The Kennedy Center

Loretta Lynn


Few things in life are sweeter than a real country song, and when Loretta Lynn is singing, her song is always as sweet as it rings true. Her name is synonymous with country music itself. She has sung for royalty, teamed up with Luciano Pavarotti as well as Conway Twitty, called American Presidents friends, and headlined everywhere from "The Muppet Show" to the Grand Ole Opry. Through it all, the first woman ever to become the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year has stayed faithful to her roots and strayed not at all from the music she makes best. "A song delivered by Loretta," said her fellow country singer Roy Acuff, "is from the deepest part of her heart."

She was born the second of eight children of Ted and Clara Webb. She was married to a serviceman at 13, became a mother at 14, and a grandmother by 29. Part Cherokee, all country, she got her name from her mother's love for the actress Loretta Young. The story of her beginnings caries the heartbreaking simplicity and ineffable emotional resonance of a modern American myth, best told in the song, autobiography, and motion picture that carried her fame beyond the borders of country music into the world's imagination. "I was born a coal miner's daughter," Lynn sang, "In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.'' " We were poor but we had love," the song continued, "That's one thing my Daddy made sure of / He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar / Mama rocked the babies at night / Read the Bible by a coal oil light / And everythin' would start all over come break of morn'."

Loretta's husband, Oliver Vanetta Lynn, was known to his friends as Doolittle or as Mooney, for moonshine. He took Loretta to Custer, Washington, where the couple had their first of four children and Loretta continued her singing at home to her babies. Moved by his wife's talent, Mooney bought her a guitar for her eighteenth birthday. Loretta taught herself to play, began singing in local clubs and later with a band, The Trailblazers, which included Loretta's brother Jay Lee Webb. Mooney entered Loretta in a local talent contest that turned out to be her big break: An invitation from Buck Owens to sing on his television show. She was spotted by Don Grashey of Zero Records, who flew her to Los Angeles to make her first record. When the small label turned out to have no budget to promote "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl," which Loretta herself had written, the singer and her husband began mailing the record to radio stations across the country.

The country liked it fine. The family packed up and drove to Nashville and, by the time they arrived in 1960, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl" was a hit. In 1961, Loretta Lynn became a regular in the Willburn Brothers' television show and soon in the Grand Ole Opry. In 1962 came her first single, the prophetically titled honky tonk hit "Success." A string of Top Ten hits followed in the next decade, from "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" and "Woman of the World" to "Your Squaw's On The Warpath" and the landmark "Coal Miner's Daughter." In 1966, she teamed up with Conway Twitty for one of the most successful duos in country music history, producing a series of recordings that eventually included 13 Top Ten hits. Searching for her own sound, she eased from honky tonk to what would become the new country sound, in every way a return to basic values, words of wisdom, and down-to-earth feelings. She was elected to the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame. Her lyrics grew even more heartfelt, and she also worked at home on setting down the story of her life. "Coal Miner's Daughter" became a New York Times best seller in 1976. When the book was adapted for the movies in 1980, Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for playing the role of Loretta.

Mooney passed away in 1996. That same year, Loretta Lynn received the Legend Award at the Annual Country Music Awards. She was the first woman ever to be named Entertainer of the year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The death of her husband of nearly fifty years was the hardest blow the singer ever faced, but she picked herself up and produced the album "Still Country." And she is still here. "I think she was a feminist long before her time, long before anybody knew what the word meant," said Trisha Yearwood, one of many country singers who have been inspired by Loretta Lynn, "because she lived it."

She lives it to the fullest. Her music is ageless, her message real. As for the singer, she remains as she confessed in her most famous song: "I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter, I remember well, the well where I drew water." That well is deep, it gives comfort, and it brings us always an American song.
Loretta Lynn