Loretta Lynn - Biography
By Jimi McCluskey
Loretta Lynn is truly one of the queens of country music. She made her rags-to-riches story into a hit song, bestselling book and award-winning movie. You can learn a lot about Lynn by just listening to her songs, whether self-penned (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and “I'm A Honky Tonk Girl,”) or chosen because they rang true to her own story (“One’s on The Way” by Shel Silverstein or “They Don’t Make ’Em Like Daddy” written by Jerry Chesnut). When she wasn’t singing songs with a personal angle, she often broke new and controversial ground recording such songs as “The Pill,” which celebrated a new freedom for women, or “Rated X,” about sexual stereotypes placed upon women—making her, in the process, one of the most banned artists in country music history. Banning her songs couldn’t slow down her popularity, though. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988, with plenty of good years ahead of her. Lynn has made her career out of honesty and her real, country life.
Loretta Webb was born April 14th, 1934 in Butcher Holler, Kentucky (near Van Lear) to her parents Melvin Webb (1906–1959) and Clara Marie Webb (1912–1982). Lynn was named her after the actress Loretta Young. She was the second of what would be eight children (the youngest of which, Brenda, would as an adult change her name to Crystal Gayle and follow in her big sister’s footsteps as a country performer).
Lynn was married on January 10th, 1948 at the age of 13 to Oliver Vanetta Lynn Jr. (a.k.a. “Doolittle,” “Mooney” and, Loretta’s favorite, “Doo”) and spent the next decade or so starting up a family. When she was 18 years old, Doo bought her a guitar and encouraged her to sing and play, at first for the children, but eventually for paying audiences in order to bring in some much-needed money to help support the family. She began to carve out a career for herself with the constant guidance and support of her husband.
In the early years of their marriage, the family moved to Custer, Washington where Doo, desperate not to be stuck in the coalmines back home, found work above-ground. So it was out of this area that Loretta and Doo would start to set up shows, whether in seedy bars and nightclubs, or at country fairs, talent shows, mental hospitals, air force bases and pretty much all points in-between. Loretta didn’t care much for the atmosphere in the bars, but the characters she would observe there would find their way into her songs.
One evening in 1960, the Lynns showed up at the set of an up-and-coming Buck Owens’ country music television program (broadcast out of Tacoma, WA), hoping to get on the show. Owens kept urging them to come by the next night—amateur night—but Lynn eventually persuaded Owens to let her sing. Her performance and the response that it received would put the wheels in motion towards Loretta making it as a country singer. Not only did Owens like her, but the next night she did indeed come back and won the amateur night competition. More importantly, tuning in that evening was Canadian businessman Norm Burley who was so taken with Lynn that he contacted her about going into business with him on a record label that she’d be the star of. Zero Records was founded and, with Burley’s bankroll, the Lynns headed to Nashville to cut a record. Even though they had money, a recording studio and staff were not readily available. After being rejected at several studios, they came across the studio of legendary pedal steel guitar player Speedy West who agreed to do the session. Initially West set up an afternoon session but, after judging Lynn’s talent, decided to put back the session a few hours in order to secure some top-flight session musicians in there to back her up. Soon enough they had two songs recorded for the debut single, “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” and “Whispering Sea,” both penned by Lynn.
Hitting the road to promote the single (by personally going to as many radio stations as possible) would pay off and “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” became a minor hit. With the early success of the single, Lynn was named one of the “Most Promising Female Singers” in Billboard magazine and she ultimately released a total of three singles for Zero. While working the Zero singles, Lynn also found work around Nashville cutting demos for the Wilburn Brothers’ publishing company. The Wilburns—led by brothers Teddy and Doyle—were at that time very popular and well connected in Nashville. Taking a liking to Lynn, the brothers helped her along with her career, most importantly taking her to try out for legendary Decca record producer Owen Bradley. Bradley initially only wanted to use one of Lynn’s compositions for Brenda Lee to record, but after some persuading from Lynn and the Wilburns, Bradley gave Lynn a six month trial contract. With the blessing of Norm Burley (who had always insisted that once Lynn got a bigger opportunity he would tear up his contract and support her), Lynn was off to the big time. On October 15th of 1960, Lynn made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry, getting paid a much-needed $15. She went over so well on the Ryman Auditorium stage that she was invited back for seventeen straight shows.
