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How Country Superstar Loretta Lynn Got Her Start In Country Music 

loretta lynn
  • Arden is a Senior Country Music Journalist for Country Thang Daily, specializing in classic hits and contemporary chart-toppers.
  • Prior to joining Country Thang Daily, Arden wrote for Billboard and People magazine, covering country music legends and emerging artists.
  • Arden holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Tennessee, with a minor in Music Studies.

Loretta Lynn has been famous for winning more than a dozen awards, releasing nearly a hundred of albums and so many hit songs we can no longer even keep track. But do you know the celebrated singer didn’t have an easy journey to fame?

Loretta, who is now 90 years old, has a true rags-to-riches story and this is what we are about to find out today. There are so many interesting things to learn about Loretta, so keep on reading below.

The Early Years of Loretta Lynn

Loretta hails from the coal-mining hills in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. She was born as Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932. She was named after American actress Loretta Young, who has been famous for her starring roles in Come to the Stable (1949) and The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), in which her mother is a big fan of. 

Loretta is the second of the eight children of Melvin Theodore “Ted” and Clara Marie “Clary” Webb. Ted was a coal miner who worked long hours just to keep his family fed, clothed and raised in dire poverty. In one of Loretta’s interview, she said that the 10 of them lives in a small cabin in the mountains. 

And during winter, it can get so cold but they don’t have the money for wallpaper, so her mother glued newspapers and pages from old Sears Roebuck catalogs to the wall to help the cold out. And guess what? In one of those old newspapers was a photo of Loretta Young who her mother thought to be so beautiful that she named Loretta after the actress.

Loretta Lynn Marriage at Early Age

On January 10, 1948, a few months before Loretta’s 16th birthday, she married Oliver Vanetta “Doolittle” Lynn who is better known as “Doolittle”, “Doo”, or “Mooney”. “Doo” was already 21 years old then and was a war veteran.

The following year, the young couple moved to Custer, Washington where “Doo” was looking for a future that did not require him of working the mines and hoping to find better opportunities. By the time she turned 20, she already had four children, Betty Sue, Jack Benny, Ernest Ray, and Clara Marie. 

Loretta did all the odd jobs while her husband worked in logging camps. Yet despite the poverty, Lynn was surrounded by love and by music as a child. She never lost her love of music. It was absolutely hard for Loretta to be isolated from her family back home and being burdened with all the domestic work, so she turned to music for comfort.

When husband Doo heard her singing while doing the chores, he told her that she sounded just as great as anyone he has ever heard on the radio. So in 1953, on her 18th birthday, her husband bought her a $17 Harmony guitar purchased from Sears & Roebuck and encouraged her to learn how to play it. Loretta has always credited her husband with her career in country music. She would have not acted without his encouragement.

Loretta Lynn’s Path To Stardom

It took Loretta three years of learning and improving herself playing the guitar. She then bought a Country Song Roundup and when she looked at the songs in there, she thought to herself that she can do this too. It was then that she started writing about things that happened, about life.

In her 2012 memoir, Honky Tonk Girl, she revealed that her first song was written during the time they went fishing. She sat down and wrote a song and was shocked how the lyrics just came pouring out naturally, it was the song Whispering Sea. While her first hit I’m a Honky Tonk Girl was written while she was working in a strawberry field. She took the inspiration from a woman she had seen in the bar at one of her shows.

“You’re just as good or better as most of them girls that are singin’ and makin’ money, so let’s make us some money.” With Doo’s drive of getting a better life, he pushed Loretta every step of the way. He came home one day and told her he had gotten her a job singing inside a tavern in Blaine, just right on the Canadian border.

Loretta has never been inside a tavern and she has no experience singing in a public, so she was more terrified rather than feeling shy whenever she was on stage. She was signing with the Penn Brothers and their group The Westerners. 

