The 1970s were Loretta Lynn’s most productive and most successful decade. She opened the decade by releasing her signature hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “After The Fire Is Gone”, the first of a long string of successful duets with Conway Twitty. In 1972, she won her second Female Vocalist of the Year award from the Country Music Association. She’d previously won in 1967; Tammy Wynette took the trophy home for the next three years, and in 1971 it was awarded to Lynn Anderson. Conway and Loretta also took home the Vocal Duo of the Year trophy in 1972, but the icing on the cake that year was when Loretta Lynn became the first female artist to become the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. To commemorate the occasion, her label released an album in 1973 called Entertainer of the Year, which produced another #1 hit, “Rated X”. It was Loretta’s first release on the MCA label, which had purchased Decca and absorbed its artist roster. In 1973 she also became the first country artist to grace the cover of Newsweek.
The hits kept coming; it was during this period that Loretta released “One’s On The Way”, “I Wanna Be Free”, “You’re Lookin’ At Country”, and “Love Is The Foundation”, among others. In 1975 she released “The Pill”, her most controversial record, completely eclipsing the controversy that had surrounded “Rated X” two years earlier. Believed to be the first song about birth control, “The Pill” was considered very risque and was banned by many radio stations. Nevertheless, it managed to crack the Top 5.
During the early part of the 70s, Loretta severed her ties with the Wilburn Brothers. As her song publishers, they owned the rights to all of her compositions and Loretta saw very little in financial renumeration. While the matter was being fought out in court, Loretta stopped writing songs altogether, rather than to continue lining the Wiburns’ pockets. As a result, the music she released in the latter part of the 70s had a more polished, pop influenced sound in comparison to her earlier work.
In 1976, Loretta published her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which became a New York Times bestseller. A film based on the book was released in 1980, earning some high-profile mainstream attention for Loretta, and an Academy Award for Sissy Spacek for her portrayal of the country star. Tommy Lee Jones co-starred as Mooney. As the 70s came to a close, she was named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music.
The 1980s were marred by the beginnings of a career decline and personal tragedy. It was the age of the Urban Cowboy, and Loretta’s style of country had begun to fall out of favor with country radio. Her records continued to chart, but she was no longer consistently making the Top 10 with her solo efforts. “I Lie” became her final Top 10 solo hit in 1982. She fought with her label, which wanted to push her in a more pop direction. She refused to renew her contract; MCA eventually relented, but by that time it was clear that Loretta’s reign at the top of the charts was over. She racked up her final Top 20 hit, “Heart Don’t Do This To Me” in 1985, and in 1988 she released her final album for MCA. That same year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A few years earlier, in 1984, Loretta’s 34-year-old son, Jack Benny Lynn drowned in a river near the family ranch. In her second book, Loretta says that she believes she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of this tragedy, but she did not receive any medical treatment for it. She became less focused on her career, and although she continued to tour, she recorded less frequently.
Loretta spent most of the 1990s out of the spotlight. She no longer had a record deal and she stopped touring for the most part in order to care for Mooney, whose health had begun to fail. In 1993 she collaborated with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette for the Honky Tonk Angels album. Though it received virtually no radio airplay, the album reached #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. In 1995 she did a brief series for TNN called Loretta Lynn & Friends. Mooney Lynn died in 1996 from complications from diabetes.
In 2000, Loretta released her first solo album in twelve years, titled Still Country. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and released on the Audium label. The lead single, “Country In My Genes”, on which she was joined by half of Nashville on the chorus, received enough airplay to reach #72 in Billboard. The subsequent singles, which included “I Can’t Hear The Music”, which she’d written as a tribute to Mooney, did not chart. Despite being largely ignored by country radio, the album was generally well received by critics. However, it was her next album, 2004’s Van Lear Rose, that is considered her true comeback. Produced by Jack White of the White Stripes, it was an interesting fusion of country and alternative rock and a radical departure from her previous work. At nearly 70 years of age, Loretta Lynn was suddenly hip again. Van Lear Rose earned her two Grammy Awards in 2005: one for Best Country Album, and one for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for “Portland, Oregon”, a duet with producer Jack White.
In between Still Country and Van Lear Rose, Loretta found time to publish a second autobiography, Still Woman Enough in 2002. In 2001, CMT ranked her at #3, behind Patsy Cline (#1) and Tammy Wynette (#2) on their 40 Greatest Women of Country Music special. She was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2003, and in 2008 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.
At age 75, Loretta is showing no signs of slowing down. She remains a concert draw and is reportedly working on two new albums which will tentatively be released later this year, though no dates have been announced.
The term legend is used much too freely these days, but Loretta Lynn truly belongs to an elite inner circle of performers, without whom it is difficult to imagine what country music would have been like. We hope that you will enjoy our look back at the life and career of a woman who has become an American icon, and who is arguably the most important female artist in the history of country music.