There can only be one “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and her name is Loretta Lynn-the fierce and strong-willed singer whose career has stretched past five decades. Tough as nails and bred from the earth of the coalmines surrounding her Kentucky home, Lynn was the model for the female country singer in the ’60s and ’70s. Her no-excuses attitude and blunt stories of abuse, dependence and love would go on to establish the foundation of archetypal female country singer tropes for decades to come. There had been no one like her before-and there certainly has been no one to match her since.
Born in 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to Theodore Webb and Clara Marie Ramey-the second of eight children-she showed an early aptitude for music, singing in church and at local concerts, but was unable to pursue it further until her first husband, Oliver Lynn (whom she married in 1948), bought her a $17 guitar, which she taught herself to play. The occasional highs and extreme lows of their extended marriage are what inspired many of the songs on her later records. It was a rocky marriage, even by Lynn’s reckoning. But Oliver did encourage her to expand her musical career and supported her when she formed her first band, Loretta and the Trailblazers.
By the mid-’50s, she had begun to perform in local clubs and found herself in a televised talent contest hosted by country superstar Buck Owens, which resulted in a first-place prize of a wristwatch-which just so happened to break not 24 hours later. She’s made numerous references to laughing about this with Owens in successive meetings. But this exposure led to her coming to the attention of Zero Records co-founder Norm Burley, who, along with label President Don Grashey, set up the first of her recording sessions in Hollywood. After recording four original compositions-“I’m A Honky Tonk Girl,” “Whispering Sea,” “Heartaches Meet Mr. Blues” and “New Rainbow”-she signed her first contract with Zero Records Feb. 2, 1960.
Throughout the next decade, Lynn became ingrained within the Nashville country music scene, and in 1967, she released the first of her 16 No. 1 hits. Her music and lyricism had shifted away from the more conventional themes that marked her early work and focused intently on the struggles of blue-collar women and their uneven position in society-and often within marriage.
She occasionally upset the ultra-conservative contingent of the genre by singing about the importance of birth control (“The Pill”), what she perceived as the growing double standard between men and women (“Rated X”) and by holding some decidedly nonmainstream views on the Vietnam War (“Dear Uncle Sam”). This led to some country stations banning nine of her hit songs from the airwaves-though this censorship only endeared her even more to the women for whom she so knowingly and thoughtfully sang.
It was here, at the peak of her popularity, that she released what is rightly considered her masterpiece and a defining benchmark of country music, regardless of gender. The album “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was released in December 1970, but prior to that, its title track had steadily worked its way up the country singles chart, peaking at No. 1 toward the end of that year. This autobiographical song became Lynn’s signature tune, as it embraced her bucolic roots while still looking forward to a hopeful and more equitable future.
This record was composed mostly of hits from other musicians, including “Too Far” by Marty Robbins, “Snowbird” by Anne Murray and “Hello Darlin'” by Conway Twitty. Lynn did write the title track, as well as “What Makes Me Tick,” and she co-wrote “Any One, Any Worse, Any Where” with songwriter Lorene Allen. But her contributions to this record shouldn’t be judged by how many songs she actually wrote. It was the way she brought these familiar songs together that made this collection stand out among its country peers.
Though her other popular records had the benefit of multiple singles, this album only had the lone single release. And still it became one of her most adored and well-known albums. There was a fierceness and frank emotional connection to these songs that pushed past all the genre conventions and rhythmic assumptions that people might have had. This was a country record, yes, but Lynn made it more than that. It was a collection of roiling emotions and cathartic revelations, and even though the majority of these songs were not taken from her own experiences, she managed to transform these artists’ words into something that spoke truthfully and without the need for sentimentality.
There’s a reason that, 40 years later, this album defies the trappings of age or history. Lynn was probing a collective social consciousness-even if people weren’t quite aware of it at the time-and this sense of significance remains after all these years. To her credit, these songs could be approached by fans who were simply looking for a set of country songs that rang with a rustic authenticity or by those who were seeking to glean some greater understanding of the deeper issues on which she sang. These tracks were left open so that anyone could continue the story, adding in details and personal experiences to further flesh out these narratives as they chose.
Lynn is still making music; touring; and bringing her tales of love, loss and tragedy to stages across the world. Her music has reached far beyond any one genre, or any one type of person, for that matter. She’s worked with newer musicians (most notably with Jack White on her 2004 record, “Van Lear Rose”) and older musicians, and the sense of close-knit camaraderie and musical inclusiveness that has followed her throughout her career has kept her music warm and inviting. She is still the one and only “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and that will never change.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.