 “I sang into the microphone and looked at my feet. After every song, I turned my back to the crowd”, this was what Loretta said in one of her interviews. The early shows must really feel terrible to her that after a few months, she decided to leave the band.

Luckily, her brother Jay Lee Webb was also living in Washington by then. They formed their own band, the Trailblazers where Jay plays the lead guitar and Loretta was on rhythm. They got a paying job at Bill’s Tavern.

In 1960, Loretta joined a televised contest in Tacoma, Washington where she won a wristwatch and not only that, it opened her doors to a successful singing career. Loretta’s performance has caught the attention of Canadian Norm Burley, a co-founder of the record company Zero Records.

Don Grashey, Zero Record’s president, arranged a recording session with Loretta in United Western Recorders at Hollywood. Four of her compositions were recorded, this includes “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, “Whispering Sea”, “Heartache Meet Mister Blues”, and “New Rainbow”.

On February 2, 1960, Loretta finally signed her first contract with Zero Records and her first release featured “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” and “Whispering Sea”. Loretta and her husband toured the country to promote the release to different country music radio stations. Doo traveled alongside her, visiting radio stations, attempting to get airtime for her song.

They left their kids with their parents and they lived in Doo’s old Mercury sedan. “I could never have done it on my own,” Loretta wrote in her 2002 memoir, Still Woman Enough. “Whatever else our marriage was back in them days … without Doo, there would have been no Loretta Lynn, country singer.”

She also said that this has been the happiest time in their marriage despite being so broke and hungry on their trips that they even resorted to stealing vegetables and fruits from gardens, yet they had a common goal and they were both working together.

It was the couple’s goal to reach the Grand Ole Opry and surprisingly, it worked and their efforts have totally paid off. When they reached Nashville, her song was already a hit. It has climbed to No. 14 on Billboard’s Country and Western Chart

The couple settled in Nashville, Tennessee and Lynn began working with Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, owners of the music publishing company Wilburn Brothers. She was a regular guest on the Grand Ole Opry, the Wilburn Brothers’ show. 

Her appearances on the Grand Ole Opry helped her become the number one female recording artist in country music. The first Loretta Lynn Fan Club has also been formed in November 1960 and by the end of the year, Loretta has been listed by the Billboard magazine as the No. 4 Most Promising Country Female Artist. Indeed, 1960 was truly a year for Loretta.

Through the Wilburn Brothers, she was also able to secure a contract with Decca Records with producer Owen Bradley. Owen Bradley, just like everyone else who has met Loretta, was smitten by her innocence, uniqueness, refreshing frankness and massive talent. 

Her Breakthrough Success

Her contract with Decca Records has been the breakthrough of her success. It was the moment that changed her life forever. In 1963, she released her debut album with Decca Records, Loretta Lynn Sings. 

The record’s first single, “Success” went straight to No. 6 and launched her record-breaking career. This has been the start of a series of top 10 singles that ran until the 1970s. Loretta has regularly hit the top 10 ever since then with her songs “Before I’m Over You” and “Wine, Women, and Song”.

In late 1964, she recorded a duet album with Ernest Tubb who is also one of the pillars of country music. Their lead single was the “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be” and it rose up to Top 15. With this success, Loretta and Ernest recorded two more albums in 1968 and 1969 titled “Singin’ Again” and “If We Put Our Heads Together”.

In the year 1965, Loretta’s career was really kicking off. Her solo career continued to soar with her three major hits, “Happy Birthday”, “Blue Kentucky Girl”, and “The Home You’re Tearing Down”. The following year, 1966, Loretta released her first-ever self-penned song, “Dear Uncle Sam” that also made it to Top 10 while her hit “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” made her the first country female recording artist to pen a No. 1 hit.

She followed in 1967 with her first No. 1 hit, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind),” one of her many songs that featured a confident and humorous female perspective. That year, she was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association and became one of the first albums by a female country artist to reach sales of 500,000 copies.

