Lynn, Loretta (1935—)
Lynn, Loretta (1935—)
American country-music entertainer who was once the most popular female country star in America with a string of hits that appealed to working-class women. Born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1935, in Butcher Hollow, a poor coal mining district of rural Kentucky; daughter of Melvin Webb and Clara (Ramey) Webb; sister of Crystal Gayle (b. 1951, a singer); married Oliver Vanetta "Mooney" Lynn, on January 10, 1948 (died 1996); children: six, including (twins) Patsy Lynn and Peggy Lynn , who released their debut album The Lynns in 1998.
Married at 13, had four children by age 17, and was a grandmother at age 31; encouraged to sing by her husband as a way to earn money, began performing in small clubs and at agricultural fairs; recorded her first song (1960), driving cross-country from radio station to radio station with her husband to promote it; was eventually signed by Decca Records, for which she recorded her first hit song (1962); became the first woman to receive the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award (1972); was a familiar personality on network television and published a bestselling autobiography (1980), helping to make country music a mass-market phenomenon.
Highway 23 is an unremarkable stretch of state road meandering its way through the coal-mining country of northeastern Kentucky, hiding amid its strip malls and barbecue joints a natural resource that has, in its way, influenced America as much as the chunks of black anthracite that once fueled the nation. It was called "hillbilly music" back when Loretta Lynn sat barefoot in a schoolhouse in Butcher Hollow, before she took her place at the head of a parade of entertainers from coal country that turned hillbilly music into today's country music industry. The Kentucky group's more recent members include Patty Loveless (a distant cousin of Lynn's), Crystal Gayle (Lynn's youngest sister), Naomi and Wynonna Judd , Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yoakam; but it was Lynn who led the way almost 50 years earlier, teaching a nation just getting used to rock 'n' roll that country was cool.
Music was part of everyday life in the rural Kentucky of her childhood, far away from cities, telephones and nine-to-five jobs. It was a way to share troubles of the Depression and keep a sense of community. "Most of our songs were learned from friends and family," Lynn once noted, recalling that both her parents, as well as assorted uncles, aunts, and in-laws, chewed over the old traditional songs as easily as they did the latest gossip; and almost everyone could pick out a tune on a homemade banjo or guitar or mandolin. Her father Melvin Webb played the banjo, while her mother Clara Ramey Webb would often dance her "hillbilly hoedown" in front of the radio, tuned to the Grand Ol' Opry up in Nashville. Among Lynn's earliest memories were the songs she would sing to the six brothers and sisters who followed her own arrival in the Webb household on April 14, 1935. While she rocked the babies to sleep on the front porch of a mountain cabin that has become a country-music shrine, singing came as naturally to her as to anyone else in Butcher Hollow.
"I never rode in an automobile until I was twelve," Lynn proudly wrote in her first autobiography, an indication of the rural isolation in which she grew up. The "big city" to young Loretta was Van Lear, some 15 miles distant, a coal town built by the Consolidated Coal Company to house its miners and their families. It was the same company her father worked the mines for, but while Van Lear children attended school in a fine brick building, Loretta went to a one-room wooden shack down the valley from Butcher Hollow, where her attendance was infrequent enough that the written section of her test for a driver's license was a worry to her in later years. She slept on a pallet on the floor of her parents' cabin, wore shoes only during the winter, and consumed a diet that consisted of so much bread that eating a sandwich was difficult for her as an adult. Her first contact with a larger world came at 11 years of age, when her father installed a radio in the cabin. Saturday nights were spent listening to the Opry. "It was another world to me," Lynn later said, especially remembering the first time she heard Kitty Wells , the singer after whom she would model herself.
