Country Music Queen Loretta Lynn Dead at Age 90
It hurts like a slap in the face with a coal shovel. Loretta Lynn has left us.
She died in her sleep Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, at age 90, according to a statement from her family.
The coal-dusted queen of country leaves behind a rent in the landscape impossible to fill. Her unique approach and delivery left competitors in the dust from the first time she climbed out of her native Butcher Holler, Kentucky, homestead to share her gift with the world.
Born in 1932, Lynn was married at 16 to Oliver Lynn. The couple left Kentucky for Custer, Washington, with Lynn, whom Loretta called Doolittle or Doo, working at logging camps to support their four children — all of whom Loretta gave birth to before her 20th birthday. She worked as a cook and a maid at a ranch, working seven days a week. Loretta never gave much thought to a career in music. But Doo heard her singing her babies to sleep and was convinced that his wife had as much talent as Kitty Wells.
He pushed Loretta to perform, but she was not a willing subject. “I like to have died,” Loretta told me in a 2001 interview. “I thought, ‘Lord, have mercy! My husband’s gone crazy and he’s gonna kill me!’” The stress from thinking about performing gave her weekly migraines, but she pushed through it, and with hands-on help from Doo embarked on a cross-country tour of radio stations to plug her 1960 debut single “Honky-Tonk Girl,” which she described as a “little rock-country record.”
Relocating to Nashville later that year, Lynn was hired as a featured singer by Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, who had a weekly Saturday night TV show as The Wilburn Brothers broadcast on local stations. Despite Lynn’s earlier trepidations about performing, the show captured a singer who was relaxed and funny while delivering a blistering performance every time she stepped up to the mic.
She made her Grand Ole Opry that same year, and two years later had her first top-ten hit with “Success.” Her first album, 1963’s Loretta Lynn Sings, went to number two on the country charts. “You Ain’t Woman Enough” in 1966 got her back on the charts at number two, and Lynn hung out at the top with follow-ups like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’,” her first number one; “Fist City” in 1968; and 1970’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
She got her first Grammy in 1971 for a duet with Conway Twitty on “After the Fire Is Gone,” setting up a professional relationship that would yield more hits, including “Lead Me On” and “Louisiana Woman.”
Lynn was not afraid of controversy, once claiming that as many as 14 of her songs had been initially banned from radio, including 1966’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin,” 1968’s “Fist City,” 1971’s “One’s on the Way,” 1970’s “Wings Upon Your Horns,” and, most famously, “Rated X” in 1973 and “The Pill” two years later.
In “The Pill,” she informs her beloved that “This incubator is overused / Because you’ve kept it filled … You’ve set this chicken your last time / ‘Cause now I’ve got the pill.” Over 60 radio stations banned the song from their playlists at the time. “Rated X” ruffled feathers with lyrics like “If you’ve been a married woman / And things didn’t seem to work out / Divorce is the key to bein’ loose and free,” and, later in the song, “You can’t have a male friend when you’re a has been / Or a woman, you’re rated X.”
Lynn was an advocate for women’s rights, albeit an unwitting one. She has said that she wasn’t aware she was writing about things that nobody would talk about in public. “I thought, ‘Well, gee, this is what’s going on; I’ll write about it,’” she told Robert K. Oermann in a 2004 MusicWorld interview. “I was writing about life.”
Her candid comments on what she was going through inspired other country music legends as well. Tanya Tucker praised Lynn’s truth-telling songs as an influence, as did Tammy Wynette, who admitted that Lynn’s honesty and sincerity paved the way for her. Lynn’s influence continues in a new generation of female country artists, including Brandy Clark, whose 2013 hit “Hungover” sounds right out of the Loretta Lynn playbook: “Got a little bit stronger, got a little bit older / All while you were hungover / I got a good start on startin’ over / All while you were hungover.” Gretchen Wilson (“Redneck Woman”) and Margo Price (“Hurtin’ on the Bottle”) are also disciples, along with Kacey Musgraves (“High Horse”).
Lynn also was outspoken about the dangers of silicone breast implants. “You women out there that have breast implants, it is dangerous. Have them jerked out,” she told Country Weekly magazine in 1998 after a scare that almost killed her when leaking silicone became attached to her rib cage and backbone.
Her 1976 autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, with its revelations of her turbulent relationship with her husband, hit the bestseller list, and the film adaptation in 1980 won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn.
Still Woman Enough
Even though her chart success was waning in the 1980s, Lynn still held on to the spotlight with 1982’s “I Lie,” and she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988. Lynn cut back her performing and recording to care for her husband, who had multiple health issues and passed away in 1996.
She appeared on 1993’s Honky Tonk Angels album with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette and had a TV variety show in 1995, Loretta Lynn & Friends. In 2002, she wrote another memoir, Still Woman Enough. “It didn’t start with where the Coal Miner’s Daughter ended, it started with my first memory and ended with the last thought that was on my mind,” Lynn said.
She crossed the radar of new generations in the new century with a partnership with Jack White that included performing with his band The White Stripes, and White produced her 2004 Grammy-winning Van Lear Rose.
Poor health sidelined her for a while in the mid-2000s, but she still managed to tour sporadically and in 2016 recorded Full Circle, produced by daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash. Lynn suffered a stroke in 2018 at age 85 that further curtailed her activities, but she bounced back in 2021 with Still Woman Enough, guest-starring Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Margo Price, and Tanya Tucker.
Lynn’s music always brought a smile even when she was being as serious as a no-holds-barred hellcat. You always knew where you stood with her. Mess with her man and she’d take you to Fist City. Come home a-drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, buddy, and end up homeless. Try and take her beloved? Well honey, you ain’t woman enough, so get out while you can.
She wrote those downhome parables herself, always proud of her humble upbringing and the homespun values she carried like a banner. She had no real competition. Her powerful voice, wry sense of humor and no-nonsense attitude coupled with a sweetness that made everybody she came in contact with feel like a lifelong friend earned her a massive fan base that never diminished. Call her up for an interview and two minutes later she’d invite you to drop by to share the pot of stringbeans she was stirring on the stove. In concert, she encouraged audiences to shout out what they wanted to hear, and she obliged.
Her persona was so powerful that some who channeled her could not escape her gravitational pull afterward. In our 2001 interview, Lynn recounted warning Sissy Spacek, who portrayed Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, that “this is one movie that never will leave you.” Spacek had absorbed Lynn’s persona and sound to the point that when Lynn brought Spacek onstage with her at the Grand Ole Opry, even fellow performers could not tell who was singing on “Fist City.” But Spacek told Lynn not to worry: “I’m an actress, Loretta, this’ll never bother me — as soon as this movie is over, it’ll all be gone.” But Lynn knew differently. “I haven’t seen one movie of hers that I haven’t seen me in yet. Even when she’s playin’ a big rich woman, I see me someplace in the movie. Bless her heart. I feel sorry for her. I don’t know what to do. I’d love to help her, but I don’t know what to do.”
Neither do the rest of us now that Lynn’s no longer around to give us the benefit of her homespun advice on life and lovin’.
The coal miner’s daughter mined a deep vein, unearthing treasures from way down in her heart. Those lumps of coal she dug out and shared with us became diamonds that still shine brightly, with an undiminished sparkle that will be with us always.