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Loretta Lynn is from the part of the country I call home, and loving Loretta Lynn feels like home — by which I mean she makes me simultaneously puff my chest out with pride and shake my head in frustrated disbelief: the love we feel for those we truly know, once we’ve acknowledged and accepted their complexities and contradictions. Like everyone who becomes famous, Lynn chose the self she presented to the world, but her public persona never attempted to cover all her blemishes, and she never raced to justify or apologize for the decisions she made — the type of honesty and self-assuredness that only ever makes you love the person more, even when some of the ways they express those qualities drive you mad.
Lynn exemplifies a familiar regional and generational way of inhabiting two modes of thought. Her songs are portraits of women in action — taking a shot at double standards for the sexes, taking birth control, taking a swing at the woman sleeping with her husband — yet she stayed in a troubling marriage for nearly 50 years. She had the money and clout to move on but never did — though she did use her art to move through it, channeling her marriage’s darkest moments into career-making songs: a form of revenge in and of itself, I suppose. In a 2000 interview with Nashville Scene, Lynn recalled:
“Doo would always try to figure out which line [in my songs] was for him, and 90 percent of the time every line in there was for him… But usually I’d say, ‘Maybe one line was for you, honey.’ He never knew that all of ’em was. Those songs was true to life. We fought hard and we loved hard. I never knew what I was comin’ home to. I didn’t know if I was comin’ home to fightin’ or what. It was pretty rough. Doo drank a lot. There was a lot of times I’d have rather not come home. And if it hadn’t have been for my babies I wouldn’t have.”
Lynn’s life and career embody the best and worst outcomes of stubbornness, unshakeable self-reliance and a fierce survival instinct. She was painfully shy when she first began performing, but forced herself to do it until it became second nature. She played and wrote many of her own songs at a time and in a genre when that was relatively rare, especially among female artists. Producers for the televised 1972 Country Music Association awards ceremony explicitly told her not to touch or kiss Charley Pride (who is black) during the broadcast, and she got mad and did it anyway. She is a savvy businesswoman — in recent years transforming her 1,450-acre ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, into a bustling tourist attraction where you can camp, tour a replicated coal mine, or gawk at displays of her gowns and vintage cars. At 16, she married Oliver Vanetta “Doo” Lynn — a 21-year-old moonshiner who’d been mooning after her — after a one-month courtship, then immediately left Butcher Holler, Kentucky, for a remote logging town in Washington where he’d found work. Doo was a messy synthesis of manager, father and husband: the supportive husband who heard Lynn singing and not only encouraged her to make a career out of it, but helped to get her career off the ground and manage it; the unpredictable alcoholic who stepped out on her and beat her.
But Lynn was a woman who hit back. She’s fond of saying that every time Doo smacked her, she smacked back twice — once hard enough to knock out two of his teeth. Some of her biggest hits and most beloved songs are threats to the women he’d cheat on her with (“Fist City,” “It’ll Be Open Season On You,” the squick-ily named “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath”). The same rules applied outside the home. Songs like “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” and “Rated X” cheekily punched up, advocating for women’s agency over their sexuality; songs like “One’s On The Way” cheerfully punched back, illuminating the ways that movements in support of marginalized populations often exclude the most marginalized among us. These are the songs that made Lynn a feminist icon, although she has repeatedly balked at that label over the years in interviews and in the autobiographies she has published, outright stating “I’m not a big fan of Women’s Liberation” in her 1976 memoir Coal Miner’s Daughter and, when asked to comment on the Women’s March, said “a march is fine… [but] they should have done it with more class.”
As frustrating as it is to see someone so aligned with feminist beliefs and actions eschew the label, those who frame female agency, empowerment and equality through the lens of personal, practical benefit — the ability to go on the pill to reclaim control over your body and your sex life, to flirt or wear hot pants without fear of retribution — stand a far better chance of reaching those who don’t already agree with you. In Jon Pareles’ 2016 New York Times profile of Lynn, musician Todd Snider offers a description of her songwriting that perfectly encapsulates the driving force behind her ability to make these complex, systemic issues relatable and personal: “Don’t try to be a poet, just talk to someone. [Lynn’s] songs are just telling you how they feel.”
Therein lies their power — and also their complexity. Feelings are never straightforward: as Lynn demonstrates, you can understand that your husband is abusive, but still call him the love of your life. You can know that he is to blame for stepping out on you, yet still direct your ire at his mistresses. You can live a life shaped initially by poverty and pockmarked with tragedy and still put on a brave and cheerful face. When your first experiences of the world afford you no power, even when you get your hands on some it often feels like the only way out is through. But you don’t have to suffer in silence — and Lynn never did.
Lynn was a certifiable star and household name long before her 15th album Coal Miner’s Daughter hit shelves in December 1970. With the benefit of hindsight, Coal Miner’s Daughter occupies an important place (and turning point) in Lynn’s prodigious catalogue: a reaffirmation of familiar motifs in her work, and an early exploration of themes that would characterize her art and shape her career from that point forward.
