Loretta Lynn Was Always Woman Enough

The country great left behind an indelible legacy

RIP Loretta Lynn (Image: Discogs)

Loretta Lynn, who passed away peacefully Tuesday at the age of 90, had a voice that transcended generations, one that ensured her continued relevance as one of country music’s most essential artists and celebrated superstars. 

From her humble upbringing in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky — famously recounted in the film based on her best-selling book, Coal Miner’s Daughter — to her celebrated partnership with Conway Twitty and then on to her solo success, she became a true superstar who epitomized the blue color ethic and all the struggles and stereotypes which defined those who dwelled in the poorest regions of Appalachia.

That said, Lynn never turned her back on her early origins. Her songs reflected the grit and determination that were integral to her inherent identity as a proud woman who overcame her limited means. Indeed, her story is the stuff of pure melodrama. At age 15 she was already married, betrothed to a man she had met only a month earlier. She gave birth to six children, some of them conceived while she was still in her teens. Her father died at age 52 from black lung disease, the scourge of the mining community, and it was her rollercoaster existence that inspired the classic songs that eventually made her the stuff of legend. After being gifted her first guitar at the age of 21, she formed her first band and eventually cut her first record, the self-penned single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” a tune that came to define her for years to come. 

 

AUDIO: Loretta Lynn “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”

Lynn’s move to Nashville in the early sixties resulted in near instant success. Her string of hits — “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Love on Your Mind),” “One’s on the Way,” “Fist City,” and of course, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” — defined her as a tough, tenacious and wholly independent woman who had no problem facing off against  her male counterparts. As a result, she became one of Music City’s most prominent female superstars, a woman who never sidestepped controversy even when faced with the backlash from a conservative country market. Even though her focus seemed centered on cheating husbands and meddling mistresses, she pushed the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, singing songs about the need for birth control (“The Pill”), the double standards that ill defined men and women (“Rated X”) and the tragedy of those whose husbands were forced to fight in unpopular overseas wars (“Dear Uncle Sam”).

The older sister of singer Crystal Gayle, Lynn paved the way for generations of women who would follow, and indeed, such diverse artists as Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile, Kelly Clarkson,  and innumerable others all owe Lynn a debt of gratitude for inspiring the truth and tenacity that she shared in her songs.

Happily then, she consistently received credit for her accomplishments, courtesy of numerous awards from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music, and the music industry in general, the latter evidenced by her three Grammy wins and 18 nominations.

Loretta Lynn (Image: Legacy Recordings)

Not surprisingly, she became the most celebrated female country music artist in history and the only woman to be named the Academy of Country Music’s Artist of the Decade. Credited with more than original160 songs and some 60 albums, she managed to attain ten number one albums and some sixteen singles that rose to number one on the country charts. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

Nevertheless, her fame spread far further than those accorded by country music alone. She was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama ten years later. She was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1977, a Billboard Legacy Award for Women in Music in 2015, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music, and had her song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” named one of the “100 Most Significant Songs of the 20th Century” by NPR. She authored best-selling books, and despite a life filled with trauma and tragedy — including the premature deaths of the majority of her offspring —  she never voiced regret or remorse.

She was also fiercely apolitical, motivated more by loyalty than the dogma of any political party. She became the first female solo country artist to perform at the White House during the administration of Richard Nixon and returned to appear for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Citing the fact that her father was a Republican and her mother a Democrat, she once stated, ”I don’t like to talk about things where you’re going to get one side or the other unhappy. My music has no politics.”

 

VIDEO: Loretta Lynn and Jack White perform on Letterman 

Remarkably, Lynn never rested on her laurels and she became an icon to a new younger generation of listeners swayed by Americana as well. Her 2004 album Van Lear Rose was produced by Jack White, sparking wild rumors that the two were carrying on an affair. Subsequent efforts — 2016’s Full Circle, 2018’s Wouldn’t It Be Great and, most recently, 2021’s Still Woman Enough — proved that her powers and prowess remained at full throttle well into her 80s.

Perhaps it’s best left to Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, to sum up Lynn’s legacy succinctly. “The story of Loretta Lynn’s life is unlike any other, yet she drew from that story a body of work that resonates with people who might never fully understand her bleak and remote childhood, her hardscrabble early days, or her adventures as a famous and beloved celebrity. In a music business that is often concerned with aspiration and fantasy, Loretta insisted on sharing her own brash and brave truth.”

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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