The original Queen of Country Music, Patsy Cline, died in 1963, and since then, no one has staked a more legitimate claim to that title than Loretta Lynn. Unlike Cline, who had perfect pitch and started performing as a child, Lynn’s musical talents blossomed late. She didn’t pick up the guitar until age 21, didn’t start singing until age 24, didn’t cut her first record until age 27. What happened after that is the archetypal rags-to-riches American story spiked with nascent feminism and a rebellious streak that turned modern music on its head.
Born and raised deep in the hollows of Kentucky coal country, Loretta Webb, one of eight children, married at age 15. Within a year, she and her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn (also nicknamed “Mooney” for the moonshine he sold — and drank himself) set off for a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest, where Loretta ran a ranch house and raised four children, all born before she was 20. Doolittle was an alcoholic, a chronic philanderer and at times even a domestic abuser, but Loretta stood by her man for almost 50 years — right up until the day he died in 1996.
For all of Doo’s shortcomings, America has him to thank for launching Loretta’s career. He purchased her first guitar, a $17 Harmony model, as a gift for the couple’s sixth anniversary. He urged her to start performing at the Delta Grange Hall in Custer, Wash., and even served as her first manager. “[Doo] thought I was something special,” Loretta wrote in her 2002 autobiography Still Woman Enough, “more special than anyone else in the world, and [he] never let me forget it. That belief would be hard to shove out the door.”
After Loretta won a televised talent show in Tacoma, she traveled to Hollywood to cut a few singles for Zero Records. The most powerful was “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” which Loretta wrote while leaning up against an outhouse; producer Owen Bradley famously wasn’t interested in any of her cover songs, only her originals, which she punctuated with a feisty, high-and-lonesome voice and genuine twang. In the summer of 1960, Loretta and Doo set off on a cross-country promotional tour, wrapping things up with a concert on country music’s most hallowed stage, the Ryman Auditorium’s Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
By year’s end, Lynn had a recording contract with Decca Records, a writing arrangement with the Wilburn Brothers, an intimate mentorship with Patsy Cline and even her own fan club. Minor success — including 1962’s “Success” — ensued. But from 1964 on, Loretta channeled the hard-knocks life and domestic strife she’d endured her whole life into some of country music’s most incisive hits: “This House You’re Tearing Down,” “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out on Me).”
But it was the one-two punch of singles “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Dear Uncle Sam” in 1966 that really shocked country music’s conservative system. The former, a lacerating teardown of one of her husband’s many mistresses, appropriately became the first No. 1 hit for a female artist. The second tune, Loretta’s first self-written song to chart in the top 10, recounted the Vietnam War’s horrors in a down-to-earth, humanizing way.
From there, Lynn was off to the races. Her heart-on-sleeve 1970 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” turned into a New York Times bestselling autobiography in 1980. (In another superlative, Loretta was the first country artist to be on such a rarefied list). Then, in 1980, the cinematic version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was a mainstream smash, earning Sissy Spacek an Academy Award for her gritty portrayal of Lynn and Tommy Lee Jones his first Golden Globe nomination for his role as Doolittle.
In real life, Lynn and country star Conway Twitty spent the ’70s raking in No. 1 hits and industry accolades as country music’s most successful duo, and Lynn became the first woman to earn Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1972.
Mainstream success didn’t tone down her spunk, though; songs about then-taboo topics like birth control (“The Pill”), post-divorce promiscuity (“Rated X”) and teenage virginity (“Wings Upon Your Horns”) were all banned from country radio for a time. “No one could understand that I could think that way and be so country,” Lynn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012. “But you can be country and speak up. I had my opinions, and I let everybody know it.”
As country music’s popularity waned in the 1980s, Lynn recorded and toured less, especially after her husband became ill in the early ’90s. Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette did team up for the wildly popular 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels; 2000’s “Country in My Genes” made Lynn the first female artist to have a charting single in five different decades; and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama bestowed Kennedy Center Honors and a Presidential Medal of Freedom upon her.
Yet it was 2004’s Van Lear Rose that truly catapulted Lynn back onto the mainstream radar. The grungy, hard-rocking collaboration with garage-blues kingpin Jack White was only the second album of Lynn’s then-45-year career entirely written by her. “I don’t think anyone has the natural songwriting ability she has inside of her,” White told The New York Times after the Grammy-winning album was released. “It just comes out and it’s so real. Loretta was breaking down barriers for women at the right time … saying, ‘This is how women live. This is what women are thinking.’ “
Lynn turns 82 two weeks after her March 28 performance at The Florida Theatre, and she’s still performing some 50 dates a year, often wearing an exquisite white ball gown; still overseeing Loretta Lynn’s Ranch at her longtime home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.; and still recording, with a Christmas album, a gospel record and a possible (fingers crossed) reunion with Jack White in the works.
Even with 64 years in the music game, and thousands of young musicians citing her as an influence, Lynn remains humble about her place in country music history. “I never, never thought about being a role model,” she told the San Antonio Express-News in 2010. “I wrote from life, how things were in my life. I never could understand why others didn’t write down what they knew.”