Loretta Lynn: Eight Decades of Honest, Heartfelt Music

From "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" to "I Fall to Pieces," We Honor This Country Legend

Is there anyone in the English-speaking universe who doesn't know by now that singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn was born “in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler” and that her father supported his large family as coal miner and hillside farmer?

The date that Loretta Webb -- the second of eight children -- arrived in that Kentucky cabin was April 14, 1932. When her father's mining job enabled him to buy the family a radio, she became obsessed with listening to music, particularly that being made by Grand Ole Opry stars.

In January 1948, when she was 15, she married World War II veteran Oliver “Mooney” Lynn. Soon after, the young couple moved to Washington state where Mooney had found work. It was here that she launched the career that would make her world famous. In celebration of Lynn’s 88th birthday, CMT.com presents this decade-by-decade chronicle of her achievements and honors.


1950s

By the time she is 22, Lynn has given birth to four children. She has also impressed her husband with her singing and songwriting. He buys her a guitar, which she learns to play on her own. Gradually she moves from just entertaining her family to singing at community events. She forms a band, Loretta and the Trailblazers, that plays at area venues. Her performances inspire a local businessman to finance the recording of her first single, after seeing her perform on Buck Owens' television show out of Tacoma, Washington.


1960s

In 1960, Lynn records her own composition, “I'm a Honky Tonk Girl” for the Zero label. Traveling with vinyl singles and publicity photos (which show Loretta dressed in cowgirl regalia), she and Mooney set out on a barebones promotional tour of country radio stations. Given its humble origins, the song is a smashing success, rising all the way to No. 14 on the Billboard country charts. (In Ken Burns' Country Music documentary, Merle Haggard said he loved “I'm a Honky Tonk Girl” and judged it to be “the best thing she's ever done.”)

The Lynns move to Nashville in 1961 and Loretta signs to Decca Records, a move that links her with her most fruitful producer, Owen Bradley. Her first single for Decca, “Success” in 1962, goes No. 6. That same year, she joins the Grand Ole Opry. Beginning in 1964, she teams up with her mentor and fellow Opry star, Ernest Tubb, for three studio albums and a series of singles.

Although she continues to chart in the Top 5s and Top 10s, Lynn does not score her first No. 1 until 1967 (the song entered the charts in late 1966) via “Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)” which she co-wrote with Peggy Sue Wills. In 1966, Lynn signs a music publishing contract with the Wilburn Brothers' Sure-Fire Music.

That same year, the Lynns buy a 1200-acre tract of land that includes the village of Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. In 1967, Lynn wins the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year award. Two more No. 1s singles lie ahead in this decade: “Fist City” (1968) and “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)” (1969).

It's during this era that Lynn establishes herself as the voice of the common woman -- overworked, underappreciated but fiery in protecting what is hers. Her lyrical vehicles, along with the menacing “Fist City,” include such in-your-face declarations as “You Ain't Woman Enough” (1966) and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” (1968).

1970s

This decade opens with Lynn scoring a No. 1 with the song that will become her signature hit, “Coal Miner's Daughter.” In 1971, she and Conway Twitty win a CMA vocal duo trophy and a Grammy for their first charting single, “After the Fire is Gone.”

She will record 10 albums with Twitty and, during the '70s, they rack up the No. 1 singles “Lead Me On,” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone,” and “Feelins’” (1975). She and Twitty snag the CMA best vocal duo award every year from 1972 through 1975.

As a solo artist, Lynn wins the CMA female vocalist trophy again in 1972 and 1973 and the entertainer of the year prize in 1972. The Lynns open a dude ranch and camping ground on their Hurricane Mills property in 1974. With her plainspoken single “The Pill” in 1975 (which she didn't write), Lynn becomes a de facto champion of birth control and, implicitly, the sexual freedom that goes with it. The song creates a furor at radio, with many stations refusing to play it. Despite the opposition, it soars to No. 5.

Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter, an autobiography co-written with New York Times reporter George Vecsey is one of the bestselling titles of 1976.

