When I was growing up in the 1960s, our little tract house in northern Knoxville, Tennessee, was nearly always filled with the twin aromas of cigarette smoke and home cooking—a bouquet of bacon, fried eggs, coffee, and fried toast, which my stay-at-home mother cooked daily for my manual-laborer father—and the reverberations of country music. Some mornings I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen when they thought I was still asleep. (I learned a lot of family secrets by eavesdropping from bed.) But mostly I listened for the kitchen radio, tuned to WIVK, from which the splendid twang of country music poured forth. My father loved Merle Haggard. My mother loved George Jones. I loved Dolly Parton, Skeeter Davis, Jean Shepard, Tammy Wynette, and Connie Smith. I adored Loretta Lynn, though it was not easy for a Tennessee girl like me to choose a Kentucky singer as her favorite. After all, Dolly had come down from the mountains in neighboring Sevier County and sung shows around our town; she had appeared on local television for years. One was expected to be loyal, to take sides, to support the home-grown hero that Dolly was becoming. But I watched Loretta on TV, too. With her big hair, big guitar, and big voice, she materialized before me in flickering living color every Saturday afternoon when I tuned in to watch The Wilburn Brothers Show, a country music variety program hosted by Doyle and Teddy Wilburn, a singing brother act from Arkansas.
My father told me that Loretta was from Eastern Kentucky—a “child bride” was what he called her with some pity—and that she wrote most of her own songs. He admired the way she kept up with herself by thrumming out a steady rhythm on her guitar, backed by the Wilburn Brothers’ house band, an old-school country knock and grind grounded in that familiar crying-shame country music accompaniment: pedal steel, bass, and electric guitar. She sang her heart out in a voice that awakened my budding musical sensibilities. I could sing along. I could pick out her songs on my grandmother’s farmhouse piano. But Loretta’s voice kindled the fire for that honky-tonk sound that still burns in me today. And I liked the way she looked.
I didn’t have a name for Loretta Lynn’s coiffure in 1963, but now I’d call it a sort of beehive-mullet. No woman I knew wore such a hairdo. It bordered on extreme even for those times, when most country stars sported some sort of stiffened bouffant. The top was backcombed into submission—a mound of thick lacquered curls—while the length fell in heavy ringlets around her back and shoulders. I thought it was exquisite. My grandmother thought all that black hair was appalling and not age-appropriate. She called Loretta “trashy.” For me, Loretta Lynn’s hair signaled a self-assured determination. You had to be both poised and assertive to pull off such a hairstyle, right?
Her dresses were less extreme. My mother was a seamstress with a steady clientele of schoolteachers and church ladies who needed dresses for working and worshipping. I witnessed many a fitting in my mother’s living room and made many a trip with her to the fabric stores around town. Eventually, I developed an admiration for the textiles, patterns, and accessories of women’s clothing. Before Loretta Lynn advanced to her signature ball-gown uniform (remember that aqua extravagance with the cut-out bodice she sports on the cover of her 2004 album Van Lear Rose or the yards and yards of purple glitz she’s wrangling on last year’s Full Circle?), she appeared on The Wilburn Brothers Show in demure shirtwaists and A-lines. Her knee-length dresses were brightly colored and well tailored, and each one usually featured some little touch of shine—a row of sequins stitched around the bodice or neckline, a ruffled or puffed sleeve, a slightly flounced hemline. Her dresses were elegant but modest, understated. They undercut the stereotypes a national audience might hold about silly, ignorant hillbillies from Kentucky, or Tennessee.
Back then, I did not understand the very narrow gender roles ascribed to women in country music. I did not understand the dismissal involved when Doyle Wilburn followed up one of Loretta’s TV performances in 1966 with this statement: “For two years in a row now our disc jockeys across the United States and Canada have voted her our number one little girl singer in country music and by cracky we’re mighty proud for her.” In 1966, Loretta Lynn was anything but little. She had already released eight solo studio albums. Just one year later she would be the first woman in country music to achieve a certified gold album for Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind). But a “little girl singer” was not considered a true solo act. She was there to support and round out the male stars of a show. The “girl singer” moniker was used by her male colleagues and by emcees as a way to separate and diminish the achievements of women in the industry.
