Mr. Blackwell, the snooty fashion icon who for several decades doled out annual lists of the world’s worst-dressed women, placed country legend Loretta Lynn at No. 8 some 45 years ago, dismissing her wardrobe as “the right dress in the wrong century.”
Lynn’s distinctive wardrobe – long, grandmotherly gowns, often lace-adorned and sometimes glittery – appeared backward to many, much like her ultra-rural diction. Who else could say, “I was borned a coal miner’s daughter” with confidence and conviction and be widely loved for it?
But the surface conservatism in her appearance contradicted the progressivism at the heart of her songs, which were extensions of Lynn’s own character and humanity. For six decades, the country audience was able to relate to her deliberately out-of-touch dress choices and plainspoken conversation, even as Lynn portrayed the women in her music as radically forward-thinking: strong, self-directed adults willing and able to stand up for themselves at a time when the culture generally discouraged it. (Even Lynn’s death at age 90 on Oct. 4 was a bit of a contradiction: she passed away at home while sleeping peacefully in a town with a violent name, Hurricane Mills, Tenn.)
The country trailblazer didn’t seem to know that she was doing anything revolutionary with her career, even after the musical masses began evaluating her work publicly. By writing songs that addressed husband/manager Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn’s improprieties, she tackled subjects – particularly alcoholism and infidelity – that were regarded in most households as family secrets, to be kept as such. With “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and “Fist City,” she hung her own dirty laundry out to dry on the national airwaves, rising to stardom because she was just naïve enough, and headstrong enough, to believe that honesty was the best policy in her music. Turns out she was right.
Lynn arrived in Nashville in the 1960s, an era when the country music industry treated women the same way the culture at large viewed them: as add-ons and support personnel for the men in their lives. Country females were subjugated to the role of “girl singer,” artists who were expected to bring an air of family values as a duet partner for the male headliner, or a change-of-pace voice who could represent the ladies in the audience without threatening or challenging them.
Kitty Wells, who Lynn greatly admired, was the first woman to hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Country Songs chart in 1952 with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” presenting herself visually as a non-threatening homemaker. Patsy Cline, who became Lynn’s best friend in the early 1960s, infused her breakthrough recordings with a smooth vocal style and sometimes-heavenly strings, hiding her crude tongue and bawdiness – hallmarks of so-called un-lady-like behavior – from the public until after her death.
Lynn’s first hit, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” came in 1960, less than a decade after Wells’ breakthrough. Lynn approached her performances with a voice that reflected her incongruities: She owned an undeniably feminine resonance, but her delivery had a certain hardness to it, indicative of the insufferable poverty of her Butcher Holler, Ky., youth and the challenges of teen-aged motherhood.
Instead of fluffing up her tone, she paired its rawness with songs that told her unvarnished truth — and, in turn, the biographies of many American women. She threatened husband-stealing floozies in “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Fist City,” refused the sexual advances of her over-indulged man in “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” called out cultural double standards in “Rated ‘X’” and celebrated the arrival of contraceptive-induced freedom with “The Pill,” a song initially banned by country radio.
Those titles established her progressive nature. Having become the breadwinner in her house, Lynn essentially demanded equal treatment and respect in advance of the women’s movement, though – judging from her lifelong devotion to her husband (they were married for 48 years until his death) – she seemed to accept that men would have a difficult time granting that sort of consideration.
And Lynn was hardly just an agitator. She embraced her country heritage, spelling out her hard-scrabble upbringing in the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and clinging to her barefoot roots and hard-working values in “You’re Lookin’ At Country.”
That dichotomy is at the heart of Loretta Lynn’s legacy. As a strong, self-confident female artist, she opened a door for other women who followed, a legacy that can be traced through subsequent country stars from Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire and Martina McBride to Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Lainey Wilson.
Critics would argue – quite reasonably, in fact – that more women should have been able to walk through that door. But Lynn fought the same battle that the current generation of country women faces, one that’s as contradictory as Loretta Lynn’s presentation. Her fight to present her authentic self was considered progressive at a time when women’s voices were expected to be for show.
But Lynn found a way to make her own artistic statement. In the process, she ably demonstrated that female perspectives are always in fashion.