I feel like she was too famous for one of my usual obits … it would take me weeks to write a proper obituary for Loretta Lynn, and a book publisher to get it distributed.
So how about ten things about Loretta, to put her life and career in perspective?
1. Born Loretta Webb in 1932, she was named for movie star Loretta Young.
3. Three of her siblings had recording careers of their own, including Crystal Gayle Webb, who dropped the last name on stage. Patty Loveless is a distant cousin; another distant cousin, Venus Ramey, was Miss America 1944.
4. Born and raised in Kentucky, 15-year-old Loretta got married and moved to the Cascades in central Washington state in 1948, where her husband Oliver Lynn worked as a logger. They had two children before Loretta was 18 and two more before she was 21, then twins in 1964, when Loretta was in her early thirties. The couple – known to some of us for their Crisco commercials in the 1980s – was married for nearly 50 years before Oliver’s death in 1996.
Oliver was a drunk, a wife beater and a womanizer, but Loretta stuck with him because, in her words “He thought I was something special, more special than anyone else in the world, and never let me forget it. That belief would be hard to shove out the door.” She also said, in her defense, that he never hit her once that she didn’t hit him back twice.
5. She was a wife and mother to four kids when she got her first guitar, a gift from Oliver on their fifth anniversary. She learned to play it and formed a band with her brother Jay Lee, and they played the local bars in Blaine and Custer, Washington from the middle 1950s until 1960, when a performance on local television provided her first break.
A local businessman watched the show, loved the song, and gave Oliver and Loretta enough money to go to Los Angeles and record “I’m a Honkeytonk Woman.” Oliver printed 3,500 copies and mailed them to record executives and radio stations around the nation. After he didn’t get any responses, he and Loretta drove up and down the west coast and pushed the song to the radio stations themselves.
It worked; the song eventually reached number 14 on the charts and became her big break. The Wilburn brothers loved the song and invited Loretta to tour with them. Ernie Tubbs invited her to sing it on his radio program, and when the Grand Ole Opry heard it, they invited her to sing it in Nashville. Nashville producer Owen Bradley heard it and signed her to Decca records in 1961.
6. Loretta hit number one 24 times on the country charts and had nearly a hundred chart hits. Her first charted album was in 1961, her last in 2015. Six of her albums reached number one.
7. She nearly had a seventh number one album in 2004, hitting number two with the Jack White-produced “Van Lear Rose,” when Loretta was 72 years old. Their collaboration on “Portland, Oregon” is often listed among the best songs of the 21st century. Loretta wrote or co-wrote every song on the album.
8. During the heyday of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was actually Loretta and Conway Twitty who dominated the duo of the year voting. They won CMA’s award from 1972-1975, AMA’s award from 1975-1977 and Music City’s award from 1971-1981. They collaborated on 11 albums; four of them hit number one and nine reached the top 10. The first seven reached the top three. They had 12 top ten singles, including five consecutive number ones.
9. Her 1976 autobiography, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” was made into a 1980 movie that received seven Oscar nominations. Sissy Spacek, who portrayed Loretta in the movie and even sang all the songs, won the Oscar for best actress. Citing its cultural and historical importance, The Library of Congress chose the movie for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2019.
10. A list of her awards would be its own book. Name an award, and Loretta won it. She’s in the country music hall of fame, the songwriter’s hall of fame and the gospel music hall of fame. She has lifetime achievement awards from everyone, and she’s won more of them for her writing than for her singing. She owns four Grammys and 14 ACM awards, six AMA awards and three more from the Americana awards. She was the CMA entertainer of the decade for the 1970s, the only female to date to win that award. She hoisted more trophies than an alcoholic trophy salesman.
Loretta was a tiny woman who might not have weighed a hundred pounds in her entire life except for when she was pregnant, yet she was one of the strongest women of her generation. Hell, of any generation. She was raised in a Kentucky Holler and raised her own family in a logging community, places so far removed from fame that fame can’t even find them on a map. Yet she became one of the most famous people in the country.
Dolly Parton has a well-deserved reputation for smarts and toughness, building an entertainment dynasty despite growing up in a society that raised her to be a breeding cow. Tammy Wynette has a well-deserved reputation for battling the odds and reaching stardom while raising a family in a world where motherhood was supposed to be her fulltime job. Emmylou Harris has a well-deserved reputation for being a great collaborator as well as a great solo artist.
Loretta Lynn was maybe the closest thing to all three, wrapped into one tiny package.
She was smart, she was tough, and she built an entertainment dynasty, not from bricks but from words. Her body of written work stands up against the greatest songwriters in the business, and her autobiography became an iconic American story.
She built her musical career by working on her craft while also raising four children, and she made it by taking full advantage of what was likely the only break she was ever going to get. And her collaborations were successful on levels that rival anyone in the business, including one outside her musical style when she was well past retirement age.
Loretta toured until 2018, when the combination of a 2017 stroke and a broken hip finally got her off the road and into her rocking chair. She was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, she raised a family in a Cascade logger camp and she died in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. What a fitting final destination for a woman who brought so much of her world to us in her music, right? She was country, through and through. And she took her brush to the hollows of Kentucky, the mills of central Washington and the mines of eastern Tennessee and painted them like a master.
Rest in peace, Miss Loretta, and thanks for a life well hollered.