With that, things started to take off. With the backing of top-notch Nashville session men like Floyd Cramer and Grady Martin, Lynn went into the Decca studios to record her first single for them; “The Girl That I Am Now” b/w “I Walked Away From A Wreck.” In addition to performances on TV, the Wilburn Brothers also sent her out on a tour of state fairs in 1962. She performed forty-two shows in twenty-five days, she earned more money than ever before. She also began to seriously hone her skills as a performer.
It was around 1962 that Lynn would strike up a friendship with Patsy Cline. Enormously popular by that point, Cline would also take a bit of a “big sister” role to Lynn and help her through the rocky times she experienced as an up-and-coming artist. In 1962, Lynn would score her first top ten single with her version of John Mullins’ “Success.” The song, stylistically influenced by Cline, had enough lasting power that it would later be covered by Elvis Costello on his 1981 album of Country music covers, Almost Blue (Columbia). On March 5th, 1963, Lynn and Cline had plans. When Cline didn’t show up or call, Lynn first became aware that something was wrong. Cline’s plane had crashed, taking her life as well as the lives of Country stars Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and pilot Randy Hughes. As early as the previous September, Patsy Cline had confided in Lynn (as well as others) her sense of impending doom and to this day Lynn will talk about how Cline seemed to know that she wasn’t long for this world.
Despite the devastating loss of her close friend and mentor, 1963 would be a big year in which Lynn would make huge leaps forward in her career. That year, her first full-length LP, Loretta Lynn Sings (1963 Decca), was released, making it all the way up to the top spot on the Country charts. This was also the year that she would become an official member of the “Opry.”
Lynn became 1964’s “Top Female Vocalist” in Billboard. Hit singles came strong and steady. "Before I'm Over You," "Wine, Women, and Song," "Happy Birthday," and "Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be," all reached the Top 20. The latter, a duet with Ernest Tubb, was the title track taken from a whole album of duets that the two did together. It was also the first of three that they would record, followed by Ernest Tubb & Loretta Lynn Singin’ Again (1965 Decca) and If We Put Our Heads Together (1968 Decca). In her 1976 autobiography, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn had nothing but great things to say about Tubb, whom she said was “like a father to her,” and “as far as [she] was concerned, Ernest Tubb hung the moon.”
1966 would prove to be Lynn’s biggest year yet. "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" was Lynn’s first original composition to top the charts. The album, You Ain't Woman Enough (MCA), would hit #1 on the country charts in ’66. It was followed by “Don't Come A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind),” the first of an outstanding 17 number-one hits. Bolstered by the huge success of its title track, Don't Come A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind) (MCA 1967) would hit #1 on the country charts in ’67 as well as crack the Pop Top 100 and be her first Gold Record. All together she would have 30 top 20 albums, with 6 #1 and 7 #2 records (including 2004’s Van Lear Rose). That’s just as a solo artist. Paired up with Ernest Tubb and later Conway Twitty, Lynn would have an additional 11 top 20 albums (four of which hit the top spot) and a #6 country hit. In 1993, a collaboration with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, Honky Tonk Angels (Columbia), reached #42 Pop on the pop charts and went Gold.
Throughout the late 1960s, Lynn would score one hit after the other. "If You're Not Gone Too Long" and "What Kind of a Girl (Do You Think I Am)" in 1967; “Fist City,” "You've Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me,)" and "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath" in 1968 and "Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)," "To Make a Man (Feel Like a Man)," and "Wings Upon Your Horns" in 1969.
The 1970s would be another watershed decade, both critically and commercially. It would also mark the end of her professional relationship with the Wilburn Brothers (and the start of decades of legal issues with them). The ‘70s began with the release of the Loretta Lynn Writes 'Em and Sings 'Em (1970 Decca) LP and the hit singles "I Know How" and "You Wanna Give Me a Lift." In 1971, the album Coal Miner’s Daughter (Decca) and its title track both took the top spot on the country charts.
