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Just by being her authentic self, Loretta Lynn made sure women were heard

Country music great Loretta Lynn poses for a portrait in September 2000 in Nashville.CHRISTOPHER BERKEY/AP/file

If your eyes are on me, Loretta Lynn sang, you’re looking at country.

She sang those words, but she also wrote them. That’s a key point in a business — country music — that often operates as songwriting-by-committee, then as now.

Lynn, who died in her sleep Tuesday at age 90, was the queen of country music. Others may have burned brighter. Her mentor Patsy Cline had an impressive run before her tragic death in 1963. Shania Twain transcended the genre in the late 1990s. Dolly Parton — well, Dolly is on another plane entirely.

But Lynn embodied country music from a woman’s perspective like no one else before or since. She was a North Star for generations of women who followed her, most recently including Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Valerie June, and Kelsey Waldon, to name a few.


Married at 15, with four kids by the age of 20, she knew more about making ends meet — and compromising in marriage — than most.

“I was just a kid — didn’t know nothing — picking strawberries in the fields with my babies on a blanket, under an umbrella,” she wrote in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1976 best-selling memoir that would inspire the 1980 feature film of the same name.

When success came, she and her husband, Doolittle, made the small Tennessee town of Hurricane Mills a destination, building a ranch and museum there about an hour outside of Nashville. Yet Lynn, whose family claims some Cherokee blood, remained a child of her Depression-era upbringing in the coal-mining community she made famous as Butcher Holler, Ky.

“I could survive if we got poor again,” she wrote. “In some ways, that was the best part of my life, learning how to survive.”

She spanned eras in a way that very few musicians of any style have managed. Just a few years into her career in the 1960s, she cut the first of three collaborative albums with the country music legend Ernest Tubb, whose own career began in the 1930s. In 2004, Lynn made a record with 29-year-old Jack White, “Van Lear Rose,” which won the Grammy Award as the year’s best country album.


Loretta Lynn performs at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1972. Gary Settle/NYT

In between, she recorded songs written by Shel Silverstein (including “One’s on the Way,” a droll ditty about a homemaker with a gaggle of kids daydreaming about the glamorous lives in celebrity magazines), and she had a long string of hit duets with Conway Twitty.

If she sometimes came across as a groundbreaker, she was simply being herself. Up for an award on a nationally televised program in the early ‘70s, she was warned not to kiss the presenter — the Black singer Charley Pride — for fear that some country fans might not approve.

“Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music, and I got so mad that when I won I made sure I gave him a big old hug and a kiss right on camera,” she recalled. It didn’t affect her relationship with promoters, she noted: “If [it] had, fine, I’d have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.”

On her controversial song “The Pill,” recorded in 1972 but not released for three more years, she sang about the practicality of contraception: If the singer had only known it was an option, she might have had fewer children. (Lynn was credited as a co-writer on the song only after she won a legal battle.)


But she often shied away from proclaiming herself a feminist. She liked to tell the story of the time she appeared on “The David Frost Show” opposite the woman she called, not uncritically, “the Queen of Women’s Liberation.” While Betty Friedan was talking, Lynn dozed off.

President Barack Obama awards country music legend Loretta Lynn the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Nonpartisan, she was invited to the White House by nearly every president since the 1960s. Discussing the Presidential Medal of Freedom she accepted from Barack Obama in 2013, she recalled her parents routinely casting ballots for opposing candidates during her childhood.

“Mommy would go down to vote, and she’d vote Democrat, and Daddy would go down and vote Republican,” she told this writer.

“And they’d meet and just holler at each other,” she added with a laugh.

Lynn was often said to have been the model for Barbara Jean, the brittle country singer in “Nashville,” Robert Altman’s opus about populist politics and the music world. At the time, there was speculation about Lynn’s health; she sometimes dealt with migraines while onstage.

In 2013, at age 81, she said she felt “better than I did when I was 40.” After decades of nearly nonstop performing, sometimes two shows a day, she’d learned to slow down.

“They’re calling for me all the time,” she said with a laugh, “but I got lazy.”

She’d certainly earned the right.