A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
At a crucial moment in Coal Miner’s Daughter, the Oscar-winning 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic, Lynn (played indelibly by Sissy Spacek) is more or less pushed onstage for the first time at a smoky honky-tonk by her glad-handing husband and soon-to-be-manager Doo (Tommy Lee Jones). The singer is at first understandably overwhelmed. She begins unsteadily. Her voice is a little shaky and her guitar playing unsteady. She’s a little spooked by the lights. But as the song progresses she becomes increasingly confident and by the end, the entire audience is beaming with admiration. She may have gone onstage that night a timid, naïve, unknown Kentucky housewife who first picked up a guitar at 24, but she left it… a star!
Variations on this scene can be found in countless musical biographies. It’s incredibly satisfying as drama and as confirmation of pop mythology. We need to believe that stardom can happen that effortlessly so the star machine can continue to chew people up and spit them out. We need these rags-to-riches fantasies to keep us from viewing the star-making process as inherently cruel, even random.
Coal Miner’s Daughter is adapted from Lynn’s autobiography, so it’s entirely possible that Lynn’s first public performance played out exactly as it does in the film. But a little formulaic Hollywood magic also went a long way toward making a rather grim drama about the daughter of a desperately poor coal miner ascending to stardom and dealing with her troubled marriage a feasible commercial prospect. The biopic hit screens at a fortuitous time. The film’s massive, iconic success, along with the equally massive success of Urban Cowboy, exposed country music to audiences who otherwise might have dismissed it. Before 1980, it was relatively easy for audiences to pretend country didn’t exist or at the very least represented a marginal genre. It could be written off as a hick preoccupation, a Southern thing.
But Coal Miner’s Daughter and Urban Cowboy pushed country defiantly into the mainstream. It could no longer be dismissed as a musical inbred cousin to be kept locked in a basement. (In Milwaukee, Coal Miner’s Daughter became the favorite movie of my 5-year-old older sister, though at that point it didn’t have a whole lot of competition.) The events chronicled in Coal Miner’s Daughter were old news to country fans, but the film canonized Lynn’s life and career for the rest of the world. It became her defining narrative even if it ends on an abrupt note that conveys, indirectly, that its subject’s story was far from over. Thirty years later, the 78-year-old icon’s dramatic journey from poverty to fame remains far from over.
Coal Miner’s Daughter focuses primarily on Lynn’s relationship with her husband/manager Oliver “Doo” Lynn. Even for a figure as fiery and strong-willed as Lynn, in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, the world of a female country singer was by default the domestic realm. Lynn consequently alternated between being a Kitty Wells-like protector of the family and conventional morality—Coal Miner’s Daughter tellingly shows Lynn singing along to Wells’ signature hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”—and an aggressive creature wrestling with the changes that came with the sexual revolution and feminism.
Most notably, Lynn released “The Pill” in 1975, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of a pharmaceutical wonder that offered hope and freedom to women whose options were otherwise limited by circumstance, fate, and the myriad failings of the rhythm method. It was also, not coincidentally, a celebration not just of liberation but also of no-strings-attached sex divorced from marriage, commitment, and childhood. Lynn had the chutzpah to act as if that might be a good thing, when we all know that eyes-closed missionary sex solely for the purpose of procreation is the only acceptable form of intercourse as far as Baby Jesus is concerned.
On “Rated X,” Lynn offers a scathing take on sexual double standards that time has rendered as quaint and old-fashioned as a Dave Berg “The Lighter Side” cartoon but must have seemed very progressive and even shocking at the time. The “Rated X” of the title refers not to Deep Throat or The Devil In Miss Jones but to a divorced woman who is considered damaged goods by a society still uptight enough to be scandalized by divorce. Like “Harper Valley PTA,” “Rated X” confronts the hypocrisy of judgmental busybodies who project their own perverted thoughts and moral failings onto a convenient scapegoat.
Lynn’s penchant for courting controversy wasn’t limited to sex. On 1966’s “Dear Uncle Sam,” Lynn sings from the perspective of a patriot trying to reconcile her fierce, protective love for a partner sent to die in Vietnam with her innate understanding that war is sometimes inevitable and justified. It’s not exactly a bomb-throwing manifesto, but it is a heartfelt, heartrending exploration of the human costs of warfare that Lynn slipped back into her set lists during the Iraq War.
Lynn grappled with the most important social issues facing our nation, but she did not hesitate to beat a bitch down when the situation called for it. In song and life, Lynn could be a fierce lioness when it came to fighting for her man. As chronicled in Coal Miner’s Daughter, she had her hands full trying to tame a hard-drinking womanizer who felt threatened by his wife’s incredible success. On “Fist City,” for example, Lynn deliciously taunts a silly little thing whose interest in Lynn’s husband is destined to earn her a one-way invitation to a beatdown.
“Fist City” is the single greatest song title of all time. I’ve been dying to get in a fistfight just so I can say something along the lines of, “You keep dogging me and you’re going to earn a one-way Greyhound ticket to Fist City, population: your sorry ass.” I’m just disappointed that Lynn didn’t record it 20 years later so it could accompany a music video of her beating down a series of trollops with designs on her husband.
