As the music world reacts to the death of the Queen of Country Loretta Lynn, at the age of 90, most of the headlines will no doubt concentrate on her autobiographical 1970 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” which would define her incredible rags-to-riches life and spawn a bestselling biography and Oscar-winning film.
And the obits are sure to reflect on how she was a teenage bride – her exact age upon marrying has been listed as low as 13 and as high as 16 – who would have four children in the next five years.
And there will be no doubt endless references to her being a feminist icon through hits named “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “One’s on the Way” – even though she was to write in her bio: “I’m not a big fan of Women’s Liberation, but maybe it will help women stand up for the respect they’re due.”
Where Lynn did stand up for women’s rights is sometimes sadly understated and the significance often not fully appreciated. For Loretta Lynn was foremost the pioneer female songwriter in Nashville. She would write more than 160 songs.
In the 1960’s alone, she would have 16 Top Ten country hits and most of them were either written, or co-written, by Lynn. Her in-your-face hit “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” was the title track of her 1967 album which would become the first Gold record by a female country performer.
And her song-writing skills were truly personified in the title of her 1970 album Loretta Lynn Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em. All 11 songs – six new and five previously released – were written by Lynn, except one which was a co-write with her sister Peggy Sue Wells. In a review at the time, Billboard wisely noted: “In the tradition of country greats, Loretta Lynn is an outstanding writer as well as singer. Here she proves it, for the songs are her own, including the big single “I Know How.”
What Billboard did not discern is that the “tradition of country greats” was indeed a male trait. There were few other females writing country hits to this extent at the time.
And it was the same year she released her greatest composition “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It would not only be a number one Billboard Country hit but would go on to be considered one of the most significant recordings in contemporary music.
And, of course, it would become her signature song in which – through her own words to her own music – she would reflect on her early upbringing as the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner in the Great Depression.
My Daddy worked at night in the Van Lear coal mines
All Day long in the field a hoin’ corn
Mommy rocked the babies at night
And read the bible by the coal oil light
And ever’thing would start all over come break of morn
Nearly four months after the single hit the charts, the album Coal Miner’s Daughter was released and, in this instance, only two of the 11 songs, including the title track, were in fact penned by Lynn. The collection was gleaned from a number of left-over songs from recording sessions during the previous 12 months. It was her 16th solo album.
Now fast track to her 42nd solo studio album– some 33 years later. For it was in 2004 that Lynn would release Van Lear Rose, which many critics would consider her landmark album. It was certainly her greatest crossover release, charting at #2 on the US Billboard Top Country Albums and #24 on the Billboard 200.
There were two significant factors at play here.
Lynn was again at her song-writing best, penning all but two of the 13 songs and those two were co-writes – one with her husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, who died in 1996, and the other with big-name guitarist Jack White.
It is White’s participation which is the other big factor in the success of Van Lear Rose. For White not only produced the album but played a variety of instruments on each track and duetted with Lynn on “Portland, Oregon.” At the time, Lynn was 72 and White 28.
Van Lear Rose would win the pair Grammys for both Best Country Album and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, on “Portland, Oregon.”
“Of course, I dreamed of working with her,” White told Rolling Stone at the time of release. “I also dreamed of carrying the train of her dress as she walks onstage, and cleaning out her tour bus, if need be.”
“Portland, Oregon” was the standout track on the album, the song proving to be a perfect duet for the pair as they pulsated to yet more clever, and somewhat cheeky, lyrics from Lynn.
Well, sloe gin fizz works mighty fast
When you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass
Hey bartender before you close
Pour us one more drink and a pitcher to go
And the same lost-love sentiments she found for “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” surfaced again on “Miss Being Mrs” and “Family Tree” where Lynn conjures up more images of hurt from broken relationships.
No I didn’t come to fight
If he was a better man I might
But I wouldn’t dirty my hands on trash like you, no
Bring out the babies’ daddy, that’s who they’ve come to see
Not the woman who’s burning down our family tree
Blender magazine summed it up best: "Some of the most gripping singing you're going to hear all year .... A brave, unrepeatable record that speaks to her whole life."
Some whole life!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation