Loretta Lynn joined an elite list of musicians, along with female icons such as Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin, when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, on 20 November, 2013.
The 81-year-old unquestionably deserves the honour. The impact Lynn has had on country music goes beyond her bold songwriting and chart success. She was a genuine trailblazer. In naming her, the White House said: “Loretta Lynn is a country music legend. Raised in rural Kentucky, she emerged as one of the first successful female country music vocalists in the early Sixties, courageously breaking barriers in an industry long dominated by men. Ms Lynn’s numerous accolades include the Kennedy Centre Honours in 2003 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.”
Her background was the almost clichéd country music one of growing up in a one-room log cabin. She was named after Hollywood star Loretta Young but this was no Disney-like bucolic childhood. The possums, rabbits and raccoons ended up in the family stew rather than frolicking in the forests near Butcher Holler in Kentucky, where she was born, the second of eight children. Her father was a coalminer and she remembers, aged seven, weeping when the family hog chewed the only dress she owned that had not been made from flour sacks.
She met her husband when she was a teenager. For many years it was claimed that she had married Oliver ‘Doolittle’ Lynn when she was only 13 (he was 21) but an investigation by the Associated Press recently revealed that her birth certificate, on file at the state Office of Vital Statistics in Frankfort, Kentucky, showed that she was born on April 14, 1932, in Johnson County. In Coal Miner’s Daughter, the best-selling autobiography that became an Academy Award-winning film starring Sissy Spacek, Lynn had shaved nearly three years off her age.
Even so, she was still wed under-age (not yet 16) and had a tumultuous marriage, which produced six children. She blamed her husband’s drinking for his violence (one night when he turned abusive over dinner, she poured an entire skillet of hot creamed corn on his head) and she later admitted how ignorant she had been as a child bride. “When I got married, I didn’t even know what pregnant meant,” she recalled. “I was five months pregnant when I went to the doctor and he said, “You’re gonna have a baby.” I said: “No way. I can’t have no baby.” He said, “Ain’t you married?” Yep. He said, “You sleep with your husband?” Yep. “You’re gonna have a baby, Loretta. Believe me.” And I did.
But she credited Doolittle (or Doo) for changing her life. In 1953, on their sixth anniversary, he bought her a $17 Harmony guitar. After years of hearing her serenade their children, he was convinced she had real talent. Her music career had to take a backseat for nearly a decade. “Me and my husband both worked. I took care of a farmhouse, cleaned and cooked for 36 ranch hands before I started singing,” she said. “So singing was easy. I thought ‘Gee whiz, this is an easy job.’” In 1960, while leaning up against an old toilet, she wrote her first song, I’m a Honky Tonk Girl, in just 20 minutes, on that $17 guitar.
During the next two decades, Lynn helped forge the musical genre that is now routinely labelled Americana. She has an unadulterated country voice, sweet and yearning, and is a fine songwriter, penning such hits as Coal Miner’s Daughter, You Ain’t Woman Enough and Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind). In 1972, she became the first woman to be named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association. Including her duets with Conway Twitty, Lynn had more than 50 Top 10 country hits between 1962 and 1982, including 16 Number Ones.
In her writing, she focused on blue collar women’s issues (philandering husbands and scheming mistresses appear regularly) and had a social impact in pushing boundaries in the conservative genre of country music. She sang about repeated childbirth (One’s on the Way) and the double standards that penalised women (Rated X). In 1975, Lynn released Back to the Country, which included The Pill, which is considered to be the first major social song about oral contraceptives. Move aside Miley Cyrus, because this was a song so controversial that Lynn’s record label delayed its release for three years. Many country radio stations refused to play it. Lynn was re-assured later by hearing from countless doctors and nurses that The Pill had done more to promote rural acceptance of birth control than any government efforts.
“Don’t ever come in on me while I’m writing a song, because I’m not myself,” Lynn told 60 Minutes in 2004. “I’m the person that I’m writing about. You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to be the person to write it.”
The past 20 years have not always been easy for the woman known as the The First Lady of Country Music. She’s had severe health problems (and had a dark time in 1996 when her husband died) but her career enjoyed a resurgence in 2004 when long-term fan Jack White (The White Stripes) produced her album Van Lear Rose. There has also been a recent tribute album featuring Lucinda Williams, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow; and a Broadway show about her life is planned, with Zoey Deschanel playing the singer.
Lynn was always an individualist and a striking looking woman. “I’m proud of being part Cherokee, and I think it’s time all us Indians felt the same way,” she said.
She still sings, working with an eight-piece band that includes daughters Patsy and Peggy and son Ernest, and she owns an 18,000 square foot Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum. The singer who grew up in abject poverty has been inducted into more music halls of fame than any other female recording artist. The award from President Barack Obama is unlikely to turn her head, though. As she said: “I never, never thought about being a role model. I wrote from life, how things were in my life. I never could understand why others didn’t write down what they knew.”