A good amount of my time growing up was spent in a house that had country music playing all the time. This was in the nineteen-seventies and the first part of the nineteen-eighties, and while a poppier brand of country was certainly emerging, the genre was still a long way from the stadium-filling antics of Garth Brooks or the sassy swagger of Shania Twain. A purity of voice still prevailing, which in turn meant the whole history of the genre existed comfortably together. The AM station that the little radio in the kitchen was perpetually tuned to had a playlist that roamed freely from the most current singles to the foundational songs of the preceding couple of decades, and it all sounded like it came from same bittersweet rave-up. Every note and warble that emanated from the little speaker defined country music for me, forever and ever, and no single artist played on that station was more defining than Loretta Lynn. As far as I was concerned, she was country music and everyone else was stepping in the tracks of her heels.
To be clear, there were other reasons Lynn struck me as the embodiment of country. A hardcover copy of her acclaimed 1976 autobiography (written with George Vecsey) had an honored place on the household’s bookshelf, and the movie adapted from that nonfiction work was incredibly impactful to me. Though I only barely had cause to use every one of my fingers when conveying my age to curious adults when Coal Miner’s Daughter was playing in theaters, the film implanted itself in my consciousness when it circled onto cable. It might have been the first movie made for adults that somehow carried meaning for me, in large part because I was fascinated by a life so different from mine and from any I saw around me: the impoverished childhood in Kentucky, the nascent musical talent that grew and grew, the grind of hard work on the road that led to stardom and comfort. The honkytonks and modest radio stations held a dingy magic that I had no real tools to comprehend or express.
Eventually, Lynn transformed from a totemic figure to an approachable one. It wasn’t that my life experienced edged any closer to hers. There were no tour busses or passel of offspring in my personal sphere. Instead, I started to really hear Lynn’s songs and appreciate the depth and precision of her writing. The music fan part of me that pored over lyric sheets and endlessly evaluated my own reactions to the songs that moved me most came to appreciate the Lynn was one of the real ones. She wasn’t performing the tropes of country music; she lived every bit of what she belted into a microphone. Hell, some of what became pat clichés in country songwriting were only there because Lynn offered them up with such originality and easy intensity that they felt unavoidable. Others merely echoed what she introduced.
“You either have to be first, best, or different,” Lynn told McCall’s magazine once. “I was just first to say what I thought….I wrote it like it was.”
Because of that conviction to lace her lyrics with real-life truthfulness, Lynn sometimes saw her songs get banned by country radio. By one count, fourteen of her singles were rejected by prudish programmers over the years, including some that later — and not much later — were considered classics. She didn’t back down from any of those fights. How could the writer of “Fist City” (“‘Cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head/ And lift you off of the ground”) do anything but stand up for herself and her art? And yet I don’t think of her as defiant. That implies a sort of underground status. Instead, she was assured. With every strum of her guitar and every lifted note, Lynn told us exactly who she was and let that simple reportage be enough to admire her. And it surely was.