Honky Tonk Girl: Loretta Lynn, 1932-2022

Honky Tonk Girl: Loretta Lynn, 1932-2022

By Mark Deming

Oct. 7, 2022

"If you write the truth and you're writing the song, and you're sitting here writing about your life, it's going to be country … 'Cause you're writing what's happening. And that's all a good song is." – Loretta Lynn

Whatever Country Music may be in the year 2022, in its formative years – from the Bristol Sessions in the late 1920s to the beginning of the glossy crossover era in the mid-1970s – Country was the music of real life as sung by grown ups. The music made room for fun and tall tales, but more often than not, Country songs spoke of people who worked for a living, earning an honest dollar from the sweat of their brow, and if they got a little wild in a honky tonk on Saturday night, partying was a release that was richly earned. And when Country artists sang about love, it was for folks who were married with kids, people who may have a sentimental streak but knew more than a bit about the ups and downs of a long term relationship. In the world of Country music, cheatin' songs and keeping your spouse's wandering eye in check were the troubling but not unusual product of that seven-year itch that sometimes came with sticking together, even when things got rough.

Of course, most of those stories were told through the eyes of men. Country certainly had its share of female stars, going back to the Carter Family, whose 1927 recording of "Single Girl, Married Girl" was arguably the first proto-feminist hit, ruefully comparing the good life a woman had on her own with the hard times that came once she took a husband. Kitty Wells' 1952 smash "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," an answer to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life," was considered bold in its day for daring to suggest women weren't necessarily to blame when their men proved unfaithful. Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" may have come out in 1968, but it expressed an attitude that had been standard issue in Nashville for decades. And Dolly Parton's "Jolene," a hit in 1973, was the familiar (if beautifully executed) tale of a woman who felt sadly powerless to keep her partner from going astray. (The unspoken punch line, of course, is imagining Dolly would be the one to lose out to a local glamor girl.)

If anyone can be said to have changed this state of affairs for women in Country music, it was Loretta Lynn. Before Lynn became a star, women in Nashville were expected to be either happy with their men or stand as the long-suffering figures who lived with their mate's bad behavior without doing much about it. From her first minor hits of the early 1960s to her years as Nashville's leading female star in the mid-'60s to the early '70s, Loretta Lynn wrote and sang songs that told the truth. She knew what it was like to have your husband come home drunk and wanting sex when you weren't interested, and she sang about it. ("Don't Come Home a-Drinkin' [With Lovin' On Your Mind].") She knew what it was like to know another woman was interested in her husband, and she sang about that. ("You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man.") She understood the way folks felt about divorced women, as if they had been branded with the Scarlet Letter, and she sang about that, too. ("Rated X.") She wanted to be able to enjoy the pleasure of lovemaking without the anxiety of possibly having another child, and she even sang about that. ("The Pill.") She gave voice to the feelings of millions of ordinary women, and made them know they were heard and understood. And if she sounded a bit angry sometimes, it wasn't petty rage, but the honest emotion that came with having a sense of your own worth in the world and seeing it denied on a regular basis. To put it bluntly, Loretta Lynn was a woman with a highly functioning bullshit detector, and she wasn't afraid to use it. In a world and a music industry that was largely patriarchal, she was unusual, and unexpectedly, people loved her for it.

If Loretta Lynn's honesty made her one of Country's biggest and best respected stars, it was reinforced by her talent and her authenticity. Lynn had a voice that was a perfect medium for her great songs, clear and melodic but with a tone that was natural and unfussy, strong enough to give a song life without seeming flowery or mannered. Her instrument was a best-case scenario, like the woman down the street who, unexpectedly, can effortlessly nail any song at karaoke night. And if Country was a genre that respected hard work and making the most of adversity, Lynn's background was more than enough to satisfy anyone. Practically everyone knows about Loretta Lynn's hardscrabble upbringing, in part because she sang about it with such affecting honesty in several of her best songs, but also because her story was made into a successful motion picture, 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter, that earned Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her letter-perfect performance as Lynn. She was born Loretta Webb in 1932, one of eight children born to a poor couple in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. (One of her siblings, Brenda Gail Webb, would also go on to a successful music career as Crystal Gayle.) She was just fifteen years old when she married 21-year-old Oliver "Doolittle" Lynn, and sixteen when she gave birth to her first child. Life was in no way easy for the couple, and Loretta once wrote, "It wasn’t like being a housewife today. It was doing hand laundry on a board and cooking on an old coal stove. I grew a garden and canned what I grew. That’s what’s real. I know how to survive."

