Birth: 04-14-1932 | Birthplace: Butcher Holler, Kentucky
Loretta Lynn’s life story reads more like fiction than fact. It’s the story of a poorly educated woman from the coal mining hills of Kentucky, married at age thirteen and a mother at fourteen, who rose to become one of the most popular singers in country music.
Loretta Webb was born in a one-room log cabin and was the second of eight children. At thirteen she attended a pie social, bringing a pie she had baked using salt instead of sugar. The highest bidder not only won the pie but also got to meet the girl who had baked the pie. Mooney Lynn had just returned home after having served in the army. A month after they had first met, still three months short of her fourteenth birthday, Loretta and Mooney married.
A year later, Mooney decided they should move to Washington state, where he had heard job opportunities were better. The couple’s trip west was the first time Loretta had ever been away from home. Mooney found work while Loretta, still a child herself, became pregnant with their first child. By the time she was eighteen, she had four children.
Loretta had grown up listening to country music and often sang around the house. Mooney encouraged her and bought her a guitar so she could play as she sang. Later he helped arrange a singing engagement at the local Grange Hall by bragging that his wife could sing better than anyone other than Kitty Wells. Soon Loretta was singing with a local band and a few months later formed a band of her own.
Lynn’s singing came to the attention of Zero Records, a small record company in nearby Vancouver, Canada. The label signed her to a contract in February 1960 and sent her to Los Angeles to record four songs. After the session she and Mooney stayed until the records were pressed and then mailed them out to country music radio stations. Loretta and Mooney then drove cross-country, stopping at stations along the way to promote her recording of “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” The record began getting airplay and managed to reach #14 on the country music charts in 1960. It was through the strength of this hit that Lynn earned a first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, on September 17, 1960.
When they arrived in Nashville, Loretta made the rounds to publicize her record. One of her stops was at the office of the Wilburn Brothers. Teddy and Doyle Wilburn were a top country vocal group and had built their enterprises to include a publishing company, a booking agency, a syndicated television program, and a touring show. Doyle Wilburn recognized Lynn’s talent, unpolished though it was. He made her a part of the Wilburns’ road show and a regular on their television series. Doyle eventually secured Lynn’s release from Zero Records and persuaded Decca Records, the label for which the Wilburns recorded, to sign her. (Eventually, Lynn’s desire to be out on her own with full control of her career led to personal differences between Lynn and the Wilburns. A lawsuit settled matters, and a few years later they were able to resume their friendship.)
Two years after she recorded “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” Lynn began scoring with records such as “Success,” “Before I’m Over You,” and “Blue Kentucky Girl.” But it wasn’t until her recordings of “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” that Lynn’s music took a new direction. Instead of using traditional country music themes she wrote songs that were more realistic and less compromising. The country girl from the hills of Kentucky, who was raising a family of six, spoke more boldly and forcefully than many would have expected. Still, songs such as “Fist City” and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” had such humor that Lynn did not alienate any of her audience members.
She won the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year Award in 1967, 1972, and 1973. She also began to appear on television variety shows and talk programs that had rarely featured country music performers. By the end of the 1960s Lynn’s brother Jay Lee Webb and her sisters Peggy Sue and Crystal Gayle had also become country music recording artists.
In 1970 Lynn’s recording of her signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” became one of her biggest hits. She had recorded three albums of duets with Ernest Tubb before recording her first song with Conway Twitty in 1970. “After the Fire Is Gone” became a #1 record in 1971 and marked the beginning of one of the most successful duet pairings in country music history. Lynn and Twitty won the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year Award from 1972 through 1975. Among their many hits were “Lead Me On,” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” and “As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone.” When Lynn won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award in 1972, she became the first woman to achieve that honor.
In 1976 Lynn’s autobiography, appropriately titled Coal Miner’s Daughter, became a best seller and was made into a hit movie starring Sissy Spacek. (Her second autobiographical book, Still Woman Enough, was published in 2002.) Meanwhile, the singer continued to score with musical hits such as “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed,” “I've Got a Picture of Us on My Mind,” and the aptly titled “We've Come a Long Way, Baby.”
In 1988 Lynn was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The honor paid tribute to her career as well as to the influence she has had on many of the women in country music. She was to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2003. Following her husband’s death in 1996, Lynn returned to solo recording after a hiatus of more than ten years. Still Country was released in 2000 by Audium Records and contained the song “Country in my Genes,” her 78th single to chart in Billboard. In April 2003 Lynn appeared on a New York concert bill with rock duo the White Stripes, who had recorded her 1972 hit “Rated X.” Lynn still works as often as she likes, and audiences continue to embrace her for her music and for her endearing personality. Lynn's critically acclaimed album Van Lear Rose, produced by the White Stripes' Jack White, won two 2004 Grammy Awards, including Best Country Album. - Laurence Zwisohn
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.