ANDERSON CO., Tenn. (WATE) — Loretta Lynn’s death on Oct. 4 sent many searching for her music, finding familiar things in the words that she sang. The impact she made on Appalachia and the women who live there is a reminder of all that she stood for — and sang about — during her career.
The Most Awarded Lady in Country Music History left a legacy that reaches well beyond fame. Some scholars have tried to capture her overall impact with words – much like Loretta herself did while writing hits like “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
“Loretta Lynn was one of the greatest songwriters of her era in any genre, and she displayed remarkable courage in the themes she explored in her original songs—themes that reflected a compassionate, grounded, profoundly honest, and unapologetically feminist perspective. Many of her songs evoked Appalachian settings and told Appalachian stories (including deeply personal reflections of growing up in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields). That said, she was a nationally prominent artist with fans worldwide,” said Ted Olson, Professor of Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University
While many of her songs focus around love, there are also many that tell about life in society and as a woman. Coal Miner’s Daughter, released in 1970, seems to begin when Lynn’s harder hitting music began to grow in popularity.
“It seems like the Coal Miner’s Daughter was universally loved. It was just such a great depiction of this area,” said Elaine Meyer, President of the Museum of Appalachia.
Rather than gloss over her life as a coal miner’s daughter from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, Lynn sang about the realities of it.
Lynn was born on April 14, 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression. The lyrics of Coal Miner’s Daughter are about poverty, her father working a hard labor job that brought in a “poor man’s dollar” while her mother worked to raise and keep the family. Lynn’s biography on her website explains how she grew up in a mountain cabin with seven siblings and was raised in dire poverty.
At 15 years old, Loretta Webb married a 21-year-old veteran named Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. By the time she was 20, four of their six children had been born. Lynn’s husband is the one who encouraged her to learn to play guitar and write music.
“After he got me the guitar, I went out and bought a Country Song Roundup. I looked at the songs in there and thought, ‘Well, this ain’t nothing. Anybody can do this.’ I just wrote about things that happened. I was writing about things that nobody talked about in public, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t,” said Lynn, according to her biography. “I was having babies and staying at home. I was writing about life. That’s why I had songs banned.”
Lynn sang about life as a woman in the songs “The Pill,” “Rated ‘X’, ” “Fist City,” and “Wings Upon Your Horn.” Both “The Pill” and “Rated ‘X’ ” were banned by some radio stations. Some sources claim that up to 14 of her songs, including these two, were banned. Society wasn’t ready to hear The Pill, that celebrated birth control, and Rated “X” which candidly talked about life as a divorced woman.
“She really spoke up for women’s rights in a lot of her music before that was something that most people thought about. She did it in her kind of quiet way. It was like ‘Okay. This is who we are. We are women and we’re gonna overcome whatever obstacles we encounter.'” Meyer said.
Another topic Lynn sang about was war, with lyrics standing courageously in the gap between patriotism and being a woman whose husband was in the war in “Dear Uncle Sam,” released in January of 1966 — shortly after American involvement in Vietnam began. In 2013, Lynn also released her own version “Take Your Gun and Go, John” which is said to be about the Civil War. The Library of Congress has images of the sheet music, originally by H.T. Merrill, and published by Root & Cady in Chicago in 1863.
Lynn made an impact for the people of Appalachia and how they were seen. Meyer explained that before Coal Miner’s Daughter came out, negative stereotypes of Appalachian people had become the norm. Literature and cartoons made fun of mountain people with southern accents — people who looked and sounded just like Loretta.
“She lived certainly a life that was harsh and some really hard times, but she overcame that. I think it really just speaks to the resiliency of people from this area and how you can really just rise above whatever has impacted your childhood.” Meyer said. “It says a lot about the people of Appalachia … what great people there are here in the area. The ingenuity and integrity of the people. I mean she really speaks to all that.”
It’s fair to say Lynn made some changes to country music and how people perceived Appalachian people and culture over her 50-year career. She sang about controversial topics throughout her songs and Meyer explained she believes Lynn’s humble beginnings and choices spoke volumes.
“I think, you know, people thought ‘Well, in California or in New York, you know, those are the progressive women’ and they didn’t think about people from southern Appalachia as being progressive or speaking up on things that are hard to talk about, and she did that.” Meyer said.
Meyer and her son met Lynn in 2015 at the Governors Award in Nashville, through a mutual friend a friend of the Museum of Appalachia.
“I was so honored, I didn’t realize I was going to get to meet her and one of our former governors was there and introduced us. She was so kind! And she immediately said “Ramona has been trying to get me to come up there for years!” said Meyers. “She was so great, and so humble, and so warm. Maybe even more so than I thought she would be, but it was just an absolute pleasure talking with her.”
Meyers said that Lynn spoke highly of the museum and wanted to come visit, but unfortunately, it just never happened. The museum showcases the people of Appalachia.
One thing that Meyer emphasized was that Lynn didn’t shy away from her roots and her pride to be from Appalachia brings pride to those who live there.
“As a performer she was second-to-none in terms of the power of her voice and the conviction of her delivery. When she sang, you listened—to the words and to the emotions behind the words. Loretta Lynn was a proud Appalachian, and every Appalachian person I know loves her music and respects her tireless commitments to promoting Appalachian culture on the world stage.” Olson said.