“She’s the spokesman for the ladies,” as told by the late Owen Bradley. “Loretta had a lot of different ideas, and they were very fresh. Women’s lib was also coming on at that time. You have to be in the right place at the right time. And I think Loretta was standing right there.”

In her best-selling autobiography, Loretta wrote, “Most of my songs were from the women’s point of view “Most of my fan club is women, which is how I want it.”

“I was a mommy at 14 and a grandma at 29. Having to grow up as fast as I did when I got married took something away from me. But it also gave me something: a hard-won strength.”

In the year 1970, Loretta released perhaps her most popular song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. The song was inspired by her own personal experiences of growing up in poverty yet a happy family. The song swiftly became No. 1 hit.

The goodness just kept coming for. Loretta. She started winning awards and praises. In the year 1972, she won her first Grammy Award, thanks to her team up with Conway Twitty for the song “After the Fire Is Gone.” This song is just one of the many successful collaborations between the two, there other popular sours are “Lead Me On,” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”, “As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone” and “Feelins’.” 

The duo performs their songs exploring romantic relationships and often adulterous, they won the Country Music Association Vocal Duo of the Year award for four consecutive years, from 1972 to 1975. They were also named as the “Best Vocal Duet” by the Academy of Country Music in the years 1971, 1974, 1975 and 1976.

Lynn’s last studio album released on Decca was Here I Am Again, in 1972. Following her tenure with that label, Lynn switched to MCA Records. It was also the same year when she became the first country star on the cover of Newsweek and the first woman to be nominated and win Entertainer of the Year at the CMA awards.

She released her first album with MCA Records in 1973, “Entertainer of the Year”. One of her singles in this album is the “Rated ‘X'” which is still considered to be one of the most controversial songs to date. 

In 1976, Loretta published her first autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter. It quickly became one of the best-selling books during that time. It has publicly revealed some of the ups and downs of Loretta’s personal and professional life, especially her difficult relationship with her husband Doo. 

The Coal Miner’s Daughter

By 1980, a film adaptation of the book has been released, it stared starring Sissy Spacek as Loretta and Tommy Lee Jones as her husband. The film has been nominated for seven Academy Awards like categories for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, etc. Spacek, on the other hand, has won Best Actress for the role.

However, in the 1980s, country music already started moving toward the mainstream pop and slowly turning away from the more traditional sound. Loretta’s domination of the country charts then started to retreat. Yet, her albums still managed to remain popular.

The country music icon was also able to enjoy some success being a spokeswoman for a shortening company at the same time making appearances on the television series, The Dukes of Hazzard, Fantasy Island, and The Muppet Show. And in the year 1982, Loretta has produced her most outstanding hit of the decade titled “I Lie.”

Unfortunately, her success comes with tragedy. In 1984, Loretta lost her son Jack Benny who was 34 years old then. Jack Benny took his horse out of their family ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennesse and as he was trying to cross the extremely dangerous Duck River, the young man unfortunately drowned. According to the authorities, he most likely struck on a rock as he was wading the river.

Loretta, who was 49 then, was in Illinois. After her husband broke the news to her, she was briefly found unconscious at the back of her tour bus and was then hospitalized for exhaustion. This incident has introduced her to a new world of grief and pain. 

And as if Loretta has not suffered enough, in the year 1988, she started scaling down her work to take care of her husband who has been suffering from diabetes and heart trouble. But on the brighter side, this was also the year she has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In the year 1993, she spared some time to work with Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton on the album Honky Tonk Angles. In the year 1995, she then starred in a limited-run television series titled Loretta Lynn & Friends at the same freeing her calendar for some tours.

Loretta Lynn’s Fearlessness

Though it may be hard to imagine today, during the year 1960s and 1970s, a lot of Loretta’s songs were very controversial that some country music radio stations often refused to play her music. In fact, nine of her songs were banned.