Loretta's marriage at 13, just after her father's death from black lung disease, has since become the stuff of country-music legend, not only because of her age but because the marriage lasted nearly 50 remarkable years. Loretta had known Oliver "Mooney" Lynn—or "Doolittle," as everyone in Butcher Hollow called him—since early childhood. Mooney was some 15 years older than Loretta and had just returned from World War II when he began courting her, even though she was still in what would today be thought of as junior high school. "Doo," as Loretta took to calling him, walked her home one night after a school social and gave her her first kiss. "The truth is I fell in love right there," she later said. "I can't explain it, but it felt so nice to be kissed by this boy that I fell in love." In later years, Mooney would claim that Loretta's mature figure had fooled him into thinking she was older and it wasn't until later in their courtship that he learned her true age. "But it didn't change my mind," he said. "When you're in love, it don't make no difference."
After a month of dating, and despite Clara Webb's warnings about her beau's reputation, Loretta and Doolittle were married on January 10, 1948. Four months later, Loretta was pregnant with the first of her six children. The marriage did not seem destined for success when, while she was two months pregnant, Mooney left her for another woman, although Loretta saw to it that her husband came back to her. "Sure, I've heard people say men are bound to run around a little bit," she once scoffed. "Well, shoot, I don't believe in double standards, where men can get away with things that women can't." Her attitude toward philandering husbands is summed up in the title of one of her most popular songs, "Fist City."
Her baby was born, not in Kentucky, but in Washington State, where Mooney had moved to take a job as the manager of a ranch. It was the first time Loretta had left the mountains of her childhood. By the time she was 17, she had given birth to three more children and joked that "now I keep my knees crossed instead of my fingers." It was no wonder that 20 years later, she saw the easy availability of birth-control pills as a blessing—an opinion she expressed in her 1975 hit "The Pill," with such lyrics as, "This incubator is over-used/ because you kept it filled." The record was controversial enough in those days that many radio stations refused to play it—radio stations, as Lynn pointed out, that were programmed by men. "I love my kids," Loretta told one journalist, "but I didn't get a chance to enjoy the first four kids, I had 'em so fast."
During much of her time in Washington State during the 1950s, Lynn settled into the life of a housewife. Although her eldest daughter recalls Loretta trying to imitate Kitty Wells songs heard on the radio, Lynn's dreams in those days were the modest hopes of millions of other American women in her situation. She wanted to own her own house, rather than the rented one Mooney had been given by his ranch bosses, and have enough money to order from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
It was Mooney who started her singing as a way to augment the family income, buying her a guitar and encouraging her to write her own songs. Early in 1960, Mooney arranged an audition for her at one of the local clubs, ignoring Loretta's protests that she was terrified of performing in public. To her surprise, the club's owners offered her a slot on the program for the following Saturday night, five dollars for her appearance, and a promise to record her performance and see that it was played on the local radio station. Although before her performance she spilled a cup of coffee on an audience member who turned out to be the state's governor, and tripped and fell during her entrance for her set, she was invited back for the next weekend. Before long, she was touring other local clubs with her first band, The Coalminers, although she was sure that her kind of music would never reach a wider audience. "People were kind of ashamed of country," she said of those days. "You had more fans for Perry Como and Doris Day than for Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells." But audiences at small bars, at state fairs, at military bases, seemed to like what she sang—cover versions of current hits, along with some of the old songs from the Kentucky mountains. Such was the purity and honesty of her style that, at one state-fair performance, even a horse-pulling contest in a field next to the stage failed to draw her audience of farmers away. When Loretta won first prize and $25 at a singing contest, Mooney began to think it was time to head for Nashville.
Lacking a demo recording, Mooney managed to get Lynn a guest spot on a local television program in Tacoma, Washington, then being hosted by a young Buck Owens. The program was seen as far north as Vancouver, where a wealthy lumber baron named Norman Burley decided that Loretta Lynn was the artist who could help him launch the recording label that was his favorite hobby. Burley offered to pay the recording studio bill for Loretta's demo, called "Honky-Tonk Girl." Lynn had written the tune after noticing a tearful woman who appeared night after night in one of the bars her band had played. "Ever since you left me," she wrote,
I've done nothin' but wrong…
Now I'm a honky-tonk girl.
