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Loretta Lynn didn’t pretty things up


Loretta Lynn created an archetype that spoke to the heart of country music and reached far beyond it.

By Jon Pareles


“Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em.” Plain-spoken and unassailable, that was not only the title of an album she released in 1970, but also a typically laconic summation of what made her a titan of American music.


Lynn, who died Oct. 4 at 90, was nobody’s mouthpiece but her own, and she created an archetype that spoke to the heart of country music and reached far beyond it. Her songs were terse, scrappy and so skillfully phrased that they sounded like conversation, despite the neatness of their rhymes. With each three-minute vignette, she sketched a down-to-earth version of lives she knew and understood, refusing to pretty things up.


Lynn was a coal miner’s daughter who kept her Kentucky drawl and remembered clearly what it was like growing up poor in Butcher Holler. She was a loyal wife but hardly a doormat. Drawing on the experiences of the turbulent 48-year marriage that she began in her teens, she sang about desire, cheating, heartache and righteous revenge. With anger and just a hint of humor, she set strict boundaries for both her husband and any would-be rivals in songs like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.”


“The more you hurt, the better the song is,” she told me in a 2016 New York Times interview, when I visited her at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. “You put your whole heart into a song when you’re hurting.”


During the 1970s, Lynn chose and wrote songs, like “One’s on the Way” (by Shel Silverstein) and “The Pill,” that were bluntly and realistically resentful about the drudgery of parenthood. “The Pill” — with a narrator who compares herself to a brood hen and declares, “You’ve set this chicken your last time/’cause now I’ve got the pill” — was banned by many country stations when it was released in 1975, but reached the country Top 10 anyway.


“I wasn’t the first woman in country music,” Lynn said in an Esquire interview in 2002. “I was just the first one to stand up there and say what I thought, what life was about. The rest were afraid to.”


Lynn’s forthrightness — along with the homely details that make her songs so believable — has become a foundation of country songwriting over the last half-century: through Reba McEntire, the Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Margo Price and Ashley McBryde, to note just a few names from a list that could run into the hundreds.


Her voice helped make her songs indelible. The Appalachian traditions Lynn had grown up on lingered in her music; she wrote tunes in the familiar forms of waltzes, ballads and honky-tonk shuffles. As a singer, Lynn applied what she learned from the twang and vibrato of Kitty Wells and the torchy intensity of Patsy Cline to her own voice: reedy and tart with steely underpinnings, ready to summon tearfulness or indignation, slyly eluding the beat to hesitate at one moment and blurt something the next.


She was broadly comic in her duets with Conway Twitty, like “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” and she could open up her voice to grapple with Jack White’s electric guitar on their 2004 collaborative album, “Van Lear Rose.” Yet her more subtle moments were just as arresting.


Her 1969 single “Wings Upon Your Horns,” sung by an “innocent country girl” who was seduced and betrayed — with an overlay of religious imagery that was controversial at the time — has a placid midtempo backup. But Lynn’s vocal makes every line a tangle of conflicted emotions. “You called me your wife to be,” she sings, with a bitter downward swoop on “wife”; she sings “You turned a flame into a blaze” with an upward leap on “flame” and a quaver on “blaze” that make the fire almost visible. It just sounds natural.


Lynn had her prime hit-making years from the 1960s into the 1980s, as the 1980 film “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” an adaptation of the 1976 book, made her life story public. While mainstream country moved away from Lynn’s lean traditionalism toward arena-scale production, she persevered, touring through the decades and earning generation upon generation of new admirers.


In recent years, Lynn embarked on a new spurt of recording with John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son, both revisiting her catalog and writing new songs. By the time she released “Still Woman Enough” in 2021, her voice had lowered a bit and taken on some grain. But it still held the ring of truth.

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