Unlike some country-western stars that sang about a rural working class life but lived an urban middle class existence, Loretta Lynn’s country roots were unquestionably authentic. Born Loretta Webb in a log cabin nestled in the backwoods hills of Kentucky, she was the daughter of a coal miner who worked long hours to keep his family fed and clothed. She met her future husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, when she was only 13. They married a year later, and she gave birth to her first child when she was 14 years old. Lynn had three more children before she was 21 and was a grandmother at 29.
Lynn seemed destined for a hard life raising her growing family in a three-room house with no running water or indoor plumbing. However, while listening to her sing to the children, Doolittle became convinced that Loretta sang as well as anyone on the radio. For her 26th birthday, Doolittle bought Loretta a $17 guitar and encouraged her to learn to play. She eventually began to play and sing with local bands and in 1960 released her first recorded single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” Doolittle had a knack for public relations, and he shrewdly mailed copies of the song to radio stations before the couple went on tour. “Honky Tonk Girl” became Lynn’s first hit.
By the mid-1960s, Lynn was one of the most successful female performers in country-western music. In previous decades, male performers and masculine themes had dominated country-western music. The themes reflected the supposedly virile nature of the American West and rural working-class life. Women performers largely conformed to these standards, usually portraying themselves as docile helpmates to a male star: the quintessential duo was Dale Evans’ partnership with the singing cowboy Roy Rogers.
After World War II, a handful of female country-western artists began to challenge their subordinate status. Surprisingly, given her traditional rural background, Lynn became one of their leaders. Many of her songs expressed feminine strength and determination and a sense that women would no longer simply “stand by their man,” as some other singers liked to suggest they should. Her perceptive business sense and talent for self-promotion also demonstrated that women could thrive in the competitive music industry. In 1967, the Country Music Association recognized the new importance of women singers by giving Lynn its first-ever award for Female Vocalist of the Year.
Lynn continued to enjoy great success in the 1970s, and the film account of her life, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), won her a new generation of fans. She continues to bring a compelling female perspective to the world of country-western music.