Listening to Loretta Lynn’s burly, swinging voice as it bounces through song after song, it’s hard not to shake your fists, hollering to the heavens: “Why don’t people sing like this anymore?” A country girl from rural Kentucky, Lynn – along with Dolly Parton, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline – quickly became a Nashville matriarch, a bold and mischievous songwriter with a confessional streak, willing to offer up her own experiences – no matter how intimate – as lyrical fodder.
Born in the spring of 1934 in the coal-addled hills of Butcher Holler, Lynn started out singing in churches and on front porches before recording her first honky-tonk album for Zero Records in 1960. Soon after, she began performing on the Grand Ole Opry – always in a spectacular dress – and by the end of the decade, Lynn was a bona fide star, inspiring subsequent generations of songwriters – from Reba McEntire to Jack White to Miranda Lambert – to find and deploy their own Kentucky sass.
By the late 1970s, Loretta Lynn had become something of a feminist icon (she sang frank, confessional songs about the real pressures of domestic life) but in 1966, she was just a coal miner's daughter with a gumption surfeit, cautioning the world against the toxicity of girl-on-girl crime: "It'll be over my dead body, so get out while you can/ You ain't woman enough to take my man," Lynn sang, her voice teasing, but also — and this is important — dead serious. You Ain't Woman Enough is technically Lynn's sixth release (and her second in 1966), but it's arguably the best introduction to her impish, brazen style; every track here is performed fearlessly. The sweet, toe-tapping lullaby "Tippy Toeing" showcases Lynn's ability to swing, while her countrified cover of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" makes it seem like that track was always intended for a woman wearing cowboy and not go-go boots; Lynn is as expert at the cold kiss-off as she is at standing by her man. ("What's right is right, and you ain't been right yet," she sniffs.)
In a little over three minutes, this record's title track recounts Lynn's indigent Kentucky childhood "in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler," the daughter of a man who picked coal in the Van Lear mines and a woman who rocked her babies and "read the Bible by the coal-oil light." "Coal Miner's Daughter" is still one of the finest (and most literate) summaries of Appalachian life in the 1930s and '40s, a genuinely poignant thank you to two punctilious parents. It was also something of an aberration for Lynn, who, in 1970, was better known as a feisty, spirited songstress, quicker with a quip than an earnest, impassioned screed. The pedal-steel addled track — 40 years later, still Lynn's signature jam, and her first to make its way onto the Billboard pop chart — inspired an autobiography, which was eventually transformed into an Academy Award-winning film starring Sissy Spacek and Levon Helm in overalls.
"Coal Miner's Daughter" is an epic origin story, but the rest of the record is infinitely less confessional; Lynn only wrote three of its 11 tracks. Still, her gentle cover of Conway Twitty's "Hello Darlin'" — "What I'm tryin' to say is I love you and I miss you and I'm so sorry that I did you wrong," she sings, her voice heavy with real remorse — is devastating in the way that only classic country songs can be, heartbreaking and deliciously maudlin, the perfect soundtrack to slumping over a bar somewhere, salting your whiskey with tears. But "It'll Be Open Season On You" is Loretta at her most comfortable, defending her man with lawless country aplomb: "If you don't ease up on your mating call, I'll nail your hide to the old barn wall," she promises. Note taken.
1965's Hymns is Loretta Lynn's first gospel album, but it's far from solemn. "Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die," Lynn howls in the record's opening track, deftly reducing the human experience to its grim essence — and delivering the news with a dose of Kentucky charm. A real-talk advocate at heart, Lynn's never shied away from gruesome truths, and her rendition of "The Third Man," a brutal crucifixion story made famous by her pal and partner Conway Twitty, is downright gothic: "And when I heard him cry in pain I raised my eyes to see/ The blood spilled from the third man's side and some of it spilled on me," Lynn intones.
Hymns is bookended by two original tracks ("Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" and "Where I Learned to Pray"), and Lynn reveals a natural (and under-recognized) affinity for the genre; they're arguably the two strongest, most interesting cuts here. She also fares well on the traditional, old-time songs, like the sprightly "Old Camp Meeting Time": "I like the old-time preaching, praying, singing, shouting/ I like the old-time reading of God's words/ I like to hear that old-time hallelujah glory/ I like the old-time worship of the Lord," Lynn sings. Somehow, she manages to remind us of a time when praying also meant dancing around a barn — Amen.
Country music has always been something of a songwriter's genre, and classic country songs aren't necessarily identified with their original performers (or any performer, really). That fluidity has led to a plentiful tradition of Sings... records, wherein one artist tackles another's catalogue with a playful reverence. Lynn has long cited Patsy Cline as a friend and inspiration — when Lynn was rising to prominence in the 1960s, Cline was one of just a handful of female country vocalists who had experienced considerable chart success, making her a natural mentor for Lynn until her sudden death, via plane crash, in 1963 — and Lynn approaches her discography with something that sounds an awful lot like gratitude. All of Cline's iconic tracks ("Crazy," "Walking After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces") are represented here, and Lynn infuses them with her signature pluck — Lynn's vocals are feistier and less fragile than Cline's, but she's no less intense a performer, and her broken-hearted rendition of "She's Got You" (Cline's take went to No. 1 in 1962; Lynn's version hit that same spot in 1977) is genuinely stunning.
