Bill Nutt – NJ Press Media
She’s had 70 songs in the country charts, 16 of which reached number one. She’s enjoyed commercial and critical success for more than 50 years. She’s a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her life was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.
But in interviews, Loretta Lynn almost invariably says, “I’m not a star. Stars are in the sky. I’m just a woman.”
Fans of American music might take exception to that description. Lynn, who will turn 77 in April, has been an influential artist almost from her earliest songs like “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” She will play selections from her career when she performs at the Mayo Performing Arts Center Friday, March 30.
Art imitates life
In the words of her own song, Lynn really was a coal miner’s daughter; she was born Loretta Webb in April 1935 in Butchers Hollow, Kentucky. She wasn’t the only musician in the family; her younger sister Brenda Gail Webb would go on to a successful career under the name Crystal Gayle.
When she was barely 14, Loretta married Oliver Lynn, whose nickname was “Doo.” (Their sometimes-turbulent marriage was depicted in the 1980 movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the movie for which Sissy Spacek won the Academy Award.) Doo bought his wife a guitar for her 18th birthday and encouraged her to become a singer.
In the late 1950s, Lynn began performing with a group, the Westerners, at dances and clubs in Washington State. She caught the attention of a record producer, who brought her to Hollywood, where she cut her first singles.
Almost from the beginning, Lynn garnered attention not only for her emotional vocals but also for the emotional honesty of her songwriting. In the 1960s, songs like “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “Fist City” demonstrated that a woman could be strong and independent.
At the same time, Lynn was a versatile enough vocalist to record duets with the likes of Ernest Tubb and, most frequently, Conway Twitty. In 1985, she joined Kitty Wells and Brenda Lee for a song on k.d. lang’s “Shadowland” album; the performance was nominated for Grammy.
Commercial hits came less frequently in the 1990s, and in 1996, her husband died. At the same time, a crop of younger artists started dominating the contemporary country charts.
But Lynn staged a remarkable comeback in 2004 with the album “Van Lear Rose.” Lynn wrote or co-wrote every song, and the CD was produced by Jack White of the alternative rock band the White Stripes.
The combination of White and Lynn may have seemed unlikely, but it worked, thanks to White’s obvious respect for Lynn’s talent. The collaboration gave Lynn a new audience among younger fans, and “Van Lear Rose” appeared on many critics best-of-the-year lists.
Since then, Lynn has also worked with other artists of the current generation. Her 2010 re-recording of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow reached the Billboard charts. (That success makes Lynn the first female country artist to have chart recordings in six decades.)
With plans for a follow-up to “Van Lear Rose” in the works and a touring schedule that belies her age, Loretta Lynn continues to set standards for performers in the country genre and beyond.