American country singer and songwriter Born into a hardscrabble life, Lynn used her background to infuse her songs with emotions that were appreciated by fans of country music as well as pop music.
Born: April 14, 1935; Butcher Hollow, Kentucky
Loretta Lynn was born Loretta Webb, the second of eight children, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, a small coal-mining town. Her parents were Clara, who was of Cherokee descent, and Melvin, who was a coal miner and part-time farmer of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent. The family was poor but happy. Because Clara loved to sing, on Saturday nights the family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and Lynn memorized all the songs. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and left after completing the eighth grade. When Lynn was thirteen, she baked a pie for a social to raise money to purchase new windows for the school. At that social, Mooney (a nickname related to his bootlegging activities) Lynn outbid other admirers for the pie she had baked, winning the opportunity to walk her home. With her parents’ permission, they were married when she was fifteen. Afterworking for about seven months at various jobs locally and in Wabash, Indiana, Mooney moved Lynn to Custer, Washington, some three thousand miles away. From the start the marriage was rocky, primarily because of Mooney’s drinking, womanizing, and physical abuse of Lynn (although she acknowledged that she also attacked him).
The couple had four children in Washington: Betty, Jack, Ernest, and Clara. Lynn and Mooney worked at a variety of jobs until Mooney persuaded her to learn how to play the guitar he had bought her for her eighteenth birthday. She also began to read country-music magazines and write her own songs. Although she was reluctant to sing in public, Mooney tried to persuade a bandleader at a local club to let Lynn sing with the band. Although the bandleader declined the offer, he did provide her an audition for a radio show he hosted. She was a hit, becoming a regular on his show. With the money she made from the radio show and from singing at a nightclub on Saturday nights and at a local Grange Hall, she bought a new guitar, wrotemore songs, and formed her own band, the Trail Blazers. After winning a television talent contest in Tacoma, Washington, she was contacted by Zero Records and made her first record, “I’m a Honky-Tonk Girl.” To promote the record, she and Mooney packed up the kids and traveled eighty thousand miles, visiting radio stations and disc jockeys before they got to Nashville, Tennessee, and the Grand Ole Opry in 1962. Lynn signed a contract with Decca Records, and she continued touring. While on tour in 1964, she had twin girls, Peggy and Patsy. Since the 1960’s she has had tremendous success in country music, and she has also branched out in other fields.
She owns a chain of Western clothing stores, and at one time she and Mooney owned a rodeo. The couple owned most of Hurricane Mills, a town near Nashville, and they lived in a plantation-style mansion there. Mooney died from complications of diabetes on August 6, 1996. The Music Finding a Voice. Although she had grown up singing and listening to country music on the Grand Ole Opry, Lynn’s musical career began when her husband bought her a thirty-dollar guitar for her eighteenth birthday. After she learned to play the guitar and had written some songs, Mooney, who was convinced that his wife could make it in show business, took her to a club that featured country-and-western music. The bandleader had her audition for his radio show, and she won a spot. A second break occurred when she entered and won a television talent show for country singers which was hosted by Buck Owens. The television exposure led Zero Records to sign her to a contract. The first song she recorded was her own, although originally it had been intended to be sung by Kitty Wells, reigning Queen of Country Music. Of course, since Lynn had never met Wells, the song, “I’m a Honky-Tonk Girl,” had not been recorded. It became Lynn’s first hit, but not until she and Mooney promoted the song by visiting a number of radio stations, urging them to play her record.
When the couple got to Nashville, Lynn recorded some “demo tapes” and submitted them to record companies. Because Owen Bradley of Decca Records (now MCA) liked one of the songs, “Fool Number One,” so much, he signed Lynn in order to get the song, which was then recorded by Brenda Lee. Bradley believed that Lynn sounded too much like Wells. Lynn realized that she had to work on developing a distinctive style. She wrote songs for Doyle and Teddy Wilburn’s Sure-Fire music publishing company, and she befriended some important country performers, notably Patsy Cline. Lynn subsequently made some guest appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, and she became a regular cast member in 1962. Lynn toured and recorded songs, becoming Decca Records’s number-one female recording artist. In 1967 Billboard named her Female Country Artist of the Year, and the following year she received a similar award from the National Association of Record Manufacturers. “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Fist City” won awards for her songwriting. Collaborations and Success. Ernest Tubb, a legendary country singer and fellow Decca artist, approached Lynn about recording duets. “Sweet Thang” and several other hits resulted from this collaboration. Her recording of the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was such a hit that the song was later made into a film starring Sissy Spacek in 1980. (Spacek, who sang Lynn’s songs, wonevery major Best Actress Award, including the Academy Award, for her performance.) In 1971 Lynn’s duet with Conway Twitty won the Country Music Association VocalDuoof the Year award, and Lynn was Female Vocalist of the Year. The following year, breaking the gender barrier, she was named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association.
During the 1970’s, Lynn enjoyed great success. Her duets with Twitty and Tubb won several awards, from the Country Music Association and from the Academy of Country Music. Her duets were extremely successful, because of the “chemistry” created with another singer and because the songs often related to her personal life. She was the Academy of Country Music’s Artist of the Decade in 1979, and two years later the National Songwriters Association inducted her into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Music and Business. Despite the accidental death of her son Jack Benny Lynn in 1984, Lynn continued to make personal appearances. However, between 1984 and 2000, only five of her songs made the country charts. In 1988 she was inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. Four years later, she and Mooney decided to stop touring and move to Branson, Missouri, where other country artists had established theaters. Lynn performed there in the Loretta Lynn Theater. After Mooney’s death in 1996, Lynn stopped performing for a while, but in 1997 she went back to the Grand Ole Opry for an appearance. She did some shows in Florida, and then after doing a gospel album for Heartland Records in 1997 she went back on the road, performing in the Middle East during the Gulf War. In 2001 she recorded a single, “I Can’t Hear the Music Anymore,” as a tribute to Mooney, whohad uttered thewords shortly before his death.
Musical Legacy Lynn wrote many of her songs, some with strong feminist themes, although she did not consider herself a feminist. “The Pill,” “One’s on the Way, and ”Pregnant Again" addressed women’s rights to control their own bodies. “Fist City” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” addressed the issues of domestic violence and women’s sexual rights. Because of the success of the book and film Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lynn became a recognizable personality, and she often appeared on television, in magazines (Newsweek had her on the cover of its June 18, 1973, issue), and in newspapers (the New York Post had a feature on her life in its August 16, 1975, issue). In 1981 readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal voted her one of the 100 Most Important Women. Lynn’s folksy manner, her gospel roots, and her ability to bare her emotions in a song made her a legend in the world of country music. After Lynn, other female country singers became increasingly willing to sing about difficult subjects that had been ignored in the past.