Loretta Lynn, Country Music Star and Symbol of Rural Resilience, Dies at 90
Her powerful voice, playful lyrics and topical songs were a model for generations of country singers and songwriters. So was her life story
Loretta Lynn performing in 1976 in Rochester, N.Y. Her voice was unmistakable, with its Kentucky drawl, its tensely coiled vibrato and its deep reserves of power.Credit…Waring Abbott/Getty Images.
NASHVILLE — Loretta Lynn, the country singer whose plucky songs and inspiring life story made her one of the most beloved American musical performers of her generation, died on Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. She was 90.
Her family said in a statement that she died in her sleep at her ranch, which had turned Hurricane Mills, about 70 miles west of Nashville, into a tourist destination.
Ms. Lynn built her stardom not only on her music, but also on her image as a symbol of rural pride and determination. Her story was carved out of Kentucky coal country, from hardscrabble beginnings in Butcher Hollow (which her songs made famous as Butcher Holler). She became a wife at 15, a mother at 16 and a grandmother in her early 30s, married to a womanizing sometime bootlegger who managed her to stardom. That story made her autobiography, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a best seller and the grist for an Oscar-winning movie adaptation of the same name.
Her voice was unmistakable, with its Kentucky drawl, its tensely coiled vibrato and its deep reserves of power. “She’s louder than most, and she’s gonna sing higher than you think she will,” said John Carter Cash, who produced Ms. Lynn’s final recordings. “With Loretta you just turn on the mic, stand back and hold on.”
Ms. Lynn performing at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1960s. She got her start in the music business at a time when male artists dominated the country airwaves. Credit…Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Her songwriting made her a model for generations of country songwriters. Her music was rooted in the verities of honky-tonk country and the Appalachian songs she had grown up singing, and her lyrics were lean and direct, with nuggets of wordplay: “She’s got everything it takes/To take everything you’ve got,” she sang in “Everything It Takes,” one of her many songs about cheating, released in 2016.
Ms. Lynn got her start in the music business at a time when male artists dominated the country airwaves. She nevertheless became a voice for ordinary women, recording three-minute morality plays in the 1960s and ’70s — many written by her, some written by others — that spoke to the changing mores of women throughout America.
In “Hey Loretta,” a wry 1973 hit about walking out on rural drudgery written by the cartoonist Shel Silverstein, she sang, “You can feed the chickens and you can milk the cow/This woman’s liberation, honey, is gonna start right now.” Silverstein also wrote the beleaguered housewife’s lament “One’s on the Way,” a No. 1 country hit for Ms. Lynn in 1971.
“Loretta always just said exactly what she was going through right then in her music, and that’s why it resonates with us,” the country singer Miranda Lambert, one of countless younger performers influenced by Ms. Lynn, said in a 2016 PBS “American Masters” documentary, “Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl.”
Ms. Lynn in 1972 with her husband, Oliver V. Lynn Jr., who was also known as Doolittle, Doo or Mooney. They had a long but tempestuous marriage. Credit…Gary Settle/The New York Times
She drew much of her material from her marriage to Oliver Vanetta Lynn Jr., who was also known as Doolittle, Doo or Mooney, the last of these nicknames a nod to his practice of selling bootleg whiskey.
Ms. Lynn’s 1966 hit “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” was based on a confrontation she had with one of her husband’s mistresses; her 1968 single “Fist City” was born of a similar incident. The inspiration for “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” in 1966, were those times when Mr. Lynn, his libido roused after a night out, would stumble home expecting to satisfy it.
“Doo would always try to figure out which line was for him, and 90 percent of the time every line in there was for him,” Ms. Lynn told the weekly Nashville Scene in 2000. “Those songs was true to life. We fought hard, and we loved hard.” The marriage lasted 48 years, until Mr. Lynn died of congestive heart failure in 1996.
His drinking and womanizing notwithstanding, Mr. Lynn was one of his wife’s greatest sources of musical encouragement, certainly early in their marriage, after they moved from Kentucky to Custer, Wash., in the late 1940s. Impressed by how well she sang while doing chores at home, he bought her a guitar and a copy of Country Song Roundup, a popular magazine that included the words and chords to the latest jukebox hits.
‘I Fought Back’
Mr. Lynn went on to manage his wife’s career, insisting that she perform in honky-tonks and at radio stations even before she was convinced of her musical gifts. Ms. Lynn’s dependence on her husband made him as much a father figure as a spouse to her, even though he was less than six years her senior. He used the term “spanking” to describe the times he hit her. It was not until the couple moved to Nashville in the early 1960s, and Ms. Lynn befriended Patsy Cline there, that she began to stand up to her husband.
“After I met Patsy, life got better for me because I fought back,” Ms. Lynn told Nashville Scene. “Before that, I just took it. I had to. I was 3,000 miles away from my mom and dad and had four little kids. There wasn’t nothin’ I could do about it. But later on, I started speakin’ my mind when things weren’t right.”
Ms. Lynn’s growing assertiveness coincided with the first stirrings of the modern women’s movement. She rejected the feminist tag in interviews, but many of her songs, including the 1978 hit “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” were fiery expressions of female resolve. In that song she sang:
Well, I don’t want a wall to paint, but I’m a-gonna have my say.
From now on, lover-boy, it’s 50-50, all the way.
Up to now I’ve been an object made for pleasin’ you.
Times have changed and I’m demanding satisfaction too.
Ms. Lynn’s sexual politics had already taken an emphatic turn with “The Pill” (1975), a riotous celebration of reproductive freedom written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T.D. Bayless. Outspoken records like that and “Rated X,” about the double standards facing divorced women, might not have been as popular with country music’s conservative-leaning audience had they not been tempered by Ms. Lynn’s playful way with a lyric. In “Rated X,” a No. 1 country hit in 1972, she wrote, “The women all look at you like you’re bad, and the men all hope you are.”
