Oct 5, 2022 - News

Country music icon Loretta Lynn dies at 90

Loretta Lynn performing

Loretta Lynn performing in 1970. Photo: CBS via Getty Images

Loretta Lynn, the country music legend whose music took her from the poverty of an east Kentucky coal town to the heights of fame, died Tuesday at her home. She was 90.

  • Her plainspoken poetry dealt frankly with love, cheating and motherhood, and set the standard for generations of singer-songwriters who followed behind her.

Lynn's autobiographical anthem "Coal Miner's Daughter," and the Oscar-winning movie that followed, told the story of her humble upbringing in Butcher Hollow.

  • She turned her real-life experiences into chart-toppers and sold 45 million albums worldwide.

Zoom in: Lynn was the ultimate self-made Nashville success story. She recalled sleeping in a car with her husband the night before she debuted on the Grand Ole Opry. She was so poor when she arrived she had to borrow clothes, even underpants, from the legend Patsy Cline.

  • "I didn't have hardly any clothes, so [Patsy] took care of me and gave me hers," Lynn told the Tennessean in 2015. "She gave me a pair of panties that, I swear, I wore for four years. I don't know what I've done with them, but they never did wear out."

The big picture: Lynn's music ultimately brought her to the country music mountaintop. In 1972, she became the first woman to be named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association.

  • Across more than 60 years in the music industry, she established herself as a ferocious and inimitable songwriter and vocalist. Her best-known work ranged from steely-tough to tender.
  • Hits like "Fist City," "Don't Come Home A Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" and "The Pill" shattered boundaries for women in country music.

What they're saying: "Loretta Lynn's life was unlike any other, yet she drew from it a body of work that resonates with people everywhere," Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said.

  • "In a music business that is often concerned with aspiration and fantasy, Loretta insisted on sharing her own brash and brave truth."

The bottom line: Though she is one of country music's greatest artists, Lynn saw her accomplishments through the same unsentimental lens that made her work indelible.

  • "Cultural contributions? What’s that?" she told the Tennessean when she was set to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 2003. "I was just sayin’ it like I was livin' it. People'd go around that, but I went right through the middle."

Read the Tennessean's obituary written by Peter Cooper

Loretta Lynn sitting with Gretchen Wilson, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire.
Loretta Lynn sitting with Gretchen Wilson, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire in 2010. Photo: Rick Diamond/WireImage for NARAS

Although Lynn is celebrated as a pioneer in country music today, her matter-of-fact treatment of topics like divorce, sex and infidelity often put her at odds with the industry's buttoned-up establishment.

  • Several of her songs were initially banned by radio stations.

Between the lines: Her blunt-force honesty from the start of her career clashed with the genteel image many female performers adopted in the 1950s and 60s.

  • At a time when women were struggling to break through in the country music industry, "The Pill" hit harder than a two-by-four.

"This old maternity dress I've got is goin' in the garbage. The clothes I'm wearin' from now on won't take up so much yardage," she sang.

  • "Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills. Yeah, I'm makin' up for all those years since I've got the pill."

Flash forward: Lynn set the stage for unapologetic artists like Tanya Tucker, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and countless others.

For example: There is a straight line connecting "Fist City," "One's On The Way" and other Lynn classics with Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman," Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead" and Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round."

Loretta Lynn with Jack White at the Grammys.
Loretta Lynn with Jack White at the Grammys in 2005. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Lynn had already achieved icon status with older generations when she collaborated with rocker Jack White on the album "Van Lear Rose," which introduced her to new fans.

  • The album won Grammys for best country album and best country collaboration.

Why it matters: Lynn was five decades and dozens of albums into her career, and her music was ubiquitous in the country genre itself. And yet, the 2004 partnership with White showed she still had a new leaf to turn over.

  • "Van Lear Rose" is peppered with Lynn's deeply personal storytelling, but the album was heralded for its stripped-down and rock-tinged sounds.
  • The hipster tastemaking music website Pitchfork gave "Van Lear Rose" a glowing 9.3 rating. CMT ranked it as the 18th-best country album of all time.
  • "('Van Lear Rose' is) a homecoming for a small-town musician gifted with poise, humor and compassion, but at its very heart, it's happy to be just a kick-ass country record," the Pitchfork review says.

Be smart: Lynn followed up the album's release with a tour that ventured into rock clubs across the country.

How it worked: Lynn told CMT that she had become accustomed to pursuing perfection in the studio with producer Owen Bradley, who worked on many of her hit albums.

  • Whereas Bradley preferred to do take after take of songs, White wanted to capture the songs in a single take. In an Instagram post Tuesday, White described how there were times he was so moved by Lynn's performances in the studio, he needed to take a pause and step outside.
  • "I couldn't believe what I was witnessing and hearing," White said. "I almost felt like she didn't even realize it, you know. But she was just a genius and just brilliant at what she did and we were lucky to have her and people can learn from example the rags to riches part of it and the beautiful natural voice part of it."

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