Why Loretta Lynn still matters
Bidding farewell to a Kentucky legend who made all the right people mad
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In the summertime, we didn't have shoes to wear But in the wintertime, we'd all get a brand new pair From a mail-order catalog Money made from selling a hog Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere —"Coal Miner's Daughter"
The first I heard of Loretta Lynn was way back when I was a little kid, visiting my grandparents in Richmond, Virginia. While I rolled around on the floor rug, wrestling with my cousins or playing with the action figures I’d picked up at the nearby Toys R’ Us, my grandparents tuned into “Hee Haw,” every single Saturday night. A product of the country music juggernaut of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Hee Haw” was a wall-to-wall family-style country variety show stuffed with sawing fiddles, jug-band thump, corny jokes, tight-jeans-and-unbuttoned-tops farmer’s daughters — who made the show quite compelling to young Jay, for reasons I didn’t really understand at the time — and overalls aplenty.
As goofy as “Hee Haw” was, it managed to wrangle pretty much every country music legend of the day onto the show for some pickin’ and grinnin’, and Lynn was an ever-present guest. The Hee-Haw Wiki tells us that Lynn was the show’s first guest, and appeared on the show — which somehow lasted all the way to 1997 — a record 24 times. (Related: yes, there is a Hee-Haw Wiki. You really can find anything on the internet.) I didn’t know it at the time, but I was watching country music royalty parade across that little 24-inch TV as it bathed me in radiation.
Lynn, who died earlier this week at the age of 90, was a trailblazer and a truth-teller, a wry observer of her times and a bold, even brave voice at a time when everyone like her was ignored, dismissed, minimized or told to keep quiet. She cut across both expectations and presumptions, so groundbreaking that it’s impossible at this point to even gauge what the world of music was like before her and those like her.
I’m going to offer up the greatest-hits version of her history; for some much more authoritative takes on her life and meaning, from writers with a far greater personal connection to Lynn than a white boy who grew up loving rock n’ roll in suburbia, I’d strongly recommend starting with Marianne Worthington’s “Hey, Loretta!” in the Oxford American and Marisa R. Moss’s “Loretta Lynn Was Fearless” in Vulture. As always, the world of mid-20th-century country music is chaos and pandemonium even if you don’t listen to a single lick of an actual song.
Born the daughter of a coal miner — hence the title of her most famous song, her autobiography and a beloved film — Lynn was a teenaged bride and mother, sporting an Eastern Kentucky accent so raw you could strike a match on it, a woman fighting to make her way in an industry devoted to keeping women in their designated pens. Poor, rural, female, independent-minded and frequently with child, she had five strikes against her in a three-strike game.
And yet somehow she made it, fought her way through the snakepits of country music to arrive at a place where she could stand her ground and speak her piece. She wasn’t the first female country music star, but she was one of the first to reach to the point where “female” wasn’t needed as a modifier on her stardom.
Lynn wrote her own songs, accompanied herself on guitar, dressed in floor-length gowns, and took the stage in an audacious hairstyle the Oxford American perfectly described as a “beehive-mullet.” She sang songs of fond personal history, like “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” that mixed sepia-toned nostalgia with cold clear-eyed reality. She also created the don’t-eff-with-me persona of a woman who wouldn’t put up with her husband’s drunken need to get some after a night with the boys (“Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ On Your Mind”). And although her “husband” might be a clown and a lush, she warned off other women with insults (“You Ain’t Woman Enough”) and threats of outright violence (“Fist City.”)
She kicked ass, is what I’m saying.
A legend on the strength of her ‘60s work, Lynn hit her pinnacle of controversy in 1975 with the release of “The Pill,” a joyful ode to the liberation of birth control and the thrill of not having to spend each year pumping out a new kid. She sang of the freedom of getting away from the crib and out on the town, and friend, she was ready to tear it up:
This old maternity dress I've got is going in the garbage The clothes I'm wearing from now on won't take up so much yardage Miniskirts, hot pants, and a few little fancy frills Yeah, I'm making up for all those years since I've got the pill
She was planning on going out and getting some of her own, and you can guess how well that went over with a certain contingent of the male population. Gentle as liquid soap by today’s standards, “The Pill” was nonetheless one of many Lynn songs banned from country music radio, which means that — like any other art form that’s banned — you should absolutely go check it out for yourself:
Lynn remained in the public eye for years after “The Pill” — hell, she even did a stint on “The Dukes of Hazzard” once — and kept on making music for most of her life, performing regularly even into the late 2010s. Her 2004 collaboration with Jack White, “Van Lear Rose” — which for some reason isn’t on any streaming service — allowed White to do his born-too-late nostalgia-junkie thing with one of the giants. Even in her 70s, her voice sounded vibrant and energized, a throwback who’d also stuck around long enough to see the times catch up with her:
Part of being independent-minded is that you might occasionally piss off people who consider you their ally, and Lynn had a tendency to do that. For all the feminist credibility she earned with “The Pill,” she staunchly resisted the actual label of “feminist,” and she was vocal in her admiration of Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump. That wasn’t enough to get her canceled — you don’t cancel Loretta Lynn, son — but more a reminder that the totality of a person is far more complicated than just their choice in the voting booth.
That, to me, is the heart of Loretta Lynn — the way she subverted, dodged and dismissed expectations throughout her life, remaining true to herself no matter how many people over how many decades thought they knew what she should be doing better than she did. She threw off the circumstances of her birth, and carved her own path regardless of consequences or assumptions, and that’s a hell of a legacy to leave behind.
In one of those classic Nashville quotes that seems too good to be true but is worth repeating anyway, Lynn once said, “To make it in this town, you’ve got to be first, great or different.” God bless her, she was all three, and we won’t see anyone like her again.
We got logos!
Now, to business. Sharp observers of this here newsletter will note that we have a new design at the top. A few weeks back, I ran a contest over at 99designs to get us a new logo for these parts, and this from Erickjosh was just a beaut:
But that’s not all! I got a lot of entries into the contest, and another was so dang fun I had to go ahead and grab it too. Via the talented Anna Korney, here’s another take on the F&AB ethos, which nails two of my favorite pastimes: hanging by fires and telling wild tales:
I shall call him Bisky, and he’ll helm a special kids-only version of F&AB. I will turn him into a Minions-level megastar.
And yes, I’ll monetize the hell out of these. Stickers, t-shirts, those big wraps that cover entire skyscrapers, all of it. F&AB swag for everyone!
This isn’t a Southern story, surprisingly enough, but it’s Southern in attitude. You may have heard about the cheating fishermen who stuffed lead weights in their fish last weekend to win a contest. Earlier this week over at Yahoo Sports-dot-com, I did a deep dive (nautical term) into their story, and it involves lie detectors, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and the apex predators of Lake Erie. It’ll hook you (fishing term), guaranteed.
That’ll do it for this week. Enjoy the beautiful autumn weather, y’all, and we’ll see you back here next Saturday.
(Photo: "Loretta Lynn and band" by Third Coast Daily is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)
This is issue #76 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
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Could you survive a Waffle House brawl?
On Willie Nelson and his magnificent old guitar
What does “Flashlight & A Biscuit” mean, anyway?
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Nice tribute… and yes Hee Haw was a staple in my parents house, with Loretta Lynn on the radio and stereo record player.
Very nice tribute to Ms. Lynn. Always enjoy Your work. Thanks for being here ! God Bless.