“If your eyes are on me,” Loretta Lynn sang onstage nearly a decade ago, “you’re looking at country” — and if you were standing out in the charmed darkness of Washington’s 9:30 Club that night, here’s what your eyes saw: A regal, fragile, cheerful 81-year-old matriarch of country music decked out in a twinkly pink gown with NFL-kicker-grade shoulder pads, holding her microphone like a scepter, smiling down on her faithful — a coal miner’s daughter turned benevolent honky-tonk queen.
Is that country music? An American Dream vector that lifts people out of hardship into something sparklier, more humane and more fun? Sadly, like other forms of stardom, the lift remains literal for the stars but figurative for the audiences, and Lynn seemed to understand the whole transaction better than most. A few moments later in the set, she sang “The Pill,” a history-making ode to birth control and probably the most famous song ever written about the ongoing fight for women’s bodily autonomy. Turns out, in patriarchal America, a queen is still a woman.
Lynn died on Tuesday at her home in Tennessee. She was 90 years old, and her life followed the storybook contours that Hollywood cliches are made of. So much so, that her journey from elementary-school dropout, to teen mom, to Nashville superstar felt destined to be transposed into “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1980 biopic named after the singer’s 1970 signature hit. Sissy Spacek would go on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn, but the song’s drama was still tough to eclipse. Within its eight-word opening line — “Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter …” — Lynn tells her story with melody, steering it all over the road, evoking an erratic path through poverty’s complications, eventually landing on the right note, as if by will more than fate.
But if “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was Lynn’s hallmark, “The Pill” is her triumph, and its legacy in a post-Roe America has become more complicated than previously imaginable. In 1975, “The Pill” was a controversial hit about hard-won freedoms, Lynn’s playful twang conveying its liberated mood with levity and bounce. Listen to “The Pill” in 2022, though, and the flutter in her voice sounds nervous about whatever’s coming next. And here’s something even messier: Lynn was an early and avid supporter of Donald Trump, the candidate-turned-president whose Supreme Court appointees, in their eventual overturning of Roe v. Wade, would help strip away the very rights that her art ultimately fought for. How do we begin to understand that?
Obviously, the shape of Lynn’s legacy will eventually be decided by her music more than her political endorsements, and that’s good, because her songs make the chronic problems in today’s country music industry feel so clear. The inexcusable lack of women’s voices in contemporary country isn’t about establishing superficial parity on the radio. It’s about making space for women to tell stories that only women can tell. Isn’t country music supposed to be about telling the truth? Lynn — often righteously, sometimes paradoxically — told the whole of hers. Let’s hear the rest.