Most of Coal Miner’s Daughter’s 11 tracks are well-chosen covers of songs written by Kris Kristofferson, Conway Twitty and others that draw on familiar themes in her body of work (on his excellent and unbelievably thorough podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe memorably quips that “Loretta Lynn’s best songs are autobiographical, whether she wrote them or not.”): standing up to philandering men and feeling alternately triumphant (“The Man of the House”) and ashamed about it (“Another Man Loved Me Last Night”), reflecting on a relationship going up in flames (“For The Good Times”), leaving an unfaithful lover forever instead of extending chance after chance (“Snowbird”) and, of course, coming after the women who try to steal your man (“It’ll Be Open Season On You”). Lynn’s cover of Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’” presages a professional partnership between the two that would produce five No. 1 hits in five years, a Grammy for “After the Fire is Gone,” and — thanks to their conspicuous chemistry — countless rumors that the two were having an affair and that Lynn was responsible for Twitty’s first marriage going up in flames.
Lynn herself wrote three of the album’s songs, each of which advances you one gameboard square closer to the Loretta Lynn behind the feisty bravado. “What Makes Me Tick” finds Lynn in conversation with herself, wondering why she’s unable to leave the man who never does right by her (“The way I let you treat me / It’s enough to make me sick / I’m gonna have my head examined / And find out what makes me tick”). “Any One, Any Worse, Any Where,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Lorene Allen (who wrote “The Pill”) doesn’t exactly present an olive branch to The Other Woman, but does extend her empathy. Written from the perspective of a woman having an affair with a married man, it shifts from defiance, to apology, to self-flagellation — and, as ever, the man at the center of it all is granted a pass for his complicity in this act of betrayal. Both songs are vulnerable in a way that feels rawer than her previous material; for once, we weren’t just learning about what Lynn would do if she caught you, but learning how she felt about catching up to herself.
Enter the album’s title track. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was the album’s only single, and Decca’s lingering doubts about its potential to become a hit were quickly proven utterly wrong: It was the only song from the album that got significant radio airplay, and would later become Lynn’s fourth No. 1 and first crossover hit. The power of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” lies in its plainspokenness. It’s prideful without posturing, nostalgic without being overly sentimental; it’s a vivid glimpse into the experiences of a family living in poverty that never falls prey to the queasy trope of poverty as noble suffering. The song’s pinpricks of optimism — “We were poor but we had love / That’s the one thing that Daddy made sure of,” “Why, I’ve seen her [ed. — Lynn’s mother’s] fingers bleed / To complain, there was no need” — are real, not rosy: These are the actual ways we do the best we can with what we have. It is the attitude Lynn has always projected, the mindset that seems to have orchestrated her life and guided her decisions. A hard life breeds fatalism and hope in equal measure. They intertwine, manifesting in confusing or courageous choices.
Before the world heard “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the public knew Lynn was from Kentucky coal country, a teen bride whose husband saw her talents and pushed her to do something with them, and whose thorough devotion, violence and volatility inspired so many of Lynn’s songs: the great love and the great burden of her life. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” wiped a clean streak in the window, letting us see beyond her tumultuous marriage, introducing us to her softer, introspective side, and building — on her terms — a more complete understanding of Lynn as a person. In the years to come, Lynn’s childhood became a new wellspring of inspiration — from the 1980 Coal Miner’s Daughter biopic, to her recent interest in recording traditional Appalachian ballads, to the haunting “Little Red Shoes” on her Jack White-produced 2004 comeback album Van Lear Rose: a harrowing but cheerfully delivered story about her early brush with death and the power of love and family to safely guide us through life’s darkest moments.
In the aforementioned Pareles profile, Lynn muses, “You put your whole heart into a song when you’re hurting. You can’t be protected.” While it’s absolutely true that your whole self goes into whatever you do to process your pain, I’d argue that songwriting is a still a form of self-protection. In channeling the pain of a difficult childhood or a difficult marriage into a song, you’re still choosing what to reveal and deciding what’s too tender to expose. You show the world the end product, not the process.
It’s hard to read about Lynn’s marriage and not want to go back in time and drag her away, all the while yelling, “You’re better than this.” It’s hard to imagine someone with her talent and tenacity putting up with decades of abuse, or understand how a person can so astutely skewer the myriad ways we perpetuate misogyny while also blaming women for affairs and remaining in an abusive relationship. Lynn is a reminder that people are complicated, that we are everything that has ever happened to us, everything we have ever been told, all at the same time. The best any of us can do is explain how we are feeling right now, which is exactly what Lynn’s songs have always done so well.
Susannah Young is a self-employed communications strategist, writer and editor living in Chicago. Since 2009, she has also worked as a music critic. Her writing has appeared in the book Vinyl Me, Please: 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection (Abrams Image, 2017) as well as on VMP’s Magazine, Pitchfork and KCRW, among other publications.