It was never her intention to be controversial, all she wanted was to simply tell the truth and unravel stories about real problems. She often addressed overlooked blue-collar issues. Her songs “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Rated X” and “One’s on the Way,” featured real-life experiences as well as the challenges women were facing during those years like birth control, repeated childbirth and double standards for men and women.

Her song “Dear Uncle Sam” was also one of the first country songs to address the Vietnam War. It was about being widowed due to the draft during the war. While the song “Rated X” was quite frank with the language explaining the life single women in the 70’s decade were facing and it eloquently exposed the hypocrisy often shown to divorced women.

“Probably I was different in writing about things that nobody would even talk about in public. I didn’t realize that they didn’t. I thought, ‘Well, gee, this is what’s going on; I’ll write about it.’ I was writing about life. And, of course, I had a lot of songs banned.”

But her legacy never faltered, she never ceased to become one of country music’s legendary artists and even became the voice of those women who could not muster the strength themselves. “To make it in this business, you either have to be first, great or different,” Loretta later on revealed in her interview with The Washington Examiner.

In the year 2013, the legendary country singer has received the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was presented by then-President Obama at the East Room of the White House.

This incredible honor is only given each year to a select few individuals “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Thanks to her songs that often depict women in a strong, empowered light which has been very unusual during her era, she has been regarded as one of the most important trailblazers for women in country music. A White House press release describes Lynn as “one of the first successful female country music vocalists in the early 1960s, courageously breaking barriers in an industry long dominated by men.”

Her Friendship with Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline was one of Loretta’s greatest heroes when she first moved to Nashville in the year 1960. Cline has suffered a near-fatal car wreck and when she was in the hospital, Loretta sang one of her songs, I Fall to Pieces, on the Midnite Jamboree. She dedicated her performance to Cline.

When Cline heard her performance, she was so touched that she invited Loretta to come to the hospital to meet her. The two became close friends ever since them. Patsy helped and guided Loretta through the early years of her career, especially during the time when the country music world was not yet so female-friendly. She helped Loretta stand up for herself.

Loretta told the Nashville Scene during one of her interviews that her friendship with Cline made her tougher. “After I met Patsy, life got better for me because I fought back,” she said. “Before that, I just took it. I had to. I was 3,000 miles away from my mom and dad and had four little kids. There was nothin’ I could do about it. But later on, I starting speakin’ my mind when things weren’t right.”

However, the friendship was short-lived as Patsy died in 1963 due to a plane crash. Loretta admitted it was an especially difficult loss to process, she told Entertainment Weekly: “When Patsy died, my God, not only did I lose my best girlfriend, but I lost a great person that was taking care of me. I thought, now somebody will whip me for sure.”

In the year 1977, she recorded an album dedicated to Patsy, I Remember Patsy. This album has covered some of the biggest hits of Cline’s like “She’s Got You” and “Why Can’t He Be You”. The song “She’s Got You” by Cline went No. 1 in 1962 and went No. 1 again in 1977 by Loretta while “Why Can’t He Be You” rose to No. 7. 

Her Complicated Marriage

Loretta had a complicated marriage with her husband whom she fondly called “Doo”. One of their many issues was violence. According to Loretta, Doo hit her. She recalled how her husband smashed jars of green beans after he had been drinking, just because his dinner was late.

However, Loretta said, “Every time Doo smacked me, he got smacked twice.” On one of their fights, she narrated how she had emptied a skillet of creamed corn over Doo’s head. There was also once instance when he struck him. She remembered, “I heard teeth hittin’ the floor and thought, ‘Ooh, I’m dead. He not gonna put up with this.’ But he laughed.”

Most of her songs were even inspired by the troubles of her marriage. “I’ve never written a song that my husband wasn’t in. Every song I wrote, but he didn’t know which line he was in,” Loretta said. One of the songs that have been inspired by her husband was the “Fist City” released in 1968 and peaked at No. 1 on the chart, making it Lynn’s second No. 1 hit. 