While by all accounts Doolittle was far from an ideal husband, he recognized that his young wife had talent when he heard her singing while doing her chores, and bought her a guitar for seventeen dollars that she taught herself to play. She started writing her own songs and, while the family was living in Custer, Washington (where Doolittle was working as a logger), he encouraged her to start performing at local nightspots. Loretta was playing a club in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada where she was spotted by a representative of a tiny country label, Zero Records. Zero took Lynn to Hollywood, where she cut a handful of sides, including "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl." Determined to make the record a hit, Doolittle and Loretta hit the road, driving across the country and stopping at every C&W radio station they could find. At each stop, Loretta would put on the fringed cowgirl outfit she had made for her live performances, charm the disc jockeys, and play her song for anyone who would listen, while Dolittle made certain the station had a copy of her record. The gambit worked; thanks largely to their barnstorming publicity campaign, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" rose to Number 14 on the Country singles chart in 1960, and Loretta and the family relocated to Tennessee to be closer to the heart of the Country record industry. In 1962, she signed a new record deal with Decca, a major label that was home to several of her favorite artists, including Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Kitty Wells. (Cline would become a friend and mentor to Lynn before her death in a plane crash in 1963.) Working with producer Owen Bradley, who gave Lynn's recordings just the right balance of honky tonk soul and countrypolitan polish, she scored her first hit for her new label with 1962's "Success," which topped out on the Country chart at Number 6, and she was on her way.

While Lynn quickly became a major Nashville star, it was a few years later that her songwriting began to gain full strength and, penning tunes informed in part by her tumultuous marriage, she started scoring hits with defiant numbers like "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" and "Don't Come Home a-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" (respectively Number 2 and Number 1 Country hits in 1966) and "Fist City" (Number 1 in 1968). Lynn's songs stood out on Country radio, though it didn't seem especially remarkable to her. As she put it, early on, "I just wrote about things that happened. I was writing about things that nobody talked about in public, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t. I was having babies and staying at home. I was writing about life." By the time she was a regular visitor to the Country Top Ten and a frequent guest on the Grand Ol' Opry, she had established her niche, and she saw no need to change her style or make nice, even if she delivered her songs with a smile. Lynn noted more than once that her fan club was dominated by women, and that was just the way she liked it.

In 1971, Lynn cut a duet with another of Nashville's biggest stars, Conway Twitty, and "After the Fire is Gone" was a first-class cheating song, dripping with regret and forbidden desire, and it proved to be the first salvo in a series of hits for the pair, not to mention a fascinating flip side to her many songs about being the woman sinned against. Between 1971 and 1981, Lynn and Twitty released twelve singles, and every one went into the country Top Ten, with five going straight to Number One. She remained a consistent hitmaker through the 1970s, and while she, like plenty of veteran Nashville artists, found her sales tapering off in the 1980s, she still managed hit the Top 20 in 1985 with "Heart Don't Do This To Me," and remained a popular live act until she went on hiatus in the 1990s, as her husband fell into ill health. Oliver "Doolittle" Lynn died in 1996, and it wasn't until 2000 that Loretta returned to the recording studio, releasing Still Country that year. Lynn seemed poised for a late-era career of occasional live work or perhaps a residency in Branson, Missouri when out of nowhere, she was being namechecked by Jack White of the White Stripes as their 2001 album White Blood Cells was becoming an unexpected smash hit. White dedicated the album to Lynn, and the White Stripes covered "Rated X" as a B-side, giving Loretta a degree of hipster cred she hadn't possessed in decades. As Lynn got to know White, he offered to produce an album for her, and 2004's Van Lear Rose was a remarkable LP that matched thirteen songs, all written or co-written by Loretta, with arrangements that were rough and tumble on the edges while capturing a honky tonk feel that served her voice (which was still in excellent shape) impressively well. Van Lear Rose did for Lynn what 1994's American Recordings did for Johnny Cash, putting the talents of a country music legend in a fresh new light while respecting her abundant artistry and rich legacy. While it significantly received little if any country airplay, Van Lear Rose was a commercial and critical success, peaking at Number 24 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, and winning two Grammy awards, for Best Country Album and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for "Portland, Oregon," her rowdy duet with Jack White.

A wealthy woman and a living legend whose talent and importance had been reaffirmed to the world, Loretta Lynn had nothing to prove after Van Lear Rose, and in the wake of its success, she devoted herself to doing as she pleased. She looked after her family, toured when she was in the mood, and in 2007 began recording a wealth of material with her daughter Patsy Lynn Reynolds and John Carter Cash as producers. 2016's Full Circle was the first album drawn from these sessions, followed by White Christmas Blue (2016), Wouldn't It Be Great (2018), and Still Woman Enough (2021), and if they weren't as striking as Van Lear Rose, they left no doubt that she was still a major artist who could command respect and impress even the most casual listener with her natural gifts as a singer and tunesmith.

In a 2012 interview about her career, Lynn was asked about how she found the strength to keep up her schedule as a performer at the age of 80, and she replied, "I work. I get on my bus and I ride my bus to the next date. And then I get back on the bus after the show and ride to the next date. Simple as that." For all her success, to the end of her days Loretta Lynn was the girl from Butcher Hollow who knew nothing of value came without effort, and found fame and fortune by understanding the lives of people like her and speaking their truth. It's hard to imagine Country music will ever see someone quite like her again, though the great music she left behind will retain its eloquence for many, many years to come.