In Loretta Lynn’s voice, the unflinching truth

Loretta Lynn had a voice made to speak the truth.

High and insistent, with a bone-deep coal-country streak that refused to fade even as she rose to royalty in the Nashville star system, her vocals sliced ​​through polished arrangements like a sharpened blade. It could embody both the pain of betrayal and the thirst for revenge; it carried within it a longing for the comforts of home while imagining ways to improve the old days. And while she easily navigated tricky tunes — think of the countless karaoke DJs who have endured the abuse of “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” — her performance was always straightforward: Here’s what happened, and don’t blame me if you can’t handle it. If Lynn, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, ever learned to gently kick an emotion, she never revealed it on stage or in the studio.

Indeed, honesty—about love, about motherhood, about the nature of women’s lives in an era of changing mores—was perhaps the defining quality of Lynn’s fifty-year career as a country singer-songwriter, bent on illuminating experiences that all too often remain hidden from them.

In “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”, a No. 1 hit – her first of 16 – in 1967, she defied the territorialism of a husband. She detailed the sexual freedom brought about by widely available birth control in “The Pill” and, not coincidentally, the stigma of divorced women in the mid-’70s in “Rated X.” Her signature song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” expressed her rural upbringing in utterly outrageous language – which then led to best-selling memoirs and a Hollywood film adaptation starring Sissy Spacek in the Oscar-winning title role.

Two women pose for a photo. The woman on the right is holding an Oscar.

Loretta Lynn and Sissy Spacek at an Oscar party in 1981. Spacek had just won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

(Associated Press)

The openness of Lynn’s music transformed a story of would-be submission – married at 15, mother at 16, ritually betrayed by her spouse who also acted as her manager – into a story of female empowerment. Today we would say that she took control of her narrative, radically reframing her pressure and outrage to focus on her lived experience and not that of the men around her.

She also found black humor in the details of a patriarchal society: Songs like “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” and “Fist City” threatened violence against the women who courted her for a man’s attention. But in each one you can hear Lynn’s disdain for a system that sets up dummies — “Not say my baby’s a saint / ‘Cause he ain’t,” she sings on “Fist City” — as precious jewels to be fought over.

Lynn’s success expanded a previously male-dominated country music business—in 1972, she became the first woman to be named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Assn. — but it also helped bring country music into pop-cultural spaces that hadn’t necessarily welcomed Nashville’s best. Lynn seemed to be everywhere in the late ’70s and early ’80s: performing with the Muppets, singing at President Carter’s inauguration, dueting with Frank Sinatra on television. The movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter” pushed her further into the mainstream, but did nothing to detract from what you see.

“I love running barfooted through the old cornfields, and I love that country ham,” she famously sang on “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” and there’s just nothing to do but stan a songwriter who knows a word as natively used as “ham” in her work.

Lynn’s once-busy recording career began to slow in the ’90s as a new generation of female country stars like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks continued their happily embrace of taboo subjects. But she made a high-profile comeback in 2004 with “Van Lear Rose,” an album she recorded with Jack White of the White Stripes, and stayed fairly consistent into her 80s, even if she didn’t always seem excited to be there. I vividly remember one performance in the late 2000s where she was constantly handing off vocal duties to one of her bandmates while seated on an ornate throne.

“Miss Loretta, I think the audience might like to hear you sing one,” the guy said to her, which I believe was true, although for my part I was just as pleased watching her Not do something she didn’t want to do.

In 2016, Lynn released the first in a series of recordings she made with her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and with Johnny Cash’s son John Carter Cash – tightly arranged collections of oldies and new tunes resembling those Johnny Cash recorded towards the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin. And only other signs of her influence in music have appeared with Miranda Lambert, who thanked Lynn on Twitter Tuesday for “blazing so many avenues for us girls in country music,” and Brandi Carlile, who made her debut Highwomen supergroup during a tribute concert for Lynn in Nashville in 2019. (Their influence also stretched beyond country music: A few years ago, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, of all people, told me that he and Danielle Haim’s duets on VW’s latest album, following Lynn and Conway Twitty’s late ’70s “You’re the Reason Our Children Are Ugly.”)

As these people might tell you, that’s why Lynn’s music still makes sense all these years later — the reason you can put on her first single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” and still get a little jerk off hers pure, imploring supplications get vowel – because there is nothing wrong in it. It was true then; it is true now; it will be true tomorrow. In Loretta Lynn’s voice, the unflinching truth

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