I also did not understand that a generation of women in traditional music and barn dance radio had preceded the women whose songs I heard so frequently in our little red kitchen. Women like Cousin Emmy, Molly O’Day, Lily May Ledford, Moonshine Kate, Patsy Montana, Lulu Belle Wiseman, even Maybelle and Sara Carter had been forgotten, replaced, ignored, or silenced by the male-dominated industry and the ever-modern sounds of contemporary country music. Nevertheless, those women had battered down the doors for singers like Loretta Lynn. They endured the power plays and insults of their male managers and record producers while forging solo careers as radio trailblazers and early country music stars. They broke down industry rules dictating that women in country music could either be good little country girls singing wholesome songs or comediennes. They persisted and got up every day and worked. In turn, Loretta Lynn’s work ethic and independent temperament would inspire the next generation of “girl singers.”
Whatever label was pinned on Loretta Lynn, most people had never heard anything like her before. Although her earliest recordings drew comparisons to Kitty Wells, she soon developed her own vocal personality. Her voice was bright, innocent, straightforward. Her phrasing was homegrown and eccentric, with her emblematic vibrato kicking in on the tail-end of sustained notes. Some of my music teachers in school would ridicule her singing. They used her unique vocal stylings as an example of how not to sing. (“We’re not making a Loretta Lynn record here! Sustain the vowel, not the consonant! Don’t breathe in the middle of that phrase!”) Public school music teachers unknowingly taught me about musical snobbery, insisting that there were singing rules that “real” singers didn’t break. Public school music classes gave me my first ugly tastes of institutionalized classism and prejudice. None of this, of course, affected Loretta Lynn. She kept right on, churning out hit after hit, trained music teachers be damned.
She had another vocal idiosyncrasy that kept me listening: her diction. In East Tennessee, my people were country-sounding enough, to be sure. Most of the neighbors, friends, and relatives my family associated with were first-generation farm kids who had moved into the suburbs of Knoxville from surrounding rural farms after World War II—just like my parents had. I grew up around animated talkers and storytellers with a love for humor. They had unique dialects. Yet I realized early (although I’m certain I couldn’t articulate it at the time) that Eastern Kentuckians like Lynn had a manner of speaking that was different from East Tennesseans. Her Kentucky dialect was more rugged, like the terrain; her vowel sounds were coarser (“here” pronounced “hure” or “tired” pronounced “tarred”); she dropped the “ing” endings of participles and gerunds and replaced them with a hard “uhn” sound (shine-nun, sleep-un, kiss-un). Standard English grammar rules were largely forsaken. None of these features were exactly new in country music, but Loretta made them trademarks. In her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, she noted that the Wilburn Brothers were trying to “polish me up,” while her producer at Decca Records, Owen Bradley, encouraged her to remain true to her speaking roots:
“Just pronounce the words the way you want, Loretta.” That’s what Owen told me. He never made me feel like I was a dumb hillbilly just because I said “ain’t” or “holler.” Owen said people would always understand me, so long as I was myself.
I was not a cool adolescent in the mid-to-late 1960s and often listened to Loretta Lynn on the sly. The Motown sound, the British Invasion, and popular rock & roll had throbbed and screamed their way through the nation. My girlfriends and I all had a favorite Beatle (mine was George because of his quiet presence and because he could play the guitar like Don Rich in Buck Owens’s band—whom I also saw regularly on TV). We immersed ourselves in the Supremes, the Stones, the Who, Marvin Gaye, the Byrds, Stevie Wonder, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and, yes, the Monkees (also regularly seen on TV). Cruising after boys down the main drags of Knoxville or speeding up Highway 441 toward Norris Lake, we played Led Zeppelin in our cars at deafening decibels, but when Robert Plant sang “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” in “Whole Lotta Love” in 1969, I was impervious to his innuendo. Loretta Lynn had been singing about sex for nearly a decade on TV. And I had been listening.
In truth, I didn’t comprehend much of the significance of Loretta’s lyrics while watching her from my parents’ cozy den on Saturday afternoons. But by the time she released the hit single “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in 1970, I had grown up enough to realize the sexual tension that spiced up her lyrics. Her songs “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’,” “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Two Steps Forward,” “Happy Birthday,” “Fist City,” and “Wings Upon Your Horns” were regularly featured on The Wilburn Brothers Show and on the radio: songs of defiance, self-reliance, and regret transformed into tough-minded and truthful rhymes about women’s sexual identities. “Rated X,” “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” and “The Pill” were the natural evolution of Loretta’s role as a representative for wronged women, blue-collar women, and women with too many kids (those with a penchant for country music, anyway). The “girl singer” had transformed into a “stand up and fight singer.”
