Loretta Lynn, Country Music Icon, Dies at 90

Vocalist Loretta Lynn, whose ascent from a small Kentucky coal-mining community to national country music stardom literally became the stuff of Hollywood, died on Tuesday (Oct. 4) at 90. According to a statement from her family, Lynn passed away in her sleep at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.

“Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, October 4th, in her sleep at home at her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills, the family said in a statement; an announcement about a public memorial is forthcoming.

Lynn’s life story was memorably retold in Michael Apted’s 1980 feature Coal Miner’s Daughter, based on Lynn’s 1976 memoir. Sissy Spacek won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her portrayal of the singer.

Beyond the dramatic particulars of her life, Lynn, who recorded 16 No. 1 country singles, was among the music’s groundbreaking female singing stars.

She became one of the music’s brightest luminaries in an era when men dominated country. She wrote much of her hit material, and it was sharply-penned stuff, written from the point of view of a woman (usually a married one) who would take no guff from her man. And she did not shrink from controversial subject matter.

Lynn was born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. “I’m always making Butcher Hollow sound like the most backward part of the United States — and I think maybe it is,” she wrote in her autobiography.

She was the second eldest of coal miner Melvin Webb’s eight children, and grew up in sometimes dire poverty in the heart of the Great Depression. One of the few distractions she had was the radio; 11-year-old Loretta became enamored of the Grand Ole Opry and its early female star, Molly O’Day.

At the age of 14, she married Oliver Lynn, known by his nicknames “Doolittle” and “Mooney.” A year later, the couple moved from Kentucky to Custer, Washington, a town of a few hundred near Bellingham. By 18, Lynn had four children. (Two more would follow later.)

Encouraged by her husband, Lynn began singing in the Washington clubs. In 1950, Don Grashey of tiny Zero Records arranged a session for her in Los Angeles. Backed by top-flight guitarists Speedy West and Roy Lanham, she cut her composition “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” inspired in part by Kitty Wells’ 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonky Angels.”

With tireless promotion by the country neophyte, the song became a surprise hit, and Lynn was soon touring with the Wilburn Brothers and appearing on the Grand Ole Opry. She was signed by the major label Decca Records in 1961, and the title of her first top 10 hit for the company harbingered the rest of her career: “Success.”

A run of chart-topping country singles followed, sung in a warm voice but taking a tough-minded stance. Just the titles of many of these hits telegraph Lynn’s point of view: “You Ain’t Woman Enough” (No. 2, 1966), “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” (No. 1, 1966), “What Kind of a Girl (Do You Think I Am?)” (No. 5, 1967), “Fist City” (No. 1, 1968), “Your Squaw is On the Warpath” (No. 3, 1968).

Other signature tunes by Lynn took an autobiographical tack; these included 1965’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” (memorably covered by Emmylou Harris) and 1970’s No. 1 single “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

In 1971 — the year she charted her biggest solo hit, “One’s On the Way” — Lynn began a productive collaboration with label mate Conway Twitty. The pair’s No. 1 duet hit “After the Fire is Gone” was followed by a dozen more top 10 country singles.

In 1975, as the national debate over women’s liberation continued to roil, Lynn incited comment with her song “The Pill.” The song, which reached No. 5 on the country chart, was, in Lynn’s words, “about how the man keeps the woman barefoot and pregnant over the years.” It was one of the best examples of the no-nonsense spunk of her songwriting.

Lynn continued to chart records through the ‘80s, but her recording career slowed and then stopped.

She reentered the scene at the age of 70 in 2004 through the agency of an unlikely fan and collaborator, Jack White, of the popular Detroit garage-punk act The White Stripes. Lynn and White collaborated on the Interscope album Van Lear Rose, which was designed to reignite her career as Johnny Cash’s series of American Records albums had returned him to prominence. The album became the biggest of her career, and the Lynn-White duet “Portland Oregon” received serious radio play.

Lynn remained active well into her 80s, releasing the Grammy-nominated Full Circle in 2016, the first of a series of albums produced by her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash. Circle was followed by that year’s White Christmas Blue and and 2018’s Wouldn’t It Be Great, a collection of new songs and interpretations of classics including the title track, “God Makes No Mistakes,” “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin'” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; a planned tour was canceled after Lynn suffered a stroke in May 2017.

The singer returned in 2021 with the her 46th and final album, Still Woman Enough, which featured “Coal Miner’s Daughter Recitation,” a celebration of the 50th anniversary of her signature song.  

Billboard Staff