Our look back at the legends of country music continues as we turn the spotlight on Loretta Lynn.
The story of her hardscrabble origin and subsequent rise to fame is well known. She was born in Van Lear, Kentucky, on April 14 in 1934 or 1935. (There is conflicting information about the year of her birth, but most evidence points to 1934 being the correct year). The second of eight children, she grew up in extreme poverty, “in a cabin on a hill” without electricity or running water. Her father was a coal miner. When she was only 13 years old, she married Oliver “Mooney” Lynn (always referred to as “Doolittle” or “Doo” by Loretta), and gave birth to four of her six children before she was 19.
A year after their marriage, in an effort to break away from poverty-stricken Kentucky, Mooney relocated his young family to Washington State, breaking a promise he’d made to Loretta’s father not to take her too far from home. Mooney’s shortcomings as a husband and father were considerable; however, it was he who recognized Loretta’s potential and practically forced her into the music business. He bought her a $17 guitar for her eighteenth birthday and told her to learn how to play it. She did, and soon was singing in honky-tonks on weekends for $5 a night. Eventually she earned a guest spot on Buck Owens’ television show, which originated from Tacoma, Washington. A wealthy Canadian businessman named Norm Burley saw the show and offered to finance Loretta’s career. He formed a label called Zero Records, and signed Loretta, promising to release her from her contract if she ever managed to secure a deal from a major label.
The Lynns traveled to Los Angeles for Loretta’s first recording session, where she recorded her own compositions “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” and “Whispering Sea”, which became the A and B sides of her first single. The Lynns themselves mailed out 3,500 copies of the record to radio stations, and traveled by car down the west coast to promote it, visiting radio stations along the way. By July 1960, “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” had reached #14 in Billboard, and Loretta Lynn was on her way to Nashville.
In October 1960, Loretta made her debut appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and was such a hit with the both the audience and the Opry management, she was invited back for 17 consecutive weekends. She would become an Opry member in 1962. She signed a songwriting and management contract with the Wilburn Brothers, who offered her a spot on their syndicated television show. They also took a demo recording of one her songs to Owen Bradley and secured a six-month contract with Decca Records. Bradley wasn’t initially interested in signing Loretta; he felt she sounded too much like Kitty Wells, who was already on the Decca roster. Bradley was interested in the song on the demo, but the Wilburns would not allow him to have it unless he offered Loretta a contract. Bradley relented and signed Loretta to Decca. The song on the demo, “Fool #1” went on to become a smash pop hit for Brenda Lee.
Loretta’s first release for Decca, “I Walked Away From The Wreck” did not chart, but her next release, Johnny Mullins’ “Success” reached #6. The vast majority of her subsequent releases reached the Top 20, and most of those reached the Top 10. She hit the #1 spot for the first of 16 times in 1966 with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”, which she co-wrote with her sister Peggy Sue Wells. The album of the same title became the first by a female country artist to earn gold certification from the RIAA.
In 1970, Loretta released the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, which became her signature hit. Unlike anything she’d previously recorded, it told the story of her humble origins in Kentucky. It became her fourth #1 single and second gold album. Also that year she recorded a duet with Conway Twitty called “After The Fire Is Gone”, which also went to #1 and earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Her partnership with Twitty was one of the most successful, if not the most successful, duos in country music history.