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Country music icon Loretta Lynn dies at 90


Country music icon Loretta Lynn died today. She 90 years old, and her family says she died peacefully in her sleep.


Loretta Lynn brought unparalleled candor about the domestic realities of women class-working to country songwriting. And she taught those who came after her to speak their minds, too.

SUMMERS: When a movie was made about her life, Lynn became a prominent pop culture figure, but she never compromised her down-home sensibilities. WNXP's Jewly Hight has this appreciation.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: One of the biggest songs of Loretta Lynn's career proudly recounted her hardscrabble background.


LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor, but we had love. That's the one thing that Daddy made sure of. He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.

HIGHT: Lynn never tired of telling stories of her upbringing in a remote coal mining community in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. In a 2000 NPR interview, she recalled how her parents, Melvin and Clara Webb, did whatever it took to feed their eight children, even if it meant accepting a relative's gift of a stolen chicken.

LYNN: There was many times we went to bed hungry and wake up in the middle of the night, 3 o'clock in the morning. We'd smell chicken cooking. Mom would get us up and let us eat and go back to bed.

HIGHT: Loretta Webb was barely a teenager when she started a family of her own with a 21-year-old former soldier, Oliver Lynn, better known as Mooney or Doolittle. They wasted no time having the first four of their six children and migrated to Washington state. It was there that her husband heard her bedtime lullabies and pushed her to start performing publicly. In a 2010 interview with WHYY's Fresh Air, Loretta Lynn insisted she wouldn't have done it otherwise.

LYNN: I wouldn't get out in front of people. I wouldn't - you know, I was really bashful, and I wouldn't - I would never sing in front of anybody.

HIGHT: Once her husband started scrounging up paying gigs for her, Loretta taught herself to write songs, says country music historian and journalist Robert Oermann.

ROBERT OERMANN: She got a copy of Country Song Roundup, and this is a magazine that has country lyrics printed in it along with stories about the stars. And she would read the country lyrics in the magazine, and she'd go, well, that's nothing. I can do that, 'cause she could and had been.


LYNN: (Singing) So turn that jukebox way up high, and fill my glass up while I cry. I've lost everything in this world, and now I'm a honky tonk girl.

HIGHT: Lynn and her husband drove around to radio stations. She would introduce herself to the DJs and try to charm them into spinning her record. The couple's efforts begun to get her notice when they landed in Nashville in 1960. Artists like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, who became Lynn's mentor, were having a lot of success with the lush, pop-sweetened production style known as the Nashville sound. Lynn worked with Cline's producer Owen Bradley but hung onto her unsoftened twang.


LYNN: (Singing) It'll be over my dead body, so get out while you can 'cause you ain't woman enough to take my man.

HIGHT: Country songs had often portrayed hardship from male perspectives, but Lynn wasn't afraid to spell out the indignities she endured in her marriage or the double standards she saw other women facing when it came to divorce, pregnancy and birth control.


LYNN: (Singing) There's going to be some changes made right here on Nursery Hill. You've set this chicken your last time 'cause now I've got the pill.

HIGHT: Lynn found that Nashville wasn't accustomed to that kind of frankness.

LYNN: I'll tell you. When I come to Nashville, I didn't really know that people did not say what they thought. I've always been a person to say what I think.

HIGHT: Fellow Eastern Kentucky songwriter Angaleena Presley was raised on her mother's Loretta Lynn records and recognizes what they must have meant to women of earlier generations.

ANGALEENA PRESLEY: I'm positive that there probably were many, many women in that time, especially in the country, who thought, I'm not really allowed to say anything if my husband wants to drink. He works all day. He deserves to drink and come home and do what he wants. And I'll clean the house and raise the kids. And she said, no, it's not OK. And it's OK for you to say it's not OK.


LYNN: (Singing) No, don't come home a-drinkin' (ph) with lovin' (ph) on your mind. Just stay out there on the town, and see what you can find 'cause if you want that kind of love, well, you don't need none of mine. So don't come home a-drinkin' with lovin' on your mind.

PRESLEY: I feel like it contributed a lot to the feminist movement, especially in rural America, because I feel like she was the voice. Even though she never spoke out actively as a feminist, her songs certainly did.

HIGHT: Thirty-nine of those songs became Top 10 country hits on the Billboard charts. And in 1972, Loretta Lynn was the first woman named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association.


LYNN: The only - I'm real happy, but the only thing that I'm kind of sad about is my husband has gone hunting. He couldn't make it back in to share my happiness with me.


LYNN: Thank you.

HIGHT: Their relationship was complicated, but they remained married until Doolittle's death in 1996. And Loretta made sure her fans knew that her long-lasting musical partnership with Conway Twitty was all business. Lynn continued performing and recording into the new millennium, attracting younger audiences through her collaboration with rocker Jack White. But it was essential to Lynn's enduring appeal that she never lost touch with her identity as a simultaneously modern and down-to-earth country woman. Journalist Robert Oermann saw her communicate that to crowds throughout her career.

OERMANN: This idea that, I might be up here on this stage singing this song, but I'm not better than you. I am you. And that's kind of the message. You know, and I think that's a really - that kind of humility is a really powerful and good thing. That message is so, so powerful.

HIGHT: And it always informed her songwriting.

LYNN: I like real life 'cause that's what we're doing today. And I think that's why people bought my records - because they're living in this world. And so am I. So I see what's going on, and I grab it.

HIGHT: Loretta Lynn's gutsiness comes through just as clearly today in the music she left behind. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.


LYNN: (Singing) Well, I like my loving done country-style. And this little girl would walk a country mile to find her a good old slow-talking country boy. I said a country boy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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