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Loretta Lynn, Country Music’s Groundbreaking ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ Dead at 90

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Loretta Lynn, the beloved singer and songwriter whose seven-decade career broke down barriers for women in country music, died Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. She was 90. Lynn’s publicist confirmed her death to Rolling Stone.

“Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, October 4th, in her sleep at home at her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills,” Lynn’s family said in a statement.

In the 1960s, Lynn’s trailblazing country chart-toppers established the model of the female country star as an independent woman who stands her ground against cheating men and no-good homewreckers with unflagging, good-natured spirit. Lynn adapted her autobiographical 1970 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” into a best-selling biography, which was later made into an Oscar-winning film, introducing the story of a hardscrabble upbringing in Depression-era Kentucky that Lynn celebrated to people who never even listened to country music.

Lynn wrote most of her hits, and as the first female singer to make her name as a songwriter in Nashville, she paved the way for modern artists like Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift.

Lambert, who recorded a version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Lynn for a 2010 tribute, praised her “authentic, no-holds-barred country songs” in 2015 and called her “one of my biggest heroes… one of the strongest women in music.

Loretta Webb was born in 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, where her father Ted worked in the Van Lear coal mines until his death in 1959. Lynn was the second of eight children, three of which (most successfully Crystal Gayle) would also go on to pursue country music as a career. In 1948, she married Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, who was also the singer’s manager. (In Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta claimed she was 13 when she married Lynn, though in 2012 the Associated Press found her marriage license, suggesting that she was 16.) “Doo” left behind his past running moonshine when the newlyweds moved off to the logging camps of Custer, Washington, where Lynn took in laundry, picked strawberries and started having children. “I didn’t know how babies were made until I was pregnant with my fourth child five years later,” she later quipped.

In the late 1950s, Lynn started writing songs on her $17 Sears Roebuck guitar and, with Doo as her manager, performing them in local bars. In 1960, the 27-year-old Lynn recorded “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” and travelled around the country with her husband, promoting the song at radio stations so successfully it became a Number 14 country hit. The Lynns soon worked their way to Nashville, where Lynn made her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry before the end of the year.

Lynn signed with Decca Records, where she began a long and fruitful working relationship with producer Owen Bradley, who had recorded Patsy Cline’s hits. In 1962, “Success” became the first of sixteen Top 10 country hits Lynn would release in the Sixties, most of which she wrote or co-wrote. And in 1967, she became a full-fledged country star when her song “Don’t Come Home a’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” became her first number one hit; the album of the same name became the first gold record by a female country performer. That year, Lynn won the Country Music Association’s first Female Vocalist of the Year award.

As the title of her 1970 album Loretta Lynn Writes ‘Em & Sings ‘Em made clear, Lynn’s popularity was partly due to her songwriting gifts. Fans had the sense that she was essentially singing the story of her own life, and on her first hit of the 1970s, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” that was literally true. “I wasn’t sure that it would ever be heard,” she said of the song. “But it was about me, so I sang it and it made a hit.”

Also in 1970, Lynn kicked off a hugely successful recording and touring partnership with Conway Twitty, a rock & roll player turned country heartthrob. Starting with “After the Fire Is Gone” in 1971, the duo’s first five singles all went to Number One, and their next seven singles made the top 10. From 1972 to 1976, Lynn and Twitty prevailed over Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton and George Jones & Tammy Wynette to win the CMA’s Vocal Duo of the Year.

In addition to her duets with Twitty, Lynn had 24 country hits in the 1970s, all but two of which hit the Top 10 and eight of which were Number Ones. Lynn fearlessly expanded the range of topics her songs addressed, and a few were outright controversial. “One’s on the Way,” written by Shel Silverstein, had Lynn portraying a pregnant Topeka housewife who muses over women’s lib marches and celebrity gossip, while “Rated X” blasted the stigma facing divorced women. Both went to Number One, while the Number Five hit “The Pill,” which Lynn wrote herself, unequivocally celebrated birth control. “I never had the money to buy the pill. If I had it, I wouldn’t have had a bunch of kids,” she joked. “But I’m glad I had a bunch of kids. I wouldn’t take nothing for my family.”

Despite her consistent messages of empowerment, Lynn was wary of politics and resisted aligning herself with the feminist movement. “I’m not a big fan of Women’s Liberation,” she wrote in Coal Miner’s Daughter, “but maybe it will help women stand up for the respect they’re due.” She also famously dozed off during The David Frost Show while Betty Friedan was speaking.

Lynn’s willingness to take on tough subjects only increased her appeal, and in 1972 she became the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award. In 1976, Lynn achieved an even greater level of success when she released her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, written with New York Times reporter George Vecsey. One of the 10 biggest-selling books of 1976, it was adapted into a popular and critically acclaimed 1980 movie starring Sissy Spacek, who sang Lynn’s songs in the film and won the Best Actress Oscar.

Lynn scored her last Top 10 country hit in 1982, and her sales dipped over the course of the decade. In 1988, the same year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, she put her career on hiatus to nurse her ailing husband. When Oliver Lynn died in 1996 from diabetes complications, they had been married 48 years, and not always happily. In interviews, Oliver was frank about his alcoholism and infidelity. The Lynns’ marriage was famously stormy, and Doo’s heavy drinking and infidelities were widely known. “He never hit me once that I didn’t hit him back,” Lynn joked. In 2000, she recorded her tribute to Doo, “I Can’t Hear the Music.”

In 1996, Doolittle Lynn died. The Lynns’ marriage, which produced six children, two of which, Jack Benny and Peggy Sue, died while she was still alive. Her twin daughters Peggy Jean and Patsy Eileen and son Ernie joined Lynn on the road in her later years as an opening act. 

In 2004, Jack White introduced Lynn to a new generation and a rock audience with Van Lear Rose, on which she wrote or co-wrote every song. An indisputable country music legend, Lynn was widely recognized for her achievements in her later years, culminating with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama in 2013.

“I’ve stayed the way I started out,” she said in 2011. “I’m proud that I didn’t change. When I go into a town that people first started loving me, and first started talking about me, I still got those people. Some passed away. But most are still there. And they come to see me every time I go. And that’s good.”

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