The man I love when he picks up trash
He puts it in a garbage can
That’s what you look like to me
And what I see’s a pity
You better close your face and stay out of my way
If you don’t want to go to fist city
Lynn taunts with Southern-fried sass. Somebody better get out the pooper-scooper ’cause Lynn is talking mad shit.
Lynn makes it apparent that Fist City is not a place anyone would want to visit, but in the decades since the song’s release, Fist City has undergone a renaissance. It now has world-class food, glittering new hotels, and even a Major League Baseball team. Yes, Fist City is no longer the exclusive domain of trifling women of ill repute trying to steal Loretta Lynn’s man.
The price of love is eternal vigilance. In the songs of Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection, Lynn is constantly battling women out to steal her man, men out to score a little tail on the side, no-good men who need to be put in their place, and smooth-talking lotharios who think she’ll surrender her lady virtue without a fight. Lynn addresses these matters of the heart with a gloriously light touch and indefatigable sense of humor. Take “Happy Birthday” for example. Underneath the painfully bland title lies a sneaky little kiss-off from a wronged woman who preemptively wishes a cheating partner a happy birthday, a Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year because she sure as shit isn’t sticking around to get cheated on all year-round.
Lynn wasn’t one to passively stand by her man. On songs like “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” and a lively cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” Lynn happily puts arrogant men in their place.
Just as Wynette had George Jones and Dolly Parton had Porter Wagoner, Lynn was able to act out the battle of the sexes in song after song with regular duet partner Conway Twitty, who joined forces with Lynn for a number of collaborative albums and singles. Twitty and Lynn’s collaborations sometimes pushed the romantic melodrama of Lynn’s solo work to kitschy, gothic extremes. On “The Letter,” for example, Twitty, with a spoken-word assist from Lynn, tremblingly recounts encountering an ex-girlfriend so concerned that her boyfriend is cheating on her that she asks Twitty to write a letter professing his undying love for her to make her current boyfriend jealous. It’d be a romantic potboiler of a song even without the climactic reveal that Twitty doesn’t have to pretend to still be in love with his ex, since he never stopped loving her and never will. Yes, the path of true love is often jagged and painful in the heartbreaking world of country.
Lynn often played the battle of the sexes for laughs, as on the jokey novelty Twitty duet “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” But she also played it for tragedy. “When The Tingle Becomes A Chill,” Lynn’s follow-up single to “The Pill,” captures with chilling precision a dying relationship where the giddy intoxication and excitement of young love have long since given way to the sour settling and abandoned dreams of a loveless union kept alive solely through inertia and apathy.
“Wings Upon Your Horns” likens the loss of the protagonist’s virginity to the fall from Eden, transforming a pure-hearted virgin into a “woman [she] can’t stand.” To iron songbirds like Wells, Tammy Wynette, and Lynn, extramarital sex was a Pandora’s Box that unleashed an evil upon the world that could not be contained. Only marriage could transform sex from a sin to part of God’s divine plan.
Lynn’s productivity slowed dramatically after the ’70s. She’s only released three solo albums in the 25 years since 1985’s Just A Woman. Thankfully, one of those albums was 2004’s jaw-dropping Van Lear Rose, an album-length collaboration with longtime admirer Jack White of the White Stripes, who plays electric guitar and produces.
Van Lear Rose is an album of bracing clarity and focus. There’s an exhilarating intimacy and directness to Lynn’s vocals: Like Merle Haggard on this year’s I Am What I Am, Lynn has no use for affectation, stylization, or obfuscation. Time and experience seems to have washed away her defenses and blessed her music with emotional transparency. Van Lear Rose is an album by an icon empowered rather than diminished by age.
On the title track, Lynn sings movingly of her hometown of Van Lear and the titular character, an incandescent charmer who had the whole town under her spell yet, like a fairy-tale princess, rejected the princes of her humble little burg and found true love with a common man. It’s a sweet, almost sappy attempt to transform family lore—the song, not surprisingly, is about her parents—into folklore, but it’s also shatteringly powerful thanks to the alchemy between Lynn’s beautifully weathered voice and White’s spare, expressive guitar.
Van Lear Rose doubles as the consummation of White and Lynn’s intergenerational musical relationship. But “Portland Oregon,” their one duet, represents full-on musical fucking. Hot, sweaty, cum-and-whiskey-on-the-floor, close-the-shades, wake-the-neighbors, holy-shit-I-hope-you’re-on-the-pill, pop-icon-on-pop-icon fucking. Did I mention that it’s sexy? It’s far sexier and raunchier and more orgasmic than any duet between a grown man and a woman old enough to be his grandmother should be.
On “Family Tree,” Lynn returns triumphantly to a pervasive theme—her willingness to beat a bitch down if she catches her making goo-goo eyes at her man—albeit with more sadness and hurt than rage. “Have Mercy” is a rockabilly raver that burns nearly as hot as “Portland Oregon,” and “High On a Mountaintop” is a raucous, sing-along celebration of country life.
Van Lear Rose introduced a whole new generation to Lynn’s inherent awesomeness. White’s production veers far from country into minimalist blues and rock. He’s managed to update Lynn’s sound while retaining her essence. The comeback album captures Lynn both as a towering American institution and as an all-too-human survivor who never hid her weaknesses or failings from an adoring public that embraced her messy, undeniable humanity.