But what was she fighting for? Here is where my love for Loretta begins to splinter a bit. Some critics contend that she successfully threw off the “girl singer” model and claimed national attention as a feminist trailblazer in country music. Her 1975 song “The Pill,” about a woman’s ability to make her own reproductive choices thanks to birth control, is generally credited with elevating her status as a champion for women’s rights. But Loretta Lynn has fairly consistently denied that she had any part in wrecking the patriarchy. When she was interviewed for Chris Willman’s book Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, she said she didn’t understand all the fuss, that she was just doing what she could do: “I had to. [My husband] believed in me, and I had to make him proud of me.” Maybe she doesn’t have a clear critical perspective of her own work. Maybe this statement simply illustrates her commitment to family. Or maybe it showcases her true beliefs about gender politics. Her long association with Republican presidents and leaders (Nixon, both Bushes) is not that unusual given country music’s history of preserving conservative ideals and patriotism in song. Her more recent support of Trump has left me crestfallen. She said early last year that Trump is “the only one who’s going to turn this country around.” But I don’t want the country to turn around as much as I want it to open up, to be inclusive and kindhearted, and I haven’t witnessed any of those characteristics in Donald Trump. I do think of Loretta Lynn as an open and kindhearted person, so I wish, of course, that our political ideologies aligned as well as our musical ideologies. The disconnect hurts my heart.
In 1980, I went to see the film depiction of Loretta Lynn’s autobiography at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville and morphed through several stages of nostalgia and homesickness. I thought of my childhood, my mother and father stopping their Saturday chores to sit and watch the country music variety shows on TV, Loretta Lynn’s image igniting our den, her voice coursing into the room. In some ways I rode out that film like it was my own life on the screen. After I moved to Southeastern Kentucky more than twenty-five years ago to teach, I learned that a lot of people here had a similar experience. A friend of mine was taken to the theater in Corbin, Kentucky, when he was eight years old to see Coal Miner’s Daughter. He was impatient in the long line and asked his aunt why they had to see this movie. She said, “This movie is about us.”
So many moments in that film paid homage to the qualities I had long admired: Loretta Lynn’s doggedness and drive, her humor, her commitment to her identity as a Kentuckian, her exceptional musical sensibilities. After the film was released, she kept singing and recording, she kept touring, she kept coming to me through television. (Remember those Crisco commercials? Crisco’ll do you proud ever’ time.) Soon I could buy her music on CDs; soon I could see her old Wilburn Brothers Show performances again on YouTube.
As a kid, I focused solely on her media persona and grafted that role onto the whole person that is Loretta. I crafted a woman singer I admired from an aural and visual standpoint, not an intellectual or inclusive perspective. I still tend to do this with musicians and artists I admire—I don’t like to have to separate the person from the art they make. It’s messy. I get conflicted and mixed up about how to feel about the art when I’m sad about how the artist’s politics and ideologies are in opposition to mine. It’s sort of like living in Kentucky. We have boundless music and art. And Mitch McConnell.
For me, the music always wins. The art trumps the artist, and I can continue to think of Loretta Lynn as the embodiment of all that I love about classic country music—the whine of the pedal steel, the brutal whack of honest lyrics filled with bad luck and bad choices, and, always, a woman’s raw voice holding it all together. Loretta’s denial of leading the pack for women’s rights or her public displays of affection for conservative politics have helped me learn to live with ambiguity and complications while simultaneously and joyfully embracing her music with wild abandon. When she sings, I want to kick off my shoes and dance like she used to at the end of The Wilburn Brothers Show. Her stocking feet scuffle in time to the exit music, her yellow dress hiked ever so slightly. Her chiseled cheeks flare in the studio lights. Her hair comes loose a little around her ears. She grins into the camera and waves at me. At all of us.
“Women’s Prison” by Loretta Lynn is included on the Kentucky Music Issue CD.
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