Why Loretta Lynn is the “Female Hank Williams” of Country Music
More than six decades after the iconic singer-songwriter’s voice first hit the airwaves, her prolific and truthful songs remain as relevant as ever.
“I put my whole heart and soul and body into my writing. I wrote about how I feel and what I am. I guess when you boil it all down, every song is about me. It’s my eyes that are seein’ what I write about. And my heart that’s feelin’ all those things.” ~ Loretta Lynn, Honky Tonk Girl (Knopf, 2012)
Atrailblazer is defined as a “pioneer in any field or endeavor,” and country music can boast of having more than a few trailblazers that shaped the genre that songwriter Harlan Howard described as, “Three chords and the truth.” People such as Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Kitty Wells had all made groundbreaking history by the time that Loretta Lynn, a young wife and mother who heralded from the hills of Kentucky, came along and boldly challenged the status quo.
It was Owen Bradley, her producer at Decca Records, who paid Loretta the ultimate compliment as a songwriter by dubbing her country music’s “Female Hank Williams.” As the first solo female country artist to top the charts with self-penned songs, she pushed boundaries by writing about controversial topics such as birth control, alcoholism, divorce, and infidelity. With her refreshing sense of honesty complimented by a natural innocence, Loretta’s lyrics are simply her truth.
Reminders of Loretta Lynn’s stature in country music are apparent around Nashville today. In 2020, she became the first woman to have a statue dedicated in her honor outside of the historic Ryman Auditorium, the place where she made her Grand Ole Opry debut in 1960 and became an Opry member two years later. Strolling down Broadway, her image is seen on the revolving sign at the iconic Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where the bashful, yet determined, newcomer landed one of her first major gigs as a performer on Ernest Tubb’s Midnite Jamboree radio program.
Ernest Tubb, a revered singer-songwriter, had been a hero of Loretta’s since her childhood days in Kentucky, when her family would gather around their Philco radio and tune in to WSM to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. In 1963, a couple of years after her Opry and Midnite Jamboree debut, Loretta, one of the most promising up-and-coming female country artists, was stunned when Tubb asked her to record a duet album with him.
Two additional collaborative albums with Tubb would follow, and Loretta, who always treasured his friendship and steadfast support, ensured that he play himself in the 1980 biopic on her life, Coal Miner’s Daughter. By the time the critically acclaimed movie was released, Loretta, whose career had begun just two decades prior in smoke-filled honky tonks in the Pacific Northwest, had already earned her status as a country music legend.
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Loretta’s upbringing in Butcher Holler, Kentucky is memorialized in her 1970 autobiographical song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Born in a one room cabin on April 14, 1932, Loretta Webb was the second of Ted and Clara Webb’s eight children. With Ted working long hours in a nearby Van Lear coal mine and Clara running the household, Loretta, the eldest daughter, often found herself caring for her younger siblings and singing them to sleep.
At just fifteen, she married Oliver V. Lynn, Jr. (nicknamed “Mooney”), a World War II veteran and himself a young coal miner. She soon discovered that her new husband was a dreamer, anxious to roam beyond the hills of Kentucky. Within a few months of their marriage, Loretta, who had never ventured beyond the family homestead, boarded a train and headed 3,000 miles west to her new home in Custer, Washington.
Four children came in quick succession, and the young couple found themselves barely getting by. After hearing Loretta sing Kitty Wells’ songs and other tunes that she spontaneously made-up around the house, Mooney decided that his timid wife’s promising singing voice was their way out of poverty. He bought her a $17 guitar from Sears & Roebuck that she taught herself to play, and then got her booked singing in local honky tonks.
In February of 1960, Loretta found herself in a Los Angeles studio recording her first album, consisting only of songs she swiftly had written, on a record label called Zero. That summer, she and Mooney were out self-promoting the album when they learned that her self-penned single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” had hit №14 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. A few weeks later, the rising singer and her driven husband were bound for Nashville.
The Decca Doll
Upon arriving in Music City, Loretta’s career catapulted when Doyle and Teddy Wilburn of “The Wilburn Brothers” duo asked her to join their road show and weekly syndicated television show as the girl singer. Recognizing the uniqueness of her voice and her gift for writing, the Wilburns helped Loretta breakaway from her contract with Zero and introduced her to Owen Bradley at Decca Records.
Bradley, one of the chief creators of the landmark “Nashville Sound,” pitched Loretta songs from different writers, but he soon realized the best songs for Loretta were ones that she herself wrote. Once she began recording her own songs, her record sales soared. During her 20-year collaboration with Bradley, Loretta released 39 albums, with 26 making Top 10 on the Billboard Country Albums charts. Her unprecedented success earned her the nickname “The Decca Doll.”
When asked what made her different from the other female singer-songwriters in country music, Loretta explained, “At first, the people in Nashville couldn’t understand me. All the girls were singing, “Little darlin, I’ll be waiting for you.” I’m not that kind of person. I’d be waiting at the door with a ball bat.” Loretta’s trademark persona of being blunt and resilient is exemplified in three of her early hit songs: “You Ain’t Woman Enough” (1966), “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin” (1967), and “Fist City” (1968).
