Obama honours a real trailblazer in Loretta Lynn

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.”


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