In this song, the country singer is warning another woman that if she keeps looking at her man, she’s going to take her to “Fist City,” where she will give her a great whoopin’. Loretta said that this has really happened. There was this woman who was trying to take her husband Doolittle away from her, so Loretta gave her a beat down.

She wrote the whole song while there were on a tough 75-mile trip back home. Doo never heard of the song until she sang it at the Grand Ole Opry. After her performance, Doo insisted that the song would never make it big. Well, he might have underestimated all the women who were going through the ordeal of cheating husbands. “I think my story sounded a little familiar,” Loretta laughed. It was songs like these that Loretta’s fans found to be quite relatable when it comes to their take on marital challenges.

As for the homewrecker in the song, Loretta was certain the woman in question knew it was about her. “After the record came out, she stayed away for a good long time,” Loretta said. But Doo’s infidelities continued while Loretta spent most of her time on the road. 

When she comes home, “I never knew what I was comin’ home to. I didn’t know if I was comin’ home to fightin’ or what. It was pretty rough. Doo drank a lot. There were a lot of times I’d have rather not come home. And if it hadn’t have been for my babies I wouldn’t have.” 

Yet despite the difficulties, Loretta chose to stick with her husband. She explained, “I put up with it because of six kids. And I loved him and he loved me.” She also strongly believed that “If you can’t fight for your man, he’s not worth having.”

In 1992, Doo needed to go through heart surgery. However, due to the complications from his diabetes, both of his legs needed to be amputated. It was then that Loretta decided to put her career on hold to take care of her husband. Unfortunately, Doo passed away in 1996, at the age of 69.

His death hit Loretta hard. In one of her interviews in the year 2000, she admitted said, “Three days after my husband died, I left Hurricane Mills and come to Nashville. After bein’ here awhile, I said to a friend of mine, ‘It seems like I been here a couple of months already.’ And she said, ‘You been here a year.'” Eventually, Loretta decided to continue her career, with Doo’s death leaving a void in her life.

“I think I see him everywhere I’m at, and everything at home and everywhere I’m goin’,” Loretta admitted. Despite their marriage encompassing abuse, turmoil, and infidelity, it also has provided love and support. Throughout the ups and downs, her marriage has always been the defining relationship of her life.

Loretta Lynn’s Comeback and Still Country

In the year 2000, the country music icon came back with a new album, Still Country and even returned to the concert trail.

Still Country was a tribute for her late husband. One of the songs in this album, which she personally wrote, titled “I Can’t Hear The Music”. It tells a devastating story loss and loneliness with lyrics: “Sometimes late at night I forget that he’s not lying next to me/He may be out of sight but out of mind is something he won’t ever be”. 

Loretta recalled, “People ask me why I’m releasing an album now.” She always comes back to them with a question, “Why not? Mooney is gone, my kids are all grown and I want to work again.” However, Still Country was not able to match her earlier success when it comes to sales, yet it did earn strong reviews.

In 2002, Loretta started exploring other outlets. She penned memoir Still Woman Enough and even developed a unique friendship with Jack White, the lead singer and guitarist of the alternative rock band The White Stripes. In 2003, Loretta performed with The White Stripes. Jack White has also produced an album in 2004, Van Lear Rose.

“I want as many people as possible on earth to hear her because she’s the greatest female singer-songwriter of the last century,” Jack has told Entertainment Weekly. The pair even won two Grammy Awards for their collaboration. The Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for the song “Portland, Oregon” and The Best Country Album. This was the first Grammy Award for Loretta in 33 years. She has also been nominated in three other categories.

Van Lear Rose was truly a success and this led Loretta to a then again busy life, playing a lot of concerts every year. However, in the year 2009, she needed to cancel some tour dates due to illness. But she was quick to bounce back. She was found performing at the University of Central Arkansas by January 2010. Her son Ernest Ray, together with her twin daughters Peggy and Patsy also known as the Lynns, has also performed in the said concert.

