards and exposing Lynn to an even greater audience. The film chronicles the singer's Kentucky roots, her early marriage, and her hard road to success in Nashville. Lynn would revisit her life story in greater detail in her 2002 book Still Woman Enough, which was published six years after Doo's death in 1996.
Lynn began making the transition from country-music star to national icon during the late 20th century. After dominating the music charts in the '70s and '80s, she toured less as Doo's health failed in the early 1990s, focusing instead on studio projects such as a hit album with fellow country superstars Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. In 2004, she made a comeback with Van Lear Rose, an album produced by Jack White, a star of alternative rock. This critically acclaimed recording won Lynn legions of new and younger fans, burnishing her already legendary status. She was presented with Kennedy Center Honors in 2003, and ten years later she received the nation's highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As an icon of country music, Lynn maintained her recording schedule by working with John Carter Cash (the son of country-music legends Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash) and her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell as producers. Recording at the Cash Cabin Studio located on the Cash estate, she set down tracks for new material and revisited old hits and classics from her childhood, producing a musical legacy for her surviving children, 27 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren. In addition to serving as her home, the Loretta Lynn Ranch maintains a thriving tourist business and hosts several annual concert events featuring Lynn and her family and friends.
Lynn, Loretta, Coal Miner's Daughter, Vintage Books, 2010.
Lynn, Loretta, and Patsy Bale Cox, Still Woman Enough, Hyperion, 2002.
New York Times online, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/arts/music/loretta-lynn-mines-a-legacy-of-heartaches-andhigh-notes.html (February 25, 2016), Jon Pareles, “Loretta Lynn Mines a Legacy of Heartaches and High Notes.”
Northwest Prime Time online, http://northwestprimetime.com/news/2015/aug/29/loretta-lynn-how-country-superstar-gother-start-w/ (August 29, 2015), “Loretta Lynn: How the Country Superstar Got Her Start in Washington State.”
Loretta Lynn website, http://www.lorettalynn.com/bio/ (October 11, 2017), “Loretta Lynn.”
National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/2010/11/10/131097120/loretta-lynn-after-strife-a-full-life (November 10, 2010), “Loretta Lynn's Full Life.”□