“Life, it seems, has thrown everything it’s got at Loretta Lynn,” journalist David Segal wrote in The Post 20 years ago, and there is no better way to put it.
Yet she had everything, or darn close to it. Sixteen No. 1 records and the money they brought in. The adoration of fans and the admiration of colleagues. Lynn was the first woman named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association — a feat she then topped by being named artist of the decade by the Academy of Country Music.
Lynn was compared once to the meteoric and definitive singer Hank Williams, most likely because she leaned hard into her songs and led with her inner hillbilly. But she might just as well have been called a counterpart to George Jones, that countryest of all country singers. She was a theme on which other artists did variations.
Loretta Lynn died Tuesday after 90 astounding years. She was tough and resourceful, gifted and grand. What began in a cabin up a remote draw called Butcher Hollow — “Butcher Holler,” to the natives — ended on a 3,000-acre spread near Nashville where people make RV pilgrimages to see her white-columned mansion.
A skilled songwriter as well as a great singer, Lynn was openly autobiographical in her music. She said once that her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn — a moonshiner when he married her when she was 15 — sometimes wondered which lines in her songs were about him. In fact, “90 percent of the time every line in there was for him,” Lynn once said. “Those songs was true to life.”
There’s a famous song that says country music needs trains, trucks and Mama — but like its cousin, the Delta blues, country just needs a lot of real life to chew on: sinning, praying, loving, hating, cheating, drinking, wishing, crying. Loneliness, epiphanies and laughter. So the more life threw at Loretta Lynn, the truer to life she could be.
The story goes that Doolittle heard his wife singing to the four children she’d had by age 19 and realized she should be a star. If I had to guess why she stuck with a womanizing, hard-drinking, sometimes violent man, it would be that Doo saw what was special in her. Though surely it was more complicated than that.
Together, Lynn and her husband got her to Nashville, where she befriended the superstar Patsy Cline and Cline’s producer Owen Bradley, a man who loved women’s voices. In the early 1960s, before Cline’s death in an airplane crash, the Cline-Bradley engine lifted Lynn to a place with the Grand Ole Opry, and from there she stepped to the top of the charts in 1967, with a Doolittle-inspired song that was an instant classic: “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).”
For the next 15 years, Lynn was never far from No. 1. Her songs explored the sexual politics of a new time — not at the theoretical level of college seminars but at the level where women shared kitchens and bedrooms and conflict with men. The great female singers of the period all explored the same rapidly shifting ground; Lynn was arguably the least pleading or sentimental. Tammy Wynette endorsed the power of “a lotta good lovin’ ” to keep a man in line. Dolly Parton pleaded with lovely Jolene not to take her man “just because you can.”
Lynn, by contrast, warned her rivals that she would meet them in “Fist City.” And she let her men know she would deal with them later.
What a force she was, this coal miner’s daughter. She blew the lid off in 1975, releasing a song she recorded with Bradley in 1972 — a lusty celebration of birth control. Years earlier, Lynn had taken a song to No. 1 called “One’s on the Way,” about the soul-crushing life of a young woman with two small children and another one coming. Now, she celebrated freedom for the next generation in a song bluntly titled “The Pill.”
Life threw everything it could scrape up at Loretta Lynn, and for 90 years she used it all to be bigger and stronger and more magnificent. Another queen is dead.