Lynn scores the last No. 1 of her long career in 1978 (it was released in late 1977) with “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed.”


1980s

Coal Miner's Daughter, the movie, is released in March 1980, with Sissy Spacek in the title role and Tommy Lee Jones playing Mooney. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, it wins a best actress honor for Spacek. Lynn continues to release singles, but with less success than in the previous decade.

Even so, she maintains a strong chart presence with Twitty through such offerings as “It's True Love,” “Lovin' What Your Lovin' Does to Me,” and “I Still Believe in Waltzes.”

In 1982, she lands the No. 9 solo hit, “I Lie,” her final Top 10 hit. She's elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983 and to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988.


1990s

Lynn all but disappears from the singles chart during the '90s, the sole exception being “Silver Thread and Golden Needles,” a Grammy-nominated (but low-charting) single from her Honky Tonk Angels album with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. The video features would-be suitors such as Chet Atkins, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Little Jimmy Dickens, Grandpa Jones, Ronnie Milsap, Bill Monroe (clearly Loretta's choice), Carl Perkins, Ricky Skaggs, and Marty Stuart.

In 1998, “Coal Miner's Daughter” is chosen for the Grammy Hall of Fame. During this decade, she grieves the loss of three significant figures in her life and career: Conway Twitty in 1993, Mooney Lynn in 1996, and Owen Bradley in 1998.


2000s

Lynn begins the new century with the release of the album Still Country. Then, in 2003, she is presented a Kennedy Center honor. But the big news comes in 2004 when she teams up with rock star and producer Jack White of the White Stripes for Van Lear Rose, an album of new material with all the songs written by Lynn, except for two she co-authored with White.

It goes to No. 2 on the country charts and to No. 24 on the Billboard 200 all-genres rankings, making it the most successful crossover album in Lynn's career. “Portland, Oregon” nets Lynn and White a Grammy in 2005 for best country collaboration and Van Lear Rose picks up a Grammy for best country album. However, the album yields no chart singles.

In 2001, she releases You're Cookin' It Country: My Favorite Recipes and Memories. The next year, working with author Patsi Bale Cox, Lynn hits the bookstores with Still Woman Enough: A Memoir.


2010s

Lynn wins a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2010. The compilation Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn appears that same year. Lynn releases another book in 2012, Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics. In 2013, President Barack Obama presents Lynn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She rolls out the album Full Circle in 2016, with recordings from the Cash cabin produced by John Carter Cash. It contains the duets “Everything It Takes” (with Elvis Costello) and “Lay Me Down” (with Willie Nelson). Lynn follows it in 2018 with Wouldn't It Be Great, which consists entirely of Lynn's solo compositions and co-writes. The title track is rewarded with her 18th Grammy nomination.

In April 2019, shortly before her 87th birthday, Lynn's music is celebrated at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena by an all-star lineup that includes Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Tanya Tucker, Miranda Lambert, Pistol Annies, Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Darius Rucker, Little Big Town, Martina McBride and Jack White, as well as her youngest sister, Crystal Gayle.


2020s

Lynn releases the single “I Fall to Pieces” as part of the promotion for her new book, Me & Patsy: Kickin' Up Dust -- My Friendship With Patsy Cline, a memoir she co-wrote with her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell. The single is co-produced by Russell and John Carter Cash.

“I Fall to Pieces,” which was Cline's first No. 1 hit (in 1961), was the song Lynn sang to honor Cline that year when she made her first appearance on Ernest Tubb's Midnite Jamboree radio show. At the time, Cline was in the hospital recovering from a serious car accident and heard the broadcast, then beckoned for Lynn to come visit. It was the beginning of Lynn and Cline's legendary friendship.

Loretta Lynn is more than an artist. She's a cultural archive -- one of the rapidly disappearing memories of how life in rural Appalachia was before the coming of the roads and television and the suburbanizing of America. In her songs we find the amber preserved images, attitudes and passions that have enabled country music to stand distinct in an increasingly homogenized world.

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