Country Legends We Love: Loretta Lynn

Her first hit, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," turns 60

Country fans -- and millions others who know little about country music -- are familiar with the basic outline of Loretta Lynn’s life and career. She told the story in great autobiographical songs long before 1980 when she became the subject of the award-winning motion picture, Coal Miner’s Daughter.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of that Oscar-winning film, and the 60th anniversary of her debut single, we honor Loretta Lynn as one of CMT’s Country Legends We Love.

Born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, she was one of eight children in a poor but hardworking Eastern Kentucky coal miner’s family. She married Oliver V. (“Mooney” or “Doolittle”) Lynn, a returned World War II veteran, shortly before her 16th birthday and was mother of four by 22.

Living in the state of Washington during the 1950s, Loretta was a full-time mother and part-time singer whose musical interests were very much encouraged by Mooney. In 1960, she signed a contract with Zero Records, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, after the label’s owner heard her singing on a Tacoma, Washington, television station.

From a first recording session in Los Angeles that year came “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” Plugged by the ambitious couple on a shoestring budget during their now-famous cross-country trip, the record got airplay and peaked that fall at No. 14 on Billboard’s country singles chart. The single’s success led to her first Grand Ole Opry appearance on Sept. 17, 1960.

Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, who were enjoying success as Wilburn Brothers, were impressed enough with her talent and potential to take on the direction and management of her career. Shortly thereafter, Loretta was featured nationally on their syndicated TV shows and extensive tours.

The duo convinced their producer, Decca Records executive Owen Bradley, to sign her away from Zero. However, her earliest hits for Decca were generally written by others: “Success,” “Wine Women and Song,” “Happy Birthday,” “Before I’m Over You” and even “Blue Kentucky Girl” (composed by the prolific Betty Sue Perry).

Developing as a songwriter, Loretta poured her life story into song after song. Often it was Mooney’s drinking and womanizing -- and Loretta’s own flagging tolerance for it -- which made for her best work: “Fist City,” “You Ain’t Women Enough (To Take My Man),” “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone),” “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Steppin’ Out on Me),” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and even the much later “Lyin’, Cheatin’, Woman Chasin’, Honky Tonkin’, Whiskey Drinkin’ You.”

Loretta’s impoverished Kentucky childhood was the subject of her 1970 hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a song which nicknamed her and served as the title of her 1976 autobiography (co-written with George Vecsey). That book provided the basis for the famous film starring Sissy Spacek (who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Lynn) and Tommy Lee Jones. Her late father was lionized again in 1974’s “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy.”

Her belief in a prior life (one of several) as a Native American squaw inspired two of her hits, “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” (1968) and “Red, White and Blue” (1976). During the high tide of feminism and women’s liberation of the 1970s, Lynn became the movement’s country music spokeswoman with her hits “One’s on the Way” (1971) and “The Pill” (1975).

Besides her great solo success, Lynn helped pioneer the male-female duet trend in the mid-1960s with a series of recordings made with her childhood idol and Decca labelmate Ernest Tubb. The same formula worked even better with Conway Twitty. Between 1971 and 1981, they made several albums and released a string of 14 singles which all made the Top 10 -- starting with five straight No. 1 releases (“After the Fire Is Gone,” “Lead Me On,” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone” and “Feelins’.”)

In 1972, Loretta Lynn became the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s coveted Entertainer of the Year award. The CMA also honored her as female vocalist of the year in 1967, 1972 and 1973, and she and Conway Twitty shared the vocal duo honor each year between 1972 and 1975. She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983 and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988. She joined fellow legends Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton for Honky Tonk Angels, an album released in 1993 by Columbia Records.

Mooney’s death in 1996 sent her into a prolonged grief and depression, one fruit of which was a second and darker autobiography, Still Woman Enough: A Memoir, written with Patsi Bale Cox. In the 2002 memoir, Lynn had more to say about her husband’s cruelty, her own drug problems and the fact that she had seriously contemplated divorce. A nostalgic cookbook followed in 2004, You're Cookin' It Country: My Favorite Recipes and Memories.

A new duet partnership -- the unlikeliest of all – occurred in 2004 when she teamed with alternative rocker Jack White of the White Stripes for “Portland, Oregon.” The track was featured on Van Lear Rose, the Interscope Records album that White produced for her. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Lynn and White shared honors for best country vocal collaboration and best country album to mark her first Grammys in more than 30 years. That same year, she was awarded CMT’s Johnny Cash Video Visionary Award.

The 2012 book, Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics, gathered some of Loretta’s most recognizable material. However, her activities were severely curtailed after she suffered a stroke that year. Yet she continued to make occasional appearances, among them inducting Alan Jackson into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. A year later, Spacek accepted Lynn's award as CMT's Artist of a Lifetime.

Lynn’s past two decades have been filled with honors, including the Kennedy Center Honors (2003), election to the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2008), the Grammy President’s Merit Award and Lifetime Achievement Award (2010) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). She accepted the ACM Crystal Milestone Award in 2015 from Miranda Lambert at the Ryman Auditorium.

Many of her late-career recordings with producer John Carter Cash emerged as well. Loretta’s 2016 album, Full Circle, received a Grammy nomination. So did her 2018 track, “Wouldn’t It Be Great,” from an album of the same name. Her life story was retold in an episode of PBS' series American Masters titled Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl. In addition, she served as a pivotal figure in Ken Burns’ monumental 2019 documentary, Country Music.

Some of her siblings and children also found country music careers of their own. The youngest of her sisters, singer Crystal Gayle, gained international popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, though she recorded with more of an adult contemporary sound than Loretta. Their sister, Peggy Sue, launched her country career in 1969 with “I’m Dynamite.”

The Lynns’ oldest son Jack Benny drowned in 1984 and oldest daughter Betty Sue Lynn died in 2013. Their daughter Cissie Lynn lives near the Loretta Lynn Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, while son Ernest Ray has frequently toured with Loretta’s band. Twin daughters, Patsy and Peggy, recorded for Reprise Records as The Lynns in the ‘90s. Patsy now serves as Loretta’s manager.

Loretta’s friendship with another pioneering country legend, Patsy Cline, was brought back into the spotlight in 2020 with a new memoir by Lynn and a TV movie recounting their brief time together. To coincide with those releases, Lynn offered a newly-recorded version of Cline's “I Fall to Pieces.”

Sixty years after introducing herself to the world, the Coal Miner’s Daughter remains one of country music’s most beloved figures.

Ronnie Pugh and Edward Morris contributed to this story.

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