Loretta Lynn, who overcame meager beginnings to transform her country career into international fame and fortune, passed away peacefully in her sleep Tuesday at her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, according to her publicist. She was 90.
By the time Coal Miner’s Daughter hit the big screen in 1980, based on her signature song of the same name, even the most casual country music fan would’ve been intimately familiar with Lynn’s life story, thanks to the 1970 #1 that paid tribute to her beginnings in rural poverty in Butcher Holler, Kentucky.
The love of Loretta’s life, Doolittle “Doo” Lynn, married 13-year-old Loretta Webb in 1948. By the time Loretta was twenty, she had four children, and her singing around the house made her husband believe she could be a star. Doo bought Loretta a guitar, she taught herself to play. Lynn and her ambitious husband embarked on a grassroots promotional campaign, visiting radio disc jockeys all across the country. By 1960, her debut single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” reached #14, and she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.
The legendary Patsy Cline took Loretta under her wing, and her protégée was hard-hit by her sudden death in a plane crash in 1963. Patsy left such an impression on Loretta, she named one of her twins after her when they were born in 1964.
As a vocalist, Loretta may have carried on the stylings of her idol Kitty Wells, but when it came to songwriting, the untrained musician struck out on a path all her own. Doo’s wandering eye gave life to classics like “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Fist City,” and “Don’t Come Home a’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” the latter of which would become her first #1 in 1966.
Loretta never shied away from taboo topics, particularly ones that affected women. She tackled then-controversial issues like divorce and birth control in “Rated X” and “The Pill,” and remained unscathed when they were banned by some radio stations.
Appropriately, the self-styled pioneer was the Country Music Association’s first Female Vocalist of the Year in 1967, an award she’d win again in both 1972 and 1973. The early seventies were an epic time for Loretta as she accomplished a task that’s still difficult today: in 1972, she became the first woman ever to be voted CMA Entertainer of the Year.
From there, her horizons only expanded. She teamed with Conway Twitty to redefine the country duet with pairings like “After the Fire Is Gone,” “Lead Me On,” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” The two would be named CMA Vocal Duo every year from 1972 until 1975.
In 1976, Loretta found time to write her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter. The accompanying 1980 movie of the same name — starring Sissy Spacek as Loretta and Tommy Lee Jones as Doo — became one of the year’s top-ten highest-grossing films. The film’s success earned Spacek the Academy Award for Best Actress, and catapulted Loretta to the status of American music icon.
By the end of the seventies, Loretta was such a widely marketable commodity, Procter & Gamble chose her to be the spokesperson for its line of oil and shortening. “Criso’ll do you proud every time!” was Loretta’s tagline in a series of memorable TV spots.
Throughout her life, Loretta remained fiercely devoted to her family, doing her best to help both her siblings and her children launch their own country careers. Her youngest sister, Brenda Gail Webb, was reborn Crystal Gayle after Loretta re-fashioned her name, taking inspiration from a Krystal fast-food sign.
Loretta also set about writing her sister’s first hit, “I’ve Cried (The Blue Right Out of My Eyes).” Crystal would succeed her sister in taking home the CMA Female Vocalist trophy twice, in 1977 and 1978. Loretta’s twin daughters, Patsy and Peggy, also achieved some success in the nineties, signing a contract with Warner Brothers as The Lynns.
Loretta’s love for her family also brought her heartbreak. In 1984, life dealt her a difficult blow when her oldest son, 34-year-old Jack Benny Lynn, drowned on her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
Just four years later, Loretta achieved the highest honor in her field: induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In the nineties, as her husband’s health began to fail, Loretta focused on taking care of the man she’d fallen in love with as a teenager. She managed to finish the memorable Honky Tonk Angels album with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette in 1994, but suffered a serious heartbreak when Doo passed away in 1996.
Though already a country legend, Loretta’s career highlights were still far from over. 2002 brought a second volume of her autobiography, this time titled Still Woman Enough. In 2003, she received the Kennedy Center Honor, ahead of her 2004 Grammy-winning collaboration with rocker Jack White, Van Lear Rose.
The woman who’d started her music career with only her wit, hard work, and one-of-a-kind sense of humor was never one to give up, even in her 80s. She joked she’d taken care of John Carter Cash backstage at the Opry so his parents, June Carter and Johnny Cash, could perform. In her later years, she headed to Cash Cabin with John Carter Cash as producer, recording in the same space where the Man in Black recorded his final songs.
2016’s Full Circle was nominated for a Grammy, ahead of a holiday volume, White Christmas Blue, that followed the same year. The 2017 release of Loretta’s third album with John Carter, titled Wouldn’t It Be Great, was delayed when she suffered a stroke.
An announcement about Loretta’s memorial is expected in the coming days.
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