Country Music Artist & Survivor
The American music format we know as country, has its origin in the Appalachia/Southern area, and so much of it and many of the artists are from that area. Also, many of these artists have a background that enables their songs to reflect the lives of their listeners. In fact today and in the past many of these singers/musicians shared the same rural/mountain background as their fans. And because many of the artists wrote their own songs the lyrics reflected the experiences of both artist and listener.
One of these artists was the immensely popular and award winning Loretta Lynn, whose songs reflected her life as a struggling wife and mother, coping with an abusive marriage and poverty. And it could be said that Loretta’s fans loved her not just because of her talent but because they knew she had lived what she sang about. For they could believe that her song that called her a “coal miner’s daughter” was the actual truth.
It also might be said that Loretta’s musical talents, her song lyrics that described her struggles and her devotion to her fans, enabled her success and popularity.
Loretta Webb was born in April 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, as the oldest daughter and second child of a family of eight. She was named for movie star Loretta Young. Her father Ted farmed part-time, but mostly he was indeed a coal miner, who suffered from black lung disease. However, he died of a stroke several years later after his family moved to Indiana. He was 52.
In January, 1948 a month after meeting him at a pie social there in Butcher Holler, Loretta met and married a neighbor named Oliver V. Lynn. He was known as “Doolittle” or “Mooney” (because he sometimes was a bootlegger dealing in moonshine). Doo (as Loretta called him) had served in the army during World War II and was an ill-educated 21-year-old who considered a n’er do well by his neighbors. (Loretta was just 15 when she married him).
With Loretta pregnant with their first child, they moved to Custer, Washington for Doo to find a job. Once settled Loretta was very busy being a wife and mother—by age 19 she had three children (of an eventual six) and had to deal with an often abusive husband and an unstable marriage. Yet they stayed together—for an eventual 50 years—something that was indeed unusual among other country stars.
Loretta wrote in an autobiography: “I married Doo when I wasn’t but a child, and he was my life from that day on. But as important as my youth and upbringing was, there’s something else that made me stick to Doo. He thought I was something special, more special than anyone else in the world, and he never let me forget it… Doo was my security, my safety net…” Loretta realized that Doo was not flawless but they remained committed. Though there were arguments, she added, “He never hit me one time that I didn’t hit him back twice.”
One music critic gave some insight into the relationship: “When you shake off the stardust in this tale, what you must begin with is an uneducated child from one of the most isolated cultures in the United States who was given in marriage to a man six years her senior, a man who was a violent and sometimes brutal alcoholic, who was similarly uneducated and without any job skills to speak of.” Their move to Washington plus the many children and poverty (at one time all they had to eat were dandelion greens) also added to the struggle. The critic summarized about Loretta’s success: “But what actually happened was so improbable, so unimaginable, that the lives of Loretta and Mooney Lynn became one of the great legends of the 20th century.”
Music had always been a part of Loretta’s family experience, and Doo encouraged her once in Washington, by buying a $17 guitar and she taught herself to play it. Often singing her own songs, she began to appear in local clubs often accompanied by her own band, which included her brother. Over time she attracted a fan base as well as the attention of music promoters and then she began to record. Her first record I’m a Honky Tonk Girl was released in 1960 and was her own composition.
Club appearances were helpful for an up and coming artist, but what was most important for success was getting DJ’s on country stations to play her record. So while the record company arranged some of this notification, particularly on the west coast, the Lynn family themselves did their part and set off on tour to visit each station to meet DJ’s and personally plug the recording. By the time Loretta got to Nashville the song was already climbing the charts. There were more hits as she continued to record and by the end of 1960 Loretta was announced as the Most Promising Country Female Artist.
As she continued to perform and record, she appeared in the most prestigious venue for country music—the Grand Ole Opry. She also became close friends with other women pioneers in country music like Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline, whom Loretta considered her mentor.
Then in 1967 her latest release, Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind) reached number one on the country charts. Another instant hit was You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take my Man) and her 1970 hit Coal Miner’s Daughter also topped the charts. It was also the title of her 1976 autobiography which remained a best seller for many weeks.
Honors began to gather for her as a solo artist, as when she became was the first country artist on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and in 1972 she won Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards event.
Her success was encouraged and enabled possibly because of the many fans that she treasured. When a newspaper editor commented that she signed so many autographs at her shows, she responded: “These people are my fans; I’ll stay here until the very last one wants my autograph. Without these people I am nobody. I love these people.”
Then when her autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter was made into a movie with Sissy Spacek as Loretta and Tommy Lee Jones as Doo. It won Spacek an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1980.
Her dedication to her fans came to culmination early when she opened her home at Hurricane Mills, Tennessee as a tourist destination. It featured a recording studio, museums, lodging and restaurant plus retail outlets. She would appear there in concerts there on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
Doo died in August 22, 1996 from diabetes related health issues and heart failure.
Loretta’s health failed gradually but she continued to tour and record even as she struggled with pneumonia and a fall in her home. Then in May, 2017 after suffering a stroke, she was hospitalized and her tour dates cancelled. Her last album was released in 2018 and then Loretta herself passed away in October, 2022 at age 90. She was buried beside her husband on the Hurricane Mills ranch.
Like many country artists, Loretta Lynn’s music reflected a life of struggle. But despite her fame and wealth she remained a genuine person.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.