By JOHN LESLIE
Before “bro-country” singers sang love songs to their pickup trucks, before outlaw country stars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings broke all the rules, there was Loretta Lynn. Lynn, who passed away on Oct. 4, broke ground for women in the country music genre. New generations of women country singers owe her a debt for her hard work and success in a time where women were not part of the Nashville boys club. Her success paved the way for her sister (Crystal Gayle), Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, and more recent artists like the Chicks, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves. Lynn said, “I wasn’t the first woman in country music … I was just the first one to stand up there and say what I thought, what life was about.” (1)
Loretta Lynn was born in Butcher Hollow, Ky., in 1932, the second of eight children of Clara Marie Webb and coal miner Melvin Theodore “Ted” Webb, who died at 52. At the time of his death following a series of strokes, her father had been diagnosed with Black Lung Disease. Lynn married her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn (age 21), at the age of 15. It was Doolittle Lynn who bought Loretta her first guitar and encouraged her to sing in bars in the Washington state logging town where they lived after leaving Kentucky. Her first hit, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” was promoted by the couple in a long road trip to Nashville that’s depicted in the biopic, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The film, which got its title from her hit song of the same name, depicted her childhood and the early years of her career, her rise in Nashville, friendship with Patsy Cline, and her marriage.
The key to Lynn’s songwriting was that she wrote about what she knew. “So when I sing those country songs about women struggling to keep things going, you could say I’ve been there. … Like I say, I know what it’s like to be pregnant and nervous and poor.” (2) When Lynn wrote about drunk, cheating husbands, it came from the heart.
This honesty put Lynn at odds with Nashville record executives and country radio program directors who thought some of her songs would not be appropriate for radio play. These “controversial” songs like “Don’t Come A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” (1966), “Wings Upon Your Horns” (1969, depicting a woman’s loss of her virginity to an unfaithful man), “Fist City“ (1968, dealing with infidelity), and “Rated X” (1972, about society’s ill treatment of divorced women) all climbed the charts despite the gatekeepers in Nashville. (3)
Lynn’s 1975 hit, “The Pill,” which took up the question of contraception forthrightly, rose to the number one spot on the country charts despite being excluded from radio play. This is “Something that’s really important to women,” Loretta Lynn wrote in her 1976 memoir “Coal Miner’s Daughter”: “[Men who run the radio stations] don’t want no part of, leastways not on the air.” (4) “The Pill” retains a lot of relevance today, given attacks on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, with its assertion that women have the right to decide when and how often to reproduce.
There’s a gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill
Politically traditional and conservative in her views, Lynn avoided the mainstream feminism of the period, but this didn’t stop her from sympathizing with women and girls right to control their own bodies. “Personally, I think you should prevent unwanted pregnancy rather than get an abortion,” Lynn wrote in her memoir. “I don’t think I could have an abortion. It would be wrong for me. But I’m thinking of all the poor girls who get pregnant when they don’t want to be, and how they should have a choice instead of leaving it up to some politician or doctor who don’t have to raise the baby. I believe they should be able to have an abortion.” (5)
Lynn was a union member and supporter for all of her career. She first joined the American Federation of Musicians in Washington state at the beginning of her career and belonged to AFM local 257 in Nashville for well over 50 years. Speaking of the importance of the United Mine Workers (UMWA), she said, “Anybody who worked in the coal mines at that time had to be in the union.” (6)
In 1972, Lynn organized a benefit concert in Louisville, Ky., with 50 other country music artists to help the widows and children of 38 miners killed in a coal mine explosion in Hyden, Ky.: “I remember when that Hyden mine blew up in Kentucky, on December 30th 1970, and I got myself in a big jam trying to raise money for those coal miners’ kids’ education. … Some of those widows testified later that their husbands had warned them about the dangerous blasting they were doing in the mine. But the wives knew enough not to ask any questions, or else her husbands would have been laid off.” (7)
Lynn also wrote about the effects of black lung on her father and other miners in her memoir: “After he worked in the mines for a few years, he had trouble breathing. The doctors used to say that a minor was ” nervous” or that he smoked too much. They didn’t know about Black Lung in those days. Black Lung is what you get when you breathe in too much coal dust. It never leaves your lungs—just stays there and clogs up your breathing, puts extra strain on your heart. They used to tell the miners that coal dust was good for you, that it helped ward off colds. Or they’d tell a miner that he would get sicker from dirty sheets than from working in a coal mine—lots of stupid things, but nobody knew any better.” (8)
Country music has evolved from the beginnings of the genre as a marriage of influences from blues and hillbilly (Appalachian folk and bluegrass) music to the mostly watered-down pop-music influenced new country of today. The evolution of country away from its roots has meant the de-emphasis of traditional instruments like the fiddle, banjo and steel guitar. At best, the latest Nashville product is more akin to ’70s country rock than to the real thing.
The genre’s evolution has mirrored the rightward political evolution of U.S. politics since the 1970s. Nashville has ensured this evolution by giving more space to artists who sing about the “traditional way of life” and the way things “used to be.” Country’s conservative evolution has also influenced the country versus city divide in politics.
Old country sang about the life of the poor working people and their struggles. In old country, the boss was always a sonofabitch that put the worker down. Johnny Paycheck’s anthem, “Take This Job and Shove It,” epitomized the attitude.
I’ve been workin’ in this factory
For now on fifteen years
All this time I watched my woman
Drownin’ in a pool of tears
And I’ve seen a lot of good folk die
That had a lot of bills to pay
I’d give the shirt right offa’ my back
If I had the guts to say
Take this job and shove it
I ain’t working here no more (9)
Loretta Lynn was part of this evolution as well, lending her support to both Bush presidencies, and later, to Donald Trump. This doesn’t take away from her musical legacy and her importance in the music business. Socialists have to try to understand the mixed and contradictory consciousness intertwined with country music’s ideas of class, patriotism, and social issues without adapting to the backwardness of many of those views.
Country music’s best hope for the future is outside of the Nashville system. As artists and bands in the music industry as a whole are less dependent on record companies and radio play, country artists just might rediscover their own roots and take the music back to where the boss is still a sonofabitch and they can stop singing about beer and pickup trucks.
- “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” page 12
- “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” page 13