“To make it in this business, you either have to be first, great or different,” says living legend Loretta Lynn. “And I was the first to ever go into Nashville, singin’ it like the women lived it.”
Loretta first arrived in Nashville 55 years ago, signing her first recording contract on February 1, 1960, and within a matter of weeks, she was at her first recording session. A self-taught guitarist and songwriter, Lynn became one of the most distinctive performers in Nashville in the 1960s and 1970s, shaking things up by writing her own songs, many of which tackled boundary-pushing topics drawn from her own life experiences as a wife and mother.
In addition to being “first,” she was also “great” and “different.” Loretta Lynn’s instantly recognizable delivery is one of the greatest voices in music history. As for “different,” no songwriter has a more distinctive body of work. In lyrics such as “Don’t Come Home A- Drinkin’” and “Your Squaw Is on the War Path” she refused to be any man’s doormat. She challenged female rivals in “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Fist City.” She showed tremendous blue-collar pride in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” She is unafraid of controversy, whether the topic is sex (“Wings Upon Your Horns”), divorce (“Rated X”), alcohol (“Wouldn’t It Be Great”) or war (“Dear Uncle Sam”). “The Pill,” her celebration of sexual liberation, was banned by many radio stations. Like the lady herself, Loretta Lynn’s songs shoot from the hip.
As millions who read her 1976 autobiography or saw its Oscar winning 1980 film treatment are aware, Loretta is a Coal Miner’s Daughter who was raised in dire poverty in a remote Appalachian Kentucky hamlet. Living in a mountain cabin with seven brothers and sisters, she was surrounded by music as a child.
“I thought everybody sang, because everybody up there in Butcher Holler did,” she recalls. “Everybody in my family sang. So I really didn’t understand until I left Butcher Holler that there were some people who couldn’t. And it was kind of a shock.” She famously married Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn when she was a barely schooled child of 13. “Doo” was a 21-year-old war veteran with a reputation as a hell raiser. When she was seven months pregnant with her first child, they moved far away from Appalachia to Custer, Washington. By age 18, she had four children (two more, twins, came along in 1964). Isolated from her native culture and burdened with domestic work, she turned to music for solace.
“Before I was singing, I cleaned house; I took in laundry; I picked berries. I worked seven days a week. I was a housewife and mother for 15 years before I was an entertainer. And it wasn’t like being a housewife today. It was doing hand laundry on a board and cooking on an old coal stove. I grew a garden and canned what I grew. That’s what’s real. I know how to survive.”
Doo heard her singing at her chores and declared that she sounded just as good as anyone he heard on the radio. He bought her a guitar and told her to learn how to play it and write songs with it. Loretta says her songs were so forthright because she didn’t know any better.
“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. I was having babies and staying at home. I was writing about life. That’s why I had songs banned.”
Doo began pushing her to perform in area nightclubs. Executives from Zero Records heard her in a nightspot across the border in Vancouver, Canada. She soon recorded her debut single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” for the little label. Loretta made herself a fringed cowgirl outfit, and she and Doo drove across the country in his old Mercury sedan promoting the single at station after station.
Astonishingly, it worked. The disc hit the popularity charts in the summer of 1960 and brought the couple to Music City. She began singing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry after her debut on Oct. 15, 1960. The show’s Wilburn Brothers took her under their wings. Teddy Wilburn helped to polish Loretta’s startlingly original songwriting style. Brother Doyle Wilburn took a tape of her singing “Fool #1” to producer Owen Bradley at Decca Records. Owen liked the song, but was already working with Kitty Wells, Goldie Hill, Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline and said he didn’t need another female singer. Teddy told him that he couldn’t have the song if he didn’t sign its singer. As a result, Brenda had a smash pop hit with “Fool #1,” and Loretta got a Decca Records contract.