by Matthew Walther

What ordinary readers who had no time for her or for country music will make of Loretta Lynn’s death, at the remarkable age of ninety, it is impossible to say. For those of us who loved her, Loretta was the tender grass shining after rain. This outstanding senior citizen, who was receiving (apparently) tongue-in-cheek proposals of marriage as recently as 2020, became the greatest female singer in the history of country music not because her voice was utterly transcendent, as Dolly’s was, or by sheer luck (as even she seems sometimes to have believed), but because of some peculiar quality that is as ineffable as it is unmistakable for anyone who has heard her hits.

Her life, even if some of the incidental details were fudged for the sake of publicity (or, just as likely, half-forgotten amid the haze of years), was worthy of the legend. Just as in the film starring Sissy Spacek, which for many of us, including Jack White, was beginning of our love affair with the genuine article, Loretta really did marry Oliver Vanetta “Doo” Lynn, a bona fide moonshiner and veteran of the Second World War many years her senior, at the age of fifteen. Like the Spacek character, the real Loretta bore Doo four children before she was eligible to vote. They moved in a manner typical of post-war Southerners, black and white alike, going as far afield as the state of Washington (whence the father of one James Marshall Hendrix had repaired only a few years previously) before Doo found in her singing a means of escaping their poverty. Her first break came when she won a television singing contest in Tacoma hosted by Buck Owens (the prize was a watch). For all his faults—and they were manifold—it should always be remembered that Doo was the first to recognize his wife’s talents and made sacrifices that even today would be astonishing in most working-class marriages to allow her to develop them. By the standards of his age it was nothing short of extraordinary.

Doo’s bet paid off, and it could be argued that he, in his capacity as husband-manager, was the primary beneficiary of her stardom, which followed very rapidly upon the release of her early singles. (The photographs of Doo, which begin to appear midway down in the newspaper obituaries, remind us that the stories of marital fisticuffs leading to missing teeth were as real as the songs suggest.) One unfortunate consequence of her sudden fame was that, like the Beatles a few years later and Taylor Swift many decades hence, Loretta would find herself locked into a noxious publishing agreement, one that effectively punished her for writing her own material. Those looking for someone to blame for the admittedly uneven quality of her output in the 1970s and ’80s should look no further than the Wilburn Brothers, Virgil and “Teddy.”

Something should be said about that output, I suppose. Like most of her peers in the genre, in addition to dozens of classic singles and a handful of first-rate LPs, Loretta recorded a number of albums that suffer not so much from shoddy and meretricious production, which can be forgiven as it is in the case of the Highwaymen, as from indifferent songwriting and an unmistakable lack of direction. (This is what prevents many of the Conway duets, for instance, from being the classics they quite obviously should have been.)

It is unfortunate, too, that after the comeback success of Van Lear Rose, Loretta (who in matters of production generally preferred to let the cobbler stick to his last) never found a collaborator who understood her strengths in the way that Rick Rubin did Johnny Cash’s. Her final album, Still Woman Enough, is a mish-mash of stray unrecorded numbers, retreads, duets with predictable collaborators (an appearance by Kid Rock would have been welcome), and sometimes questionable production values. The gospel and old time numbers— “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” “I Saw the Light”—have a certain power, to be sure. Her voice, too, seems to have retained much of its strength to the very end, but she does not bring enough to most of the older material to elevate favorites like “Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Blue Kentucky” beyond the level of a typical late-career concert performance.

One exception is “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which here appears in a new version in which Loretta recites the words of her best-known song, accompanied only by banjo. Among other things, this recording confirms what one has always expected, namely, that the lyrics rise above the standard tear-in-my-beer fare to something actually resembling verse. Here it has a haunting power all its own, with the ability to conjure up a world, one that was already impossibly remote when she first recorded it half a century ago.

Something else that should be said about Loretta is that she lived long enough to see the ancient enmities—between Nashville and Bakersfield, between Top Forty and Outlaw—not so much heal as fade into irrelevance as the genre became a parody of itself. Today the country charts are filled with songs that, absent a handful of banal lyrical signifiers, are indistinguishable from anything else on Spotify. What the Spice Girls wrought with “Wannabe,” with its ill-considered assemblage of hooks barely resembling a song, has overtaken all of recorded music, and those “country” songs today that do not actually aspire to the musical qualities of hip-hop one somehow finds even less memorable. Among those of us who lament what has become of the genre—and the rot, let it be said, had already begun to set in by the Eighties—the occasional appearance of a song like Midland’s “Drinking Problem,” which might have rounded out a side for Waylon forty years ago, does nothing to alleviate our misery. Like many great artists before her, Loretta lived to see the destruction of the art form she had done as much as anyone to perfect, if not quite pioneer.

With her death, as with Hank Aaron’s last year, this country loses one of the few living citizens who can be called quintessential Americans, in an unbroken line going back to Barbara Bush, Ola Mae Terrell, Louis Armstrong, Jim Thorpe, and Davy Crockett. When we lose Smokey Robinson and Jim Brown, the list will be complete.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.