Burley also agreed to finance a trip to Los Angeles to promote the record, and he provided them with a list of country radio stations between the West Coast and Nashville. By the time Loretta and Mooney had driven nearly non-stop from Washington to California and then east to Tennessee, stopping at every country station they could find with copies of Loretta's record, "Honky-Tonk Girl" had reached #14 on Billboard's national charts. It was her time on the road with Mooney that laid the base on which Loretta still says her astonishing success rests. "I wouldn't have nothing if it wasn't for my fans," she once said, and it was the hundreds of people she met on her way to Nashville that spread the word about her, that traveled miles to see her perform and who offered their homes as rest stops. Four sisters in Colorado were so enamored of her music that they formed her first national fan club and became close friends. Arriving in Nashville in July 1960, Mooney arranged three or four dates a week in small clubs, while Loretta began using what she saw of the rough and tumble world of bar brawls and all-night gigs to write new material with titles like "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" and "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin (With Lovin' on Your Mind)."
They put your records on the jukebox at the Truck Stop Inn
And I spend a dollar on you every night, Loretta Lynn.
—From "I Love You, Loretta Lynn," by Johnny Durham, 1964.
On October 15, 1960, Lynn made her first appearance at the Grand Ol' Opry, the venerable radio show she had listened to with her parents back in Butcher Hollow. By the end of the year, after several more invitations to perform for the Opry, she was named one of its Promising Young Female Singers, had signed a management contract with the Wilburn Brothers, a popular country act on the Opry which also ran its own talent agency, and under their guidance had recorded her second song, "Fool Number One," for Decca Records. (Norm Burley had graciously torn up the contract Lynn had signed with him back in Vancouver.) Decca promoted Lynn as "The Decca Doll from Kentucky" and assigned her to the producer who would bring her to national fame, Owen Bradley. "Just pronounce the words the way you want, Loretta," Bradley told her, realizing that it was Lynn's natural, unsophisticated style and her plain-talking lyrics that might appeal to listeners outside the traditional country market. By the fall of 1961, Loretta and Mooney had become permanent residents of Nashville, a decision confirmed a year later when Lynn's Decca title "Success" became her first #1 hit.
Her meteoric rise to stardom attracted critics, not a few of whom were other female country singers still looking for their first invitation to step onto the Opry stage. Loretta denied the inevitable rumors about favors, attributing her success to a combination of the right material, the right producer, the right manager, and plain old hard work. On tour in 1962, for example, she played 42 dates in just 25 days, all of them at agricultural fairs, and she went to the best talent in the business to learn her craft. One of her mentors was the great Patsy Cline who, just before her death in a plane crash in 1963, accurately predicted that Loretta would be named the top female country performer in the nation. "I had some sorry times before I got things right," Lynn once admitted, from her difficulty in learning to smile even when she was terrified to the time her first pair of panty hose proved too large and fell down around her ankles in the middle of a set. From then on, she took care to appear on stage in jeans and a cowboy hat, although it was not lost on her that her misfortunes only made her audiences more fond of her. "I'm proud and I've got my own ideas," she said, "but I ain't no better than anyone else. I think I reach people because I'm with 'em, not apart from 'em."
In 1964, as Patsy Cline had foreseen, Lynn was named Billboard's Top Female Vocalist after her first album, Loretta Lynn Sings, reached #1 on the magazine's country charts. She had by then played 17 straight shows at the Opry and had been formally inducted into that grand old group of performers. But even bigger things were in store, for Loretta and Mooney sensed that changes were afoot in what had been until then a relatively insular category of American music. "It was time for country music to get bigger," she once said of the late 1960s, and claimed that the artist who made it possible was not a country performer but soul master Ray Charles. Both country music and soul music, she said, were "about people letting their feelings out," and Charles' hit of that time, "I Can't Stop Loving You," subtly appropriated country-inspired backup vocals and instrumentation and led an entirely new audience toward country music. It was an audience ready for Loretta Lynn.
