“Something that’s really important to women,” Loretta Lynn wrote in her 1976 memoir Coal Miner’s Daughter, “[men who run the radio stations] don’t want no part of, leastways not on the air.”
Lynn was talking about her song, “The Pill,” from her 1975 album Back to the Country, but she could have been referring to any number of singles released by women in country music over the years, from Kacey Musgraves’ queer-friendly “Follow Your Arrow” to The Chicks’ mischievous “Sin Wagon” to Mickey Guyton’s revolutionary “Black Like Me.” Things that were important to women — sex, equality, redemption, unfiltered love, birth control, a little bit of weed on occasion — have never been important enough to country radio to do anything but prevent them from entering at the gate. But topics that were important to women were important to Loretta Lynn.
Lynn had started working on her 25th studio LP, Back to the Country, in 1972. She was releasing and recording albums, like most other bankable country stars of the day, at a rapid clip. This particular collection was sandwiched between They Don’t Make ’Em Like My Daddy the year prior and her fifth Conway Twitty collaboration, Feelins’. Its eventual opening track, “The Pill,” was a song about the birth control pill and the freedoms it could give a woman from — but not limited to — a philandering husband. At first, it was put in Lynn’s back pocket after a recording session when the label deemed it too controversial to release. After all, 1972 was the year that the Supreme Court had made the contraceptive legal, so the subject matter was about as hot-button as it comes, and country music was not in the business of hot-button: It peddled nostalgia, not the possibilities of the future.
The label was right, of course. It was controversial. But they were wrong about the consequences of releasing a song so polarizing. Though radio stations across the country banned “The Pill,” that only made it more alluring to fans who helped boost its sales, making it one of her biggest sellers of all time. It set a template for artists like Musgraves and The Chicks to follow in her wake: Radio might not embrace you, but there are paths where executing the truth — often, a feminine truth — is more accessible outside of the mainstream modes of success, and sometimes more alluring. Lynn may not have been close to being one of the “outlaw” musicians of the late ’60s — not decked in leather nor caught smoking weed with Willie Nelson — but you could easily argue she was among the most outlaw of them all.
By the time Back to the Country actually came out in 1975, Lynn was a national star, even beyond the genre. In 1973, she was the first country artist on the cover of Newsweek, a kind of success that would see no cap once the film Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek and adapted from her memoir, was nominated for Academy Awards in 1980. Lynn — no matter what the embrace or where it originated — seemed steadfast about keeping her music rooted in sonic traditions, even if her topics or her listeners veered anything but. She was continually reminding her fans that she was, make no mistake, a country girl, even with a shiny tour bus and huge plot of land in Tennessee.
With the exception of “The Pill,” Back to the Country was a fairly commercial package. Rather than write the tracks herself, Lynn sang cuts from the likes of Tom T. Hall, Billy Swan and Ray Griff. She and longtime producer Owen Bradley staged the sessions at Bradley’s Barn in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, a studio built on the outskirts of Nashville into an actual red barn. Here, Lynn felt like she could reconnect with her roots and deeper self. While the album is touted for its progressive standout single, some of Lynn’s early Kentucky roots emerged more than they had on her recent previous records — her ways to bounce a vowel hadn’t always come with a positive embrace, as Nashville got slicker and sharper. If you could make it past the opener without moral outrage, the rest of Back to the Country is rich with thick and polished twang: “I’ve got a yearn for milkin’ cows” she sang on the title track, sounding as if her boots were caked with dirt from a day in the barns. While on “The Pill,” she’s wearing miniskirts and hotpants — because it’s good to get yourself a girl who can do both. At that point, Bradley had been her trusted collaborator, “like a father to me,” Lynn said. He also encouraged Lynn to never clean up her from-the-holler drawl.
“‘Just pronounce the words the way you want, Loretta.’ That’s what Owen told me,” she recounted in her memoir. “He never made me feel like I was a dumb hillbilly just because I said ‘ain’t’ or ‘holler.’ Owen said people would always understand me, so long as I was myself.” He was right: They did. And many women not only understood her, they felt like she understood them.
