(Pictured: Loretta Lynn, 1976.)
By now you know that Loretta Lynn died yesterday at the age of 90. As I write, I can think of four or five people whose takes on Loretta’s life I am eager to read. I have no doubt that they’ll be vastly superior to this one. The thing I can satisfactorily do, however, is to summarize her career on the record charts and noodle with some half-assed conclusions.
Loretta had 69 entries on Billboard‘s country Top 40, starting with “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in 1960. Sixteen of those went to #1; the first, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” in 1967, staked out territory that Loretta would occupy for years thereafter: a woman not to be trifled with. Yes, she sang songs of love and devotion, but she also demanded love and devotion from her man in return. And she was not shy about standing up for herself and the life she valued: try to steal her man and you’re going to “Fist City,” the title of her second #1 song in 1968. As the 60s turned to the 70s, the iconic hits continued to flow, including the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the humorous wife-and-mother drudgery of “One’s on the Way.” She recorded classic duets with Conway Twitty: “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon I Hang Up the Phone,” and “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Her last Top 10 hit was in 1982; her last Top 40 entry was in 1985. Her last chart single of any sort was a tribute-album remake of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert in 2010. She released her final album, Still Woman Enough, in 2021.
Chuck Klosterman suggests that years from now, Chuck Berry will stand for all of rock ‘n’ roll music in the same way that John Philip Sousa stands for all of march music. Might Loretta Lynn eventually perform a similar function for country music? If that ends up being true, one record in particular might be a major reason why.
Birth control pills were an essential accessory for the liberated, urban woman of the 1970s. But what about women who were not, did not, or could not consider themselves to be “liberated”? What about those living in rural or small-town nowhere, places reached by the culture of the cities, but not necessarily the values? Lynn herself described the lives such women led in “One’s on the Way.” She knows what Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, and Debbie Reynolds are doing with themselves, but “here in Topeka,” the housework and child-wrangling never end, and oh by the way, I’m pregnant again.
Her 1975 hit “The Pill,” however, offers an escape from that life: “There’s gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill / You’ve set this chicken your last time cuz now I’ve got the pill.” How must that have sounded to women who had never considered that there was something more to life than being pregnant every other year? That’s a feminist concept, and a life-changing one, and it came in over the radio while the chores were being done. “The Pill” even slyly appealed to the roosters, suggesting there could be practical benefits for them, too, when Loretta sings, “Feelin’ good comes easy now since I got the pill.” “The Pill” also showed that country music could adapt to and reflect changing times without losing its way, or selling its soul.
There were radio stations that wouldn’t play “The Pill,” of course. It got to #5 on the Billboard country chart, the poorest performance (relatively speaking) of any Lynn record since 1970. It was the last of her four singles to cross over to the Hot 100, peaking at #70. (Her biggest pop-chart hit was a duet with Conway, “After the Fire Is Gone,” which got to #56 in 1971.)
Chuck Berry and John Philip Sousa influenced countless musicians who came after them. Loretta Lynn did too, and if modern mainstream country music is irretrievably broken from the past she represents, that’s not her fault. Her great achievement is that even though she became one of the queens of Nashville, with all the trappings of success, it was always possible to trace a line in her music back to the Kentucky holler in which she was born.
(Footnote: although Lynn wrote many of her songs, Shel Silverstein wrote “One’s on the Way,” and she shares credit on “The Pill” with three other writers.)