Loretta Lynn’s long and fruitful recording partnership with Conway Twitty would kick off in 1971. The duet’s debut single, "After the Fire Is Gone," reached #1 on the country charts and #56 on the pop charts. Its follow-up, "Lead Me On," also topped the country charts. Lynn would also have huge solo singles during this era including "I Wanna Be Free," “You’re Looking At Country,” and “One’s On The Way.”
Lynn was certainly at the top of her game. Every year up to 1978 would see her at the #1 position in the country charts at least once, if not multiple times. Not all of these successes were without controversy and Lynn never seemed likely to back down if she thought she was in the right. Lynn’s special brand of “Hillbilly Feminism” has put its indelible mark on many of her tunes. In 1966, her song “Dear Uncle Sam” had addressed the Vietnam War from the point of view of a heartbroken widow. This was certainly not a common stance among country performers and in 1966 even most rock performers were just starting to speak out. Lynn would probably cause the most controversy with her 1975 hit, “The Pill” (lyrics by T. D. Bayless), about a woman’s right to use birth control. The song garnered her a lot of trouble—many stations wouldn’t play it—but the ones that did sent it straight up to #5 on the country charts—another victory for Lynn.
Sometime in between all of the constant recording and touring, Lynn found time to write her autobiography. Published in 1976, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was a New York Times bestseller. Chronicling her hard times growing up and interweaving it with stories throughout her career, the book hit a chord with the public. In 1980 it was made into a popular film starring Sissy Spacek as Lynn, Tommy Lee Jones as Doo and Levon Helm (the drummer/singer from the Band) as her father Melvin Webb. Among many honors awarded the film, Spacek would go on to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
Although the 1980s were a period of general decline for her career, Lynn would still place many songs in the Top 40 throughout the decade. Part of her decline can probably be attributed to a general stoppage in her songwriting. After years and years of legal battles, Lynn decided to stop writing her own material due to the fact the Wilburn Brothers were still taking a cut of all of her publishing, no matter how much time had passed since the end of their relationship. Still, many fine songs were recorded and she would continue to have solid success with Conway Twitty. Some ‘80s hits include "It's True Love" (with Conway Twitty), "Naked In the Rain," and "Cheatin' on a Cheater," all from 1980. "Lovin' What Your Lovin' Does to Me,” and "I Still Believe In Waltzes" (both with Twitty) and "Somebody Led Me Away" were all released in 1981. 1982’s "I Lie,” "Making Love From Memory,” and "Breakin' It" similarly charted in the Top 40.
Teaming up with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette in 1993, the three scored a Gold Record with the aforementioned Honky Tonk Angels album. Comprised of many classic compositions, the material gave the singers a chance to play homage to some of their female heroes like Kitty Wells and The Davis Sisters much as she had with I Remember Patsy (1977 MCA) a few years earlier.
For the remainder of the decade, Lynn released few albums although she still played live regularly. In 1995, she taped a seven-week series titled “Loretta Lynn & Friends” for the Nashville Network. Lynn would return in 2000 with the much-anticipated and well-received Still Country (Audium) record, which returned her to the charts. It would be 2003’s Van Lear Rose that would garner the most commercial and critical attention that she had seen in decades, hitting #2 on the country charts and #24 on the pop charts—making it her biggest crossover ever. The album was produced by and guest starred Jack White of The White Stripes and featured great new tracks like "Little Red Shoes," written by White. Both "Miss Being Mrs.” (about her time since the loss of her husband Doo in 1996) and "Portland Oregon" were released as singles and got a fair amount of radio play on both mainstream and college radio.
Since the triumph of Van Lear Rose, there has been a flood of compilations. While her fans wait for new music they can get their Loretta Lynn fix by visiting her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee (just outside Nashville) which includes her recording studio, museum and lodgings (including an opportunity for visitors to spend the night in Lynn’s tour bus!) Billed as "The 7th Largest Attraction in Tennessee," fans should be in for quite an experience.
To date, Lynn has released 70 albums and written over 150 songs. The industry has done well by honoring all of her achievements. Loretta Lynn was named “Entertainer of the Year” by the Country Music Association in 1972, artist of the decade by the Academy of Country Music (one of ten awards given to her by the Academy). She also earned four Grammy awards, seven American Music awards and eight Broadcast Music Incorporated awards. In 2008, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.