Scotsman Obituaries: Loretta Lynn, country star who wrote songs with a caustic bite

Loretta Lynn, singer-songwriter. Born: 14 April, 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Died: 4 October, 2022 in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, aged 90

Loretta Lynn performing in Nashville in 2015 (Picture: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music)
Loretta Lynn performing in Nashville in 2015 (Picture: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music)

One of the giants of country music – or any music – has died aged 90. Loretta Lynn was the teenage mum who started her career writing songs on a $17 guitar and went on to become the most awarded woman in country music history, leaving a rich and extensive catalogue of gleefully caustic standards boasting titles to conjure with – from Out of My Head and Back in Your Bed to You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.

Lynn flourished during country music’s golden age of big hair, rhinestone glamour and domestic drama. She was a trailblazing songwriter, who didn’t have to look far for inspiration, using her own volatile marriage as lyrical fodder, and boldly countering the American dream wife image of submissive servitude with liberated anthems such as The Pill and We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.

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Like her peer Dolly Parton, she celebrated her humble roots in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Her hardscrabble upbringing, marital travails and stellar music career were captured in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the country icon. In later years, Lynn turned her ranch in Tennessee into a living museum and tourist attraction.

President Barack Obama awards Loretta Lynn the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2013 (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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She was an astute businesswoman but her songwriting was always front and centre in a career which spanned six decades. Lynn was the first country star to feature on the cover of Newsweek. At the height of her success in the Seventies, she was named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music, and later Artist of a Lifetime by country music channel CMT. She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters, Country Music and Songwriters Halls of Fame and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

She formed a country music sisterhood with her friends Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette and enjoyed successful songwriting partnerships with Ernest Tubbs and then Conway Twitty, the latter producing ten duet albums, before a career revival in the Noughties with the Grammy-winning Van Lear Rose album, produced by longtime fan Jack White, who hailed her as “the greatest female singer/songwriter of the 20thcentury”.

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Lynn was born Loretta Webb in the coal mining community of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Clary and Ted Webb named their second child and eldest daughter after film star Loretta Young and she was brought up in the archetypal log cabin on a hill alongside seven siblings, several of whom went on to enjoy careers in country music. The youngest, Brenda Gail, adopted the stage name Crystal Gayle and launched her singing career with a song, I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out Of My Eyes, written by her eldest sister.

Lynn came (relatively) late to music. First, there was marriage at fifteen to Oliver Vanetta Lynn, after a month-long courtship. The couple moved to Custer, Washington where they raised a family of six – four born before Lynn had turned twenty. Her husband was nicknamed Mooney after his love of moonshine whisky, and Doolittle after his work ethic, but he can be credited with buying his wife her first guitar and then providing endless lyrical material – Doolittle was an alcoholic and serially unfaithful to boot, though it was often the “other woman” who was on the receiving end of his wife’s ire on songs such as Fist City.

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Loretta Lynn performs on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in the1960s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Recognition came quickly after she formed Loretta and the Trailblazers, with brother Jay Lee on guitar, and started gigging locally. Lynn’s first single I’m a Honky Tonk Girl was released in 1960 on Zero Records, a label founded by Norm Burley specially to release her music. Her contract was swiftly purchased by Decca Records and, within the year, she toured the US, made her Grand Ole Opry debut, and was listed by Billboard magazine as one of the most promising female country artists.

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Her first Decca single, Success, was a top ten country hit, its rueful lyrics (“success has made a failure of our home”) setting the tone for subsequent conjugal vignettes Mr and Mrs Used to Be and The Home You’re Tearing Down. Lynn was the first female country artist to write her own Number One, You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man). She was partial to a candid kiss-off – other stories-in-the-title included Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone), You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me) and the immortal Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).

She was lyrically outspoken on other topics. Her 1966 hit Dear Uncle Sam counted the personal cost of the Vietnam War. The Pill celebrated birth control (“I’m tearing down your brooder house, cause now I’ve got the pill”) as a counterpoint to the domestic drudgery of her Shel Silverstein-penned hit One’s on the Way. Lynn pushed boundaries and occasionally fell foul of radio censors yet she was wary of being linked with the women’s liberation movement, despite referencing the term in another Silverstein number Hey Loretta.

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Her signature song Coal Miner’s Daughter crossed over from the country charts to the Billboard Hot 100. Lynn used the title again for her 1976 autobiography and the subsequent biopic took her life story into the multiplexes at a time when her own career was slowing down.

She received a late career boost in 2004, working with Jack White on the self-penned Van Lear Rose and made the most of her renaissance, recording four subsequent albums including her final release Still Woman Enough, which was produced by her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, and featured guest appearances by her musical descendants Carrie Underwood and Reba McIntyre.

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Loretta Lynn died in her sleep at her Hurricane Mills ranch and was buried on site beside her late husband. She is survived by four of her children, Clara, Ernest and twins Peggy and Patsy.

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