Though she sang about the empowering properties of “The Pill,” Lynn never took the contraceptive herself for actual birth control. By the time she finally got a prescription, her husband had been — as Lynn said herself —“clipped” (though she did talk about getting fitted for a diaphragm, which she didn’t use regularly enough and ended up pregnant with twins, her fifth and sixth children). As was often necessary in country music, especially for artists of faith, the choice let Lynn cleverly skirt around the issue, the same way that Dolly Parton had famously done around the word “feminist.” It let fans read their own reasons or narratives into her personal choices, tweaking them to be more conservative or liberal as it suited their own tastes.
Lynn, however, was firmly pro-abortion. The mother of six children, she never had one herself, and probably wouldn’t have, had the option been available to her. But that didn't mean she thought the procedure shouldn't be safely and freely available to women, especially poor and rural women who often hadn’t been educated about contraceptives, let alone their right to choose.
“Personally, I think you should prevent unwanted pregnancy rather than get an abortion,” Lynn wrote in her memoir. “I don’t think I could have an abortion. It would be wrong for me. But I’m thinking of all the poor girls who get pregnant when they don’t want to be, and how they should have a choice instead of leaving it up to some politician or doctor who don’t have to raise the baby. I believe they should be able to have an abortion.” Country music is notorious for skirting around political issues, but Lynn couldn’t have delivered her message more explicitly.
Country music wasn’t exactly a center of the 1970s women’s liberation movement, but she was operating as a stealth agent. More conservative southern girls weren’t about to follow whatever Gloria Steinem was preaching or burn their bras, but they might listen to their favorite country singer if she offered some advice or freedom. Lynn wasn’t particularly concerned with pushing policy, but she wanted women to have choices, to know their options, to get to the folks back in the holler in Kentucky where she was raised. She wanted them to know that they didn’t have to follow the same patterns that she did: marrying young, having six children, spending her teenage years and early 20s in a long chain of diaper changes and nursing babies, never having the tools to take family planning in her own hands.
“If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ’em like popcorn,” Lynn told People back when the song was released. “The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s. But I wouldn’t necessarily have had six and I sure would have spaced ’em better.” That was part of what made Lynn’s story so enchanting. She was as “country” as anyone could be, especially in the eyes of those outside of the South. She had all the elements so many involved in progressive movements and causes felt like they were currently fighting against — at least from a surface-level, stereotypical point of view. But she didn’t sugarcoat her marriage or parenthood, or the difficulty of her life before she became one of the most bankable stars in the genre. Johnny Cash sang of walking the line, but she really toed it.
“The Pill” wasn’t the only one of Lynn’s song to strike controversy — “Rated X” in 1973, “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” in 1967 and “One’s On the Way” in 1971 were all also deemed too controversial. That side of Lynn was always running in parallel lines to the same side of her singing about being “as old-fashioned as I can be” on her song “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” She was a homemaker and breadwinner, a good wife and one willing to hold her husband to account, a dutiful mother and a sexually active being. She sang religious songs (“Who Says God is Dead”) and defied the pastors that rejected “The Pill.”
“When Loretta is touted on Music Row these days, the sequined side of her history tends to overshadow the fact that she’s probably had more songs banned than any other artist in country music history,” Kacey Musgraves said in a 2017 speech at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “This is proof that when anyone in the music business — label heads, radio promotion teams, artists, managers, media, songwriters — choose to stay within known, successful lanes, avoiding creative risk and watering down content for easy consumption in hopes of financial gain, they’re not only damaging themselves, but they’re definitely damaging the rest of us too.”
“The Pill” was Lynn’s only single from Back to the Country — by the time she got to Feelins’, she and Twitty shot the title track to the top of the charts again. Lynn wavered so well around both convention and cutting edge that she could push and pull her country currency at will. The genre itself never could quite catch up, and by the time it got to Musgraves and “Follow Your Arrow” in 2013, radio responded the exact same way it had with “The Pill,” refusing to play it, its rebellion only endearing her to fans more.
“It was an important song at the time and it’s still an important song,” Margo Price said of “One’s On The Way,” when she covered the song in 2021. Price has also carried on Lynn’s fearless tradition of singing about sex, choice and equality. “To be able to talk about birth control and women’s rights in country music. It was legendary.”
So is the generation that Lynn inspired. Afterall, what’s important to women was important to Loretta Lynn.
Born and raised in New York, Marissa R. Moss is a freelance journalist currently residing in East Nashville, Tennessee, who contributes frequently to Rolling Stone, NPR, Billboard and other outlets. Her first book on women in country music will be published by Henry Holt & Company in 2022.
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