Loretta Lynn: The Queen of Country Music
On the loss of a coal miner’s daughter.
On October 4, 2022, Loretta Lynn, the “Queen of Country Music,” passed away at her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. She was 90 years old.
Although she held pride of place among Nashville’s royalty, Loretta Lynn wasn’t born to it. Loretta Webb was born to a dirt-poor family from the Appalachian hills of Johnson County, Kentucky. Her famous autobiographical song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” released in 1971, details her humble beginnings:
I was borned a coal miner's daughter,
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler.
We were poor but we had love,
That's the one thing that daddy made sure of,
He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.
In January of 1948, Miss Webb married Oliver Vanetta "Doolittle" Lynn. She was 15. And it was no Cinderella story. “Doo,” as his friends and family styled him, was a hard-drinking, hard-hitting man. By the time she was 20, he had given her more than a lifetime’s worth of black eyes and busted lips; she, in turn, had given him four adoring children.
At some point she did learn to give as good as she received. “I didn’t really mean to knock his teeth out,” she said in her memoirs, Still Woman Enough. In the early 1950s, Doo came home three sheets to the wind and grabbed his young wife by the hair, while she still had a lap full of babies. “I set Earnest Ray on the floor but I still had Cissy in my arms,” Loretta recalled. Then, Loretta whirled around to punch Doo in the shoulder in an attempt to break free of his hold on her pin curls. “But I missed and hit him right in the mouth. Knocked three teeth out right there on the hardwood floor. Clack. Clack. Clack. There they were in tiny little pieces. And it seemed like they just kept fallin’.”
Against all odds, Loretta stayed with Doo for 48 years, until his death in 1996. He was among the first to recognize her talents as a vocalist, and even encouraged her to pursue a career in music. But he also was the inspiration behind many of her greatest and most iconic hits, the first of which was titled, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).”
“I wrote about what I was feeling at the time,” she said. “I wrote about my heartaches. I wrote about everything.”
And this “everything” includes the bittersweet memories of a daddy who worked himself to death, the womanizing ways of a husband she loved in spite of himself, and the death of her oldest boy, Jack Benny Lynn, who drowned in 1984.
Some have the mistaken impression that authentic country music always includes such things as trains and old dogs and mammas. But Loretta Lynn knew that the real secret lay just beneath the surface of the vicissitudes of life.
“The more you hurt, the better the song is. You put your whole heart into a song when you’re hurting.” Undoubtedly, this is what gives her music such a visceral quality. It pierces the ear and stings the heart, putting into words the unspoken hurts felt by so many whose dreams have been bludgeoned and bruised by the heavy hand of life.
Loretta Lynn sang of fisticuffs with homewreckers. She sang about the melancholy that accompanies unwanted pregnancies. She sang songs about husbands who loved, but always the wrong woman. Mostly, she sang about home, and all that entails. It was this ability to connect with the broken hearts of her hearers that propelled her to stardom as the leading lady of Music Row.
The road from Butcher Holler to Music City USA may have been paved with heartache, but it led her to a seat of honor. She landed her first hit in 1967, and her name was never absent from the charts for the next six decades. Loretta Lynn released more than 60 albums, recorded more than 160 songs, scored an impressive 50 top-ten hits with 16 number ones.
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She is recognized by such luminaries as Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Martina McBride, and Carrie Underwood as a trailblazer for women in the country music industry. In 1972, she became the first woman to be named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association. But this was only the first of many glass ceilings shattered by the feisty lady from the hills of Kentucky. Just a few years later, she was named artist of the decade by the Academy of Country Music. In 2013, she made it all the way to the White House where she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Life was never easy for Loretta Lynn. But she took all of its punches standing up, absorbing the hard knocks, and giving them back to the world as melodies of hope. She taught us to receive whatever dark obstacles Providence lays in our path as diamonds in the rough. But I suppose we should have expected no less from a coal miner’s daughter.
The Queen is dead, but the music lives on, the soundtrack of hard and glorious lives.