With songs like "Blue Kentucky Girl," "Somebody, Somewhere" and her signature, "Coal Miner's Daughter," Loretta Lynn's horizons expanded far beyond the confines of country music; and by picking up on social trends of the late 1960s and early 1970s with numbers like "The Pill" and "We've Come a Long Way Baby," she became an unlikely heroine of the feminist
movement. Such was her ability to bring country home to America, and particularly American women, that in 1972 she became the first woman named as the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Billboard named her a second time as its Top Female Vocalist; and in 1975, Lynn won the Academy of Country Music's prestigious Entertainer of the Year award. Her personal life seemed blessed, too, beginning with the birth of twin girls in 1964 and followed by the purchase of an old farm house and nearly 1,500 acres of land south-west of Nashville. The house also came with an entire town—Hurricane Mills, an old coal town that was then on the verge of crumbling into the Tennessee dust. Best of all, her marriage to Mooney survived intact. "Really, we're so entirely different," Loretta marveled at the time. "It's a wonder we've stayed together."
But inevitably, the pressures began to mount. An ominous sign was Lynn's ill-fated concern for the widows of 38 coal miners who had died in an explosion in Hyden, Kentucky, early in 1971. Although she raised nearly $100,000 through a grueling series of benefit concerts during the rest of that year, her insistence that the money be put in a trust fund for the education of the miners' children brought a protracted lawsuit from the widows, who accused her of purposefully withholding the funds. Lynn was forced to relent and agree to a plan to divide the money evenly. Then came her painful breakup with the Wilburns, who had represented her for ten years. The separation and legal acrimony that resulted was so severe that Lynn stopped eating for days at a time, developed
severe migraine headaches, and passed out so frequently on stage that rumors began to spread she had become an alcoholic. Even worse, two tumors were discovered in her right breast in 1972. She was hospitalized nine times that year, including once for an allergic reaction to a migraine medication so severe she nearly died. It was two years before her life returned to normal, helped by Mooney's purchase of a home in Mexico where Loretta was safe from the pressures of her career and found the rest she so badly needed.
By the late 1970s, Lynn was back on the road, appearing on national television and, with the publication of her autobiography Coal Miner's Daughter in 1976, finding herself drawn to Hollywood to serve as co-writer of the feature film of the same name which appeared in 1980, starring Sissy Spacek . Loretta and Mooney formed several satellite businesses based on her fame—a music publishing company, a chain of stores selling western clothing, not to mention the Loretta Lynn Museum, the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch and touring rodeo show, and the talent management firm she created in partnership with Conway Twitty.
But the death of her eldest son Jack, who fell from his horse into a rain-swollen river in 1984, at age 34, marked the beginning of another decline. Mooney had developed severe diabetes coupled with heart disease, and by 1990 Loretta was spending most of her time at Hurricane Mills, tending to him until his death in 1996. The death of her husband of nearly 50 years was followed by the passing of Owen Bradley, several of her relatives from Butcher Hollow, and the death of Tammy Wynette , who had been a close friend. Any hopes of reviving her career after these losses seemed dashed when doctors discovered that a breast implant she had undergone 20 years earlier had broken and leaked silicone over much of the right side of her torso, requiring surgery on her rib cage and right arm.
So it was with some surprise that Nashville learned in late 1998 that Loretta Lynn, at 64, was going back on the road and had written enough songs to record a new album. "We're still honky-tonking," the original Honky-Tonk Girl told a sold-out crowd at New York's Town Hall in the spring of 1999. "When love and honky-tonk and the Bible go out of style, it's over." It seems that Loretta Lynn intends to keep all three going for quite some time yet.
Lynn, Loretta, with George Vecsey. Coal Miner's Daughter. Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1976.
Pareles, Jon. "When Country Sang to Just Plain Folks," in The New York Times. May 15, 1999.
Coal Miner's Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones; directed by Michael Apted. Universal Pictures, 1980.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York