Loretta Lynn had four children by the time she was 18 years old, and four albums by the time she was 33. Fifty years later, Lynn is 83, and one of the most highly-awarded female country music singers, ever.
Lynn didn't grow up playing music. At 21, her husband bought her a cheap guitar, and Lynn taught herself how to play. She moved to Nashville and became a staple of the music scene there in the '60s and '70s. Most of Lynn's music centers around her position in the world. Hers are songs about being a woman, being a mother, and being the wife of a blue collar worker. She sings about babies and husbands and lovin'.
Lynn refused to talk about womanhood in a surface way, and even today some of her songs sound progressive and liberal. These four songs Loretta Lynn sang define her brilliance:
"You Ain't Woman Enough"—Lynn's first number one hit—came out in 1966, and was the very first song penned by a woman to reach the number one spot. Lynn sings about a lady who's trying to steal her man, and at the time, it was perceived as a very progressive feminist anthem.
Today, the idea that it's up to a woman to keep her man faithful is outdated, but within the canon of Lynn's other work it's really interesting that this was her first number one. A song like "Don't Come Home A Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" in which Lynn sings "just stay out on the town and see what you can find/cause if you want that kind of love, you don't need none of mine," is an interesting contrast to this first hit. And it sets up what I think Lynn was actually trying to do with this song—say that women have just as much of a right to ownership over their men as a man in the '60s had over his wife.
"We were poor, but we had love," Lynn sings. It's a song about her father, who worked "all day long" in the coal mines to make sure that their family could get by. Sure, it's a romanticized version of what was probably a difficult childhood, but Lynn was singing about a poverty that very few country singers had ever experienced. It might sound beautiful that Lynn "remember[s] the well where she drew water," but it ends on a different note: In the fourth verse, Lynn talks about how her family has changed and all she has left of that life is her memory.
"Coal Miner's Daughter" was also a number one hit, and it set a confessional tone for the rest of Lynn's career. She wrote songs that were ostensibly about the woman's experience in America—but through the safe lens of her own life. It allowed her to make claims about the world while maintaining those viewpoints as he own personal experience. That didn't rid her of critics, but it certainly gave her some leeway.
In the early '50s, women in Loretta Lynn's station of life, who grew up in conservative America, didn't have many options regarding the path their lives would take: They would get married to a man and have his babies. The advent of the Pill in the '60s changed that for some, but for Lynn, babies were inevitable. In "One's On the Way," Lynn frankly lays out exactly how difficult it was for her to live her life with so many children scrambling around.
In the middle of the song, she has a pseudo-conversation with her husband where he says he's going to have some friends over, and she can't stop him. She admits to knowing that another life exists for the "women's lib in New York City," but she doesn't have time to think about that because she's following two kids around and has "one on the way." Like all of these songs, Lynn's voice is upbeat. The swinging, rhythmic vibe of the song is happy, even though Lynn is implying her life is layered with unhappiness.
This song is especially interesting when coupled with her later more controversial hit, "The Pill," when Lynn sings "All these years, I've stayed at home/while you've had all your fun… You set this chicken your last time/ because now I've got the Pill." It's the transition of a decade in American history, but it also shows how Lynn was able to push the boundaries of country music with one song, to make room for another that said what she really wanted to say. (Click here to read a great piece Casey N. Cep wrote about "The Pill" for The Awl last year.)
In 1973, Loretta Lynn went all-in on the conversation about slut-shaming and women's sexuality that women's liberation movement was bringing to the forefront of politics in the '70s. Not only does Lynn sing about divorce in this song, she talks about the danger of being a woman who is seen as "loose" in a world that doesn't always listen to women's voices. Lynn sings:
"All they're thinkin' of is your experience of love their minds eat up with sin/
The women all look at you like you're bad and the men all hope you are"
It's a kind of mid-twentieth century admission of a scarlet letter that can't be brushed off.
Today, there are still fewer women than men in country music, but some of them are unafraid to bring up how hard it is to be female. Kasey Musgraves, Lindi Ortega, and even Maddie & Tae are all singing songs about being a woman in the world. And they all have Loretta Lynn to thank for opening that door.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.