In March 2016, she released her 43rd solo studio album through Sony Legacy, Full Circle. It was produced by her daughter, Patsy and this album became Loretta’s 40th album to have reached the top ten of the US Billboard Country Albums chart. The album has also received a nomination for Best Country Album at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.

Full Circle is a combination of recordings inspired by Appalachian folk songs Loretta has learned as a child and newer versions of her past hits, this includes “Whispering Sea”, “Secret Love”, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, and “Fist City”.

It was also in this year that an in-depth PBS documentary film about the country music legend has been released, American Masters — Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl. It explored Lorettas challenging battle to stardom, he struggles in balancing her marriage with husband Doo and six children with her career music as well as her collaborations and friendships with Sissy Spacek, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline and so much more. It features revealing interviews with the country singer that allows us to learn more about Loretta.

There have also been appearances of Jack White, Sissy Spacek, Grand Ole Opry legend Bill Anderson, Full Circle producer John Carter Cash and Reba McEntire, among others. But unlike the 1980’s Oscar-winning big-screen biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, American Masters — Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl has its lighter moments. 

This includes a glimpse of her close friendship with Patsy Cline. Loretta revealed that in addition to the performing advice Patsy gave her, Patsy also gave her several boxes of hand-me-downs for Loretta and her family. Among these is a pair of Patsy’s panties that Loretta wore for four years.

“I don’t know how long she had ’em,” Loretta shared about the undergarment. “I never did wear those panties out, there ain’t no way to wear ’em out!” It was even revealed that Loretta once had them on display in her museum.

Loretta also shared in this documentary film how she managed her weekly Saturday night gig with a band that paid $12 at the same time working in a strawberry field, picking strawberries for five cents a crate.

Loretta indeed had a colorful and interesting past.

Loretta Lynn Today 

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There will never be another Loretta Lynn. She led the way of country music for women during a pivotal time in history. In her interview with New York Post last January, the country singer said,

“People thought I wouldn’t come back from that. And they’re really shocked when I tell them, ‘Well, I’m doing good, I’m moving my arms, I’m moving all my parts and I can sing.’”

This was after she suffered from a stroke in 2017 and followed by a fall in 2018 that broke her hip which made her weak and forced her to leave the ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee where she lived with her husband before he died to stay in her in Nashville, closer to her doctors.

“It’s a very scary thing when you find out you’re having a stroke”, Loretta revealed in her interview with PEOPLE last year. “I wondered if I could sing. Mommy said I was born singin’. I couldn’t believe that it could be taken away. ”

Fortunately, though her left side has been seriously affected, you can still hear her legendary voice intact. She immediately started her physical therapy and with her intense determination, she was already feeling good enough.

But despite her health complications and health scares, in April 2019, she was seen celebrating her birthday and it is grander than you’ve imagined. As a matter of fact, this includes a stunt where Keith Urban popped out of a cake and this has been a request by no other than the birthday girl herself.

And in September 2019, the country music icon was officially back. She released a new album, Wouldn’t It Be Great which features 13 new and reimagined songs written by the legend herself. This was another album co-produced by her daughter Patsy Lynn. 

The new tunes on the 13-track release include “Ruby’s Stool,” “The Big Man” and “I’m Dying for Someone to Live For”. Also included are updated versions of a pair of enduring Lynn classics: “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’” and the 2003 Kennedy Center honoree’s signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which served as the title of her autobiography and the subsequent Oscar-winning film based on the memoir.

And speaking of autobiography, Loretta’s has been showcased again, this time on the small screen titled Patsy & Loretta that is being aired on Lifetime. This film recounts the friendship between the two country singers. It stars Megan Hilty as Patsy Cline and Jessie Mueller as Loretta Lyn and was filmed in Nashville, Tennesse.

Loretta told PEOPLE that she has no plans of retiring any time soon, “As long as you dwell on the bad, it’s taking the life away from you that you need to be living.”

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