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Country music icon Loretta Lynn dies at 90 : NPR

Loretta Lynn, the country music star who brought unprecedented candor about the domestic realities of working-class women to country songwriting, died at her home in Tennessee on Tuesday. She was 90 years old.



JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Country music icon Loretta Lynn passed away today. She is 90 years old and her family say she died peacefully in her sleep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Loretta Lynn brought unparalleled candor about the domestic realities of women working in the classroom to writing country songs. And she taught those who came after her to also say what they think.

SUMMERS: When a movie was made about her life, Lynn became a prominent figure in pop culture, but she never compromised her local sensibility. WNXP’s Jewly Hight has that appreciation.

JEWLY HIGH, BYLINE: One of the greatest songs of Loretta Lynn’s career proudly recounted her hardscrabble past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER”)

LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter in a shack on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor, but we had love. It’s the only thing Dad made sure of. He shoveled coal to make a pauper’s dollar.

TOP: Lynn never tires of telling stories about her upbringing in a remote mining community in Appalachia, eastern Kentucky. In a 2000 NPR interview, she recalled how her parents, Melvin and Clara Webb, did whatever it took to feed their eight children, even if it meant accepting the gift of a stolen chicken from a relative.

LYNN: There were many times when we went to bed hungry and woke up in the middle of the night at 3 a.m. We would smell the chicken cooking. Mom would get us up, let us eat and go back to bed.

TOP: Loretta Webb was barely a teenager when she started her own family with 21-year-old ex-soldier Oliver Lynn, better known as Mooney or Doolittle. They wasted no time in having the first four of their six children and emigrated to Washington State. It was there that her husband heard her bedtime lullabies and pushed her to start performing in public. In a 2010 interview with WHYY’s Fresh Air, Loretta Lynn insisted she wouldn’t have done it any other way.

LYNN: I wouldn’t go out in front of people. I didn’t want – you know, I was really shy, and I didn’t want – I would never sing in front of anybody.

HIGH: Once her husband started scrounging up paid gigs for her, Loretta taught herself how to write songs, says country music historian and journalist Robert Oermann.

ROBERT OERMANN: She got a copy of Country Song Roundup, and it’s a magazine that has printed country lyrics as well as star stories. And she was reading the country lyrics in the magazine, and she was like, well, it’s nothing. I can do it, because she could and had been.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “I’M A HONKY TONK GIRL”)

LYNN: (Singing) So crank that jukebox up high and fill my glass while I cry. I lost everything in this world, and now I’m a honky tonk girl.

HIGH: Lynn and her husband drove to radio stations. She would introduce herself to DJs and try to charm them into playing her record. The pair’s endeavors began to catch her eye when they landed in Nashville in 1960. Artists like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, who became Lynn’s mentor, had great success with the lush, sweet production style. known as its Nashville. Lynn worked with Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley, but clung to her unsweetened twang.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “YOU’RE NOT WOMAN ENOUGH (TO TAKE MY MAN)”)

LYNN: (Singing) It’ll be on my dead body, so get out while you can because you’re not woman enough to take my man.

TOP: Country songs had often depicted hardship from a man’s point of view, but Lynn wasn’t afraid to spell out the indignities she endured in her marriage or the double standards she saw other women do face in matters of divorce, pregnancy and birth control.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “THE PILL”)

LYNN: (singing) There are going to be changes made right here in Nursery Hill. You settled that chicken for the last time because now I’m on the pill.

HIGHT: Lynn found that Nashville was not used to this kind of franchise.

LYNN: I’ll tell you. When I came to Nashville, I didn’t really know that people didn’t say what they thought. I’ve always been a person who says what I think.

RAISED: Eastern Kentucky songwriter Angaleena Presley was raised on her mother’s Loretta Lynn records and recognizes what they must have meant to women in previous generations.

ANGALEENA PRESLEY: I’m sure there were probably many, many women at that time, especially in the country, who thought, I’m not really allowed to say anything if my husband wants to drink. He works all day. He deserves to drink and go home and do whatever he wants. And I will clean the house and raise the children. And she said, no, that’s not OK. And it’s OK for you to say it’s not OK.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “DON’T COME HOME A DRINKIN'”)

LYNN: (singing) No, don’t come home drinking (ph) with love (ph) on your mind. Just stay out there in town, and see what you can find because if you want that kind of love, well, you don’t need any of mine. So don’t come home drinking with love in mind.

PRESLEY: I feel like that contributed a lot to the feminist movement, especially in rural America, because I feel like she was the voice. Although she never actively spoke out as a feminist, her songs certainly did.

HIGH: Thirty-nine of these songs became Billboard’s top 10 country hits. And in 1972, Loretta Lynn was the first woman named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNN: The only – I’m really happy, but the only thing that makes me a little sad is that my husband is out hunting. He couldn’t come back to share my happiness with me.

(LAUGH)

LYNN: Thank you.

HIGH: Their relationship was complicated, but they remained married until Doolittle’s death in 1996. And Loretta made sure her fans knew her longtime musical partnership with Conway Twitty was business. Lynn continued performing and recording into the new millennium, attracting younger audiences through her collaboration with rocker Jack White. But it was essential to Lynn’s lasting appeal that she never lose touch with her identity as a modern, down-to-earth countrywoman. Journalist Robert Oermann saw her communicate this to crowds throughout her career.

OERMANN: This idea that, I could be here on this stage singing this song, but I’m no better than you. I am you. And that’s kind of the message. You know, and I think it’s really – that kind of humility is a really powerful and good thing. This message is so, so powerful.

HIGHT: And that has always influenced his writing.

LYNN: I love real life because that’s what we do today. And I think that’s why people bought my records – because they live in this world. And me too. So I see what is happening, and I grasp it.

HIGH: Loretta Lynn’s courage shines through just as clearly today in the music she left behind. For NPR News, I’m Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “YOU’RE LOOKIN’ AT COUNTRY”)

LYNN: (Singing) Well, I love my country love. And that little girl would walk a country mile to find her a good old slow-talking country boy. I said a country boy.

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