Loretta Lynn in 1976, the year her memoir, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” was published. It became the basis of an Oscar-winning movie. Credit…Waring Abbott
“I wrote about my heartaches, I wrote about everything,” she said in a 2016 interview with The Times. “But when you get to hear the song, you just grin.”
Her most confrontational recordings of the ’70s, in fact, corresponded with her greatest popularity. In 1972, she became the first woman to be named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association. The next year, her picture appeared on the cover of Newsweek. She became a frequent guest on late-night talk shows and the spokeswoman for Crisco shortening. With the title of her 1971 hit “You’re Lookin’ at Country” as her calling card, Ms. Lynn, in her down-home dresses, came to embody rural resilience and self-respect.
Loretta Webb was born in a cabin in Butcher Hollow on April 14, 1932, the second of eight children. Her parents, Melvin Theodore Webb and Clara Marie (Ramey) Webb, liked to decorate the cabin walls with magazine photos of movie stars. Loretta was named after Loretta Young.
In “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1976), her memoir written with George Vecsey of The Times, Ms. Lynn noted that her mother, a woman of Cherokee and Scots-Irish descent, had taught her to sing antediluvian ballads and instructed her in rural storytelling. Ms. Lynn and her brothers and sisters often sang in church and at other social gatherings. Three of her siblings also pursued careers in music, notably Brenda Gail, who under the name Crystal Gayle became a star in her own right in the late 1970s with crossover hits like “Talking in Your Sleep” and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
Ms. Lynn quit singing in public when she married in 1948. Wanting to get away from Appalachia, she and her husband moved to Washington the next year, when Ms. Lynn, at 16, gave birth to Betty Sue, the first of the couple’s six children.
Ms. Lynn in 1972, the year she became the first woman to be named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association. Credit…Gary Settle/The New York Times
It was a decade before Ms. Lynn performed again. Not long after she did, though, she appeared on a Tacoma, Wash., television talent show hosted by Buck Owens, and attracted the attention of Norm Burley, an executive with Zero Records, a small label based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She signed with the company and recorded four original songs for it in 1960.
Success in Nashville
On the strength of the airplay received by the single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” the Lynns moved to Nashville, where Ms. Lynn began recording demos for the Wilburn Brothers, a popular country singing duo who became her music publishers, and helped her obtain a deal with Decca Records. She made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry in September 1960. In 1962, “Success,” about the relationship between material wealth and happiness, became her first Top 10 single.
Over the next 28 years, Ms. Lynn placed 77 singles on the country charts. More than 50 of them reached the Top 10, and 16 reached No. 1, including “After the Fire Is Gone,” the first in a series of steamy hit duets she made with Conway Twitty. Virtually all of her recordings were steeped in traditional country arrangements suited to Ms. Lynn’s perky backwoods drawl; most were produced by Owen Bradley, who likened her to “a female Hank Williams.”
Ms. Lynn performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival in Tennessee in 2011.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Ms. Lynn wrote fewer songs as the 1970s progressed but continued to tour and record. She also established her own booking agency, music publishing company and clothing line, as well as the tourist attraction Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, a 19th-century plantation house that she and her husband bought in the late 1960s. The Hurricane Mills complex includes campgrounds, a dude ranch, a motocross course, a music shed, a replica of the cabin where Ms. Lynn grew up, a simulated coal mine and museums.
The Academy of Country Music named Ms. Lynn its artist of the decade for the 1970s just as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1980 movie based on her autobiography, returned her Cinderella story to the forefront of the national consciousness. The film starred Sissy Spacek, who won an Academy Award, in the title role, and Tommy Lee Jones as Doolittle Lynn.
Ms. Lynn was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988. Her second autobiography, “Still Woman Enough” (2002), picked up where “Coal Miner’s Daughter” had left off. She was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors the next year and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York in 2008. She received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010. Three years later, President Barack Obama named Ms. Lynn a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The strength of her influence in the music world was witnessed by “Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn,” a 2010 album featuring Kid Rock, Carrie Underwood, Lucinda Williams, the White Stripes and others. “Van Lear Rose” won two Grammy Awards and was ranked among the best albums of 2004, both in country music publications and in magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone that cater to rock audiences.
In 2007, Ms. Lynn quietly began a long-term recording project with the producer Mr. Carter Cash, Johnny Cash’s son, in the studio that had been Johnny Cash’s cabin outside Nashville. Working in the style of her ’60s and ’70s recordings, with seasoned Nashville musicians playing vintage instruments, she recorded more than 90 tracks: remakes of her past hits, Christmas and gospel songs, Appalachian songs from her childhood and a handful of new songs. The first album from those sessions, “Full Circle,” appeared in 2016, followed later that year by a Christmas album; “Wouldn’t It Be Great” was released in 2018 and “Still Woman Enough” in 2021.
At her Tennessee plantation home in 2015.Credit…kyle dean reinford for The New York Times
In 2020, Ms. Lynn published “Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust,” a book recalling her friendship with Patsy Cline.
Survivors include a younger sister, the country singer Crystal Gayle; her daughters Patsy Lynn Russell, Peggy Lynn, Clara (Cissie) Marie Lynn; and her son Ernest; as well as 17 grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and a number of great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Betty Sue Lynn, and another son, Jack, died before her.
She also leaves legions of admirers, women as well as men, who draw strength and encouragement from her irrepressible, down-to-earth music and spirit.
“I’m proud I’ve got my own ideas, but I ain’t no better than nobody else,” she was quoted as saying in “Finding Her Voice” (1993), Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann’s comprehensive history of women in country music. “I’ve often wondered why I became so popular, and maybe that’s the reason. I think I reach people because I’m with ’em, not apart from ’em.”