Van Lear Rose, the 2004 collaboration between Lynn and Jack White of the White Stripes, is the kind of project that can seem unforgivable on paper — a noted trickster with a southern music fetish swoops in to resuscitate the career of an aging icon, updating her sound by injecting a wave of guitar feedback — but it's just too great to begrudge. White had long cited Lynn as one of his favorite singers, and his reverence for (and understanding of) the way she sings is clear; as a producer, he builds the songs around her voice, giving it room to crack and soar, and his guitar work is a perfect textural and tonal match, as vulnerable as Lynn's vocals. They may be an unlikely pairing — a garage-rocker from Detroit, a country legend from Kentucky — but Lynn and White share a clear affinity for honest, unfussy performances. (And elaborate costuming.)
In many ways, Van Lear Rose is a classic Loretta Lynn record: It's confessional, playful, aggressively honest and story-driven. There's a meandering spoken-word track ("Little Red Shoes") about Lynn's childhood misadventures, a broken-hearted acoustic lament ("Miss Being Mrs."), an old-time porch-jig ("High On A Mountain Top"), and a fiery cheating song ("Family Tree"). Typically, Lynn works with a bevy of Nashville studio players — the most expert in the business — and they give her songs a nice, familiar sheen; White's vision is scrappier, rockier, and louder than anything Nashville's studio system has produced. The single "Portland, Oregon," which secured Lynn a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration (the album nabbed Best Country Album), is the only one White actually sings on, which is almost a shame: Their voices, compatible against all odds, belie true friendship.
"If you're looking at me, you're lookin' at country," Loretta Lynn declares, her voice loaded with pride. In an era where genre feels more fluid than ever, Lynn's uncomplicated declarations — "I love runnin' bare-footed through the old corn fields, and I love that country ham," she insists — are refreshingly clear, and this three-disc compendium, released in 2006, showcases every facet of country music, from the melancholic picking of "Blue Kentucky Girl" ("He left me for the bright lights of the town/ A country boy set out to see the world") and the woman-wronged screed of "You've Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me)" ("Oh time and time again you've been untrue/ So I'll just step in from steppin' out on you") to the horn-addled boogie of "Trouble in Paradise." As always, Lynn's voice is the reason anyone bothers to show up, and Chronicles makes it even more obvious why: Her backing band is slick and capable (Nashville wouldn't settle for anything less), churning out smooth and sophisticated country jams, but her vocals imbue these tracks with all the suffering and jubilation country music is famous for. After all, country doesn't mean much of anything without a bit of real, honest pain.
Country music has always had a penchant for compilation CDs and greatest-hits collections (it's a song-based genre, after all), and the first volume of this two-disc collection gathers 12 of Lynn's finest performances, with an emphasis on the tracks that made her famous ("Blue Kentucky Girl," "Coal Miner's Daughter"). It also gives weight to Lynn's more radical side, including "Rated X" (which, incidentally, was something of a live staple for the White Stripes early in their career). It's Lynn's boldest indictment of the double-standard that befalls women post-divorce ("Everybody knows that you've loved once so they think you'll love again/ You can't have a male friend when you're a has been of a woman/ You're rated X"). "Us women don't have a chance, 'cause if you've been married, you can't have no fun at all," Lynn grumbles as the band fades out. It's tracks like this that have helped Lynn earn such a fervent female following, and here, they artfully balance Lynn's other mode as the faithful, wronged wife.
Like volume one, the second installment of this greatest hits compendium gives equal weight to Lynn's two favorite topics: delivering frontier justice to cheating scallywags (both women and men), and defending ladies from the vagaries of patriarchal society. Addressing the former, "Fist City" is an ambling bit of country-pop, complete with rock 'n' roll guitar and polite backing vocals. But in it, Lynn issues one of the greatest warnings to potential harlots this side of "Jolene": "You better move your feet if you don't want to eat a meal that's called fist city," Lynn promises to the girl "making brags around town." Alternately, in "The Pill" — arguably the finest track about birth control ever recorded — Lynn takes control of her reproductive rights (and, per Lynn, her waistline): "This old maternity dress I've got/ Is goin' in the garbage/ The clothes I'm wearin' from now on/ Won't take up so much yardage." The record closes with "I Lied," the closest Lynn ever comes to adult-contemporary smarm. But despite all the swooning strings and smoothed-over vocals, there's real heart here, and Lynn — usually so full of bluster — finally admits her own vulnerabilities: "I don't want to let you go, I don't want to let you know, so I lied," Lynn sings. It's one of the most humanizing moments of her career, and it only renders her more of heroine.