Although she is mainly associated with these feisty and forthright tunes, Loretta has never shied from revealing her pains and vulnerabilities. At a time when speaking openly about alcoholism was seen as a societal taboo, she addressed her husband’s longstanding drinking problem. The song “Wouldn’t It Be Great” is an open letter to Mooney, asking he lay the bottle down and confront his demons. Their fifty-year union was often filled with turmoil, but even with their difficulties and the countless days spent apart, their deep love for each other never wavered.
Loretta’s groundbreaking 1975 song, “The Pill,” was another invigorating song for women, but it sparked considerable controversy. The song, about a woman who grows tired of staying at home having babies while her husband cheats and decides that she too will lead a more liberated life, was banned by radio stations across North America. Preachers went to their pulpits to discourage congregations from buying the album, but their trying to suppress the song’s success only piqued the public’s interest. “The Pill” became an anthem for women and is one of Loretta’s most celebrated songs.
Artist of the Decade
While reaching new heights as a solo artist, Loretta’s popularity skyrocketed even higher in 1971 when she paired up with Conway Twitty, then making the transition into country music after a successful rock-and-roll career, to record their first collaborative studio album, We Only Make Believe (Decca). Over the next 10 years, the “Dynamic Duo” released 10 studio albums, had 12 singles make top 10 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, took home a Grammy Award and four Country Music Association (CMA) awards as Vocal Duo of the Year, and even started their own booking agency called United Talent.
Riding the tidal wave of success and making more money than she could have imagined, Loretta and Mooney purchased an antebellum home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they were also buying the town itself. With Loretta constantly touring, it was Mooney who mainly raised their young twin daughters and managed the house and farm.
A few years after purchasing Hurricane Mills, the Lynns opened their small hamlet for Loretta’s fans to come visit. “Loretta Lynn’s Ranch has been a family business since its opening in the early 1970s,” says Anthony Brutto, the Ranch’s General Manager and a grandson of Loretta’s, “the focus was to give guests and fans a warm, welcoming experience as soon as they arrived.” Consistently named one of Tennessee’s top tourist attractions, the Ranch currently hosts more than 20 annual events and welcomes over a million visitors a year.
Ultimately, the Loretta Lynn Ranch is a testament to Loretta’s deep ties to her roots. “Nashville has changed,” remarks Brutto, “it has lost a lot of its old soul. That is something that Loretta has not done. She remembers where she came from and how hard she fought to get to where she is now.” This is also reflected in the 18,000 square foot Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum, filled with memorabilia from Loretta and close friends like Patsy Cline, the Wilburn Brothers, Conway Twitty, and many others.
The unparalleled success she attained in the early 1970s with self-written songs such as “I Know How,” “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” “I Wanna Be Free,” and “Rated X” made Loretta the first woman to take home the prestigious Entertainer of the Year award at the 1972 CMA Awards. Eight years later, the Academy of Country Music (ACM) named her Artist of the Decade, an honor she remains the only woman to have received.
Honky Tonk Angels
Throughout her career, Loretta has been a stalwart champion for women who are forging their own paths in country music. When she arrived in Nashville, the luminous Patsy Cline took her under her wing and advised her on how to survive and thrive in a male-dominated industry. After Cline’s tragic death in 1963, Loretta took it upon herself to extend the same generosity to newcomers in Nashville like Connie Smith and her youngest sister, Crystal Gayle.
In 1993, she teamed up with longtime friends Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to record Honky Tonk Angels (Columbia), co-produced by Parton and Grammy Award-winning producer Steve Buckingham. The trio were honored to be joined by their hero Kitty Wells on a rendition of her 1952 hit song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Reflecting on the historic collaboration, Buckingham remembers the “magic” in having the four country music legends finally join forces.
Loretta may have competed with Parton and Wynette on the charts and for various awards throughout the years, but the kinship and respect that existed between them was far greater than any rivalry. As Buckingham eloquently states, “The three of them came from incredibly poor, desperate backgrounds and shared a common bond in so many ways besides being ground breakers for women in country music.”
Her latest album, Still Woman Enough (Legacy Recordings, 2021), features a powerhouse of women, including Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Margo Price, and Tanya Tucker. Each of them praises Loretta for shattering glass ceilings for women in country music and welcoming them with open arms. Reflecting on Loretta’s influence, McEntire remarked, “She is the most special thing country music, I think, has ever had.”
With her innate talent for writing and singing, Loretta has produced a myriad of songs that simultaneously evoke emotion and strength. Her songs have touched people from all walks of life and gave women a voice during a time in which they were unheard. Thinking about her method of songwriting, Loretta once said, “If you write the truth, and you’re sitting there writing about your life, it’ll be country. Cause you’re writing what’s happening, and that’s all a good song is.”
Special thank you to the following for their input & assistance:
Anthony Brutto, Steve Buckingham, David Murphy, & Patsy Lynn Russell
Article: The Coal Miner’s Daughter by Holley Snaith (American Heritage Magazine, 2020)
Website: Loretta Lynn Ranch
Loretta’s Autobiography: Coal Miner’s Daughter (Regnery-Geis, 1976 & Grand Central Publishing, 2021)
Movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (Universal Pictures, 1980)
Book: Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics (Knopf, 2012)
Documentary: Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl (PBS, 2016)
Documentary: Country Music: A Film By Ken Burns (Florentine Films, 2019)