Well, I was borned a coal miner’s daughter / In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler…
We know her story because we know her songs. Born into Appalachian poverty during the Depression. Married at 15, a mother the next year. Young Loretta Lynn lived a life circumscribed by grindingly hard work and spousal abuse. That is, until her husband, Doolittle, struck by her singing talent, bought her a guitar. And the rest is musical history.
By the time she passed away on October 4 at the age of 90, the voice of that young housewife from Kentucky had been burned into the American consciousness. The Country Music Association’s Sarah Trahern remembered the country music superstar as an artist who “bravely wrote about socially and culturally relevant topics that came to define a generation.” And her appeal wasn’t just to country fans. Like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn made it into that pantheon of artists about whom people say, “I hate country music, BUT…”
I’ve always looked at artists like Lynn, who forge brilliant careers out of literally nothing but a voice and an iron will, with a mixture of awe and confusion. When you’re barely managing to eke out an existence, when you have three children before your 20th birthday, when life is one endless round of exhausting menial labor, how can you make music a priority? How can music mean anything more than a pleasant but brief diversion? To people who are fighting to survive, how is it possible to stake everything on such an insubstantial dream?
Lynn herself, looking back on those early days of her career—chronicled with both hilarity and sadness in the 1980 movie Coal Miner’s Daughter—kept it simple: She wanted to make her husband proud of her. But with Loretta Lynn, things were never quite as simple as they sounded. Whoever or wherever the drive came from, if she was going to write and sing, then she was going to write and sing the truth. And the truth was complicated.
It’ll be over my dead body, so get out while you can/’Cause you ain’t woman enough to take my man.
Loretta Lynn became known for singing about cheating husbands, drunken fights, and weary women just longing for a little rest and a little fun. Her songs were messy because her life was messy. Her husband did all those things she wrote about: “Doo would always try to figure out which line was for him, and 90 percent of the time every line in there was for him,” Loretta once told an interviewer. And yet he also encouraged and promoted her music. Her growing independence and willingness to stand up to him sat in tension with her reliance on him, right up until his death in 1996 ended their 48-year marriage.
The love of family was precious to Lynn, and yet she yearned for some respite from childbearing and childrearing. But she found it hard to identify with the feminist movement. Even as it rose around her and she saw it changing lives, she couldn’t seem to find a place for herself in it. As she noted wryly in the song “One’s on the Way,” written for her by Shel Silverstein, “the girls in New York City … [who] march for women’s lib” seemed worlds away from ordinary housewives scrambling to scrub the floor and hang the laundry on the line without tripping over the kids underfoot. She saw herself firmly ensconced within one of those groups, and it wasn’t the group that marched.
At the same time, she could hardly be called a traditionalist. She sang about sex and divorce and a frank envy of the men who got to go out and live it up while their wives were stuck at home. She sang about birth control as a lifeline for women in her situation, women who became grandmothers in their 30s, and whatever your opinions on birth control, she made you understand how she felt. She was a woman of faith whose songs were decidedly earthy.
We were poor, but we had love/That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of…
Perhaps that’s one reason why Loretta Lynn was so widely loved: She simply sang the truth as she knew it. Her lyrics didn’t fit neatly into ideological boxes, and her faith didn’t mean she ignored the presence of sin. Even many of Lynn’s fellow Christians didn’t always know what to do with all that unvarnished truth.
But Lynn didn’t know any other way to tell it. She had hopes and ideals like everyone else, but at heart she was a realist. She would express a deep desire for justice while at the same time matter-of-factly handling the everyday injustices in front of her, because that was what she always had to do. And that was what made people feel that she understood them. She was a singer for those who held onto a thread of hope even though their hopes never quite materialized.
Lynn was rooted in her memories of the father who scraped money together to buy his children shoes, and the mother who smiled even when her hands were bleeding from scrubbing clothes on a washboard, and she sang for them and for people like them. Her voice was their voice.
Instinctively, Loretta Lynn seemed to sense that music goes even deeper than hopes and dreams and ideals. It’s a unique gift from God that brings out what’s raw and real inside us, shares it with others, and connects us with them. Maybe, ultimately, that’s why she had to sing, and why we had to listen—because all that truth buried inside her, about all the hardship and unfairness and unreconciled paradoxes, was aching to come out and be heard. Maybe, in the midst of her struggle for survival, singing was what enabled her soul to survive. And maybe that’s why she didn’t try to hide or cover up or whitewash anything. She used her great gifts to tell the truth, and it was the truth that set her free.