Loretta Lynn, ‘Queen of Country Music,’ Dies at 90

Her sharp and snarky twang championed working class women and promoted birth control. Later in life, she supported Donald Trump.

Loretta Lynn, ‘Queen of Country Music,’ Dies at 90
Photo:Taylor Hill (Getty Images)

Loretta Lynn, the most awarded woman in country music, passed away Tuesday morning at 90 at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, her family said in a statement. Born a coal miner’s daughter in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, the second of eight children, she cut an indelible mark on country music with her sharp, snarky, twang. Dubbed by some the “Queen of Country Music,” Lynn wrote songs that championed birth control in the 1970s and snapped back at an industry dominated and morally supervised by men.

She became outwardly Republican in her older age, aligning herself with the majority of white women from Kentucky in vocally supporting politicians Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. While that certainly and deeply complicates any kind of “feminist” legacy, the messages in much of her music did, at the time, contradict conservative ideas of a woman’s place in the world.

Lynn’s colossal discography collected and communicated working women’s anger at the hypocrisies of the system. Her songs tackled themes like unwanted sexual attention (“Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”) or the stigma of divorce (“Rated X”). Even her songs that fell more in line with traditional country music motifs, like loyalty and cheating, (“Fist City,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough”) were sung with a fierce grit that made her stand out from her more cordial and sweet-voiced contemporaries.

The combination of her stylistic fortitude and lyrical and topical dauntlessness made it inevitable that one of her most famous songs, “The Pill,” was also her most controversial. Before the age of 20, Lynn had four children and would go on to have two more. While she herself never was on birth control, the “poet laureate of blue-collar women” told People Magazine in a 1975 interview:

“If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ‘em like popcorn. The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s. But I wouldn’t necessarily have had six and I sure would have spaced ‘em better.”

“The Pill,” for those lucky enough to still get to hear it for the first time, is about a married woman’s defiant decision to go on birth control and take back some control in her marriage and life. “All these years I’ve stayed at home/ While you had all your fun/ And every year that’s gone by/ Another baby’s come,” she sings, alerting the husband in her song that she’s done being pregnant, that she’s “makin’ up for all those years/ Since I’ve got the pill.” It’s celebratory, it’s gutsy, and it’s matter-of-fact. She said in an interview with Parade: “I just write what I feel, what is going on with me and my life. It just happened that a lot of other women felt the same. I would never set out to write something just for it to shock someone.” What made Lynn incredibly special was her ability to pinch the nerve of exactly what was bothering you and sing about it indignantly. She voiced a lot of women’s anger, because it was her anger, too.

Lynn daring to sing about wanting to not be pregnant for one single year sent the industry into a tailspin. Despite being released a full 15 years after the FDA approved the use of birth control, Lynn’s label was nervous that country music audiences were not ready to hear a woman singing about her bodily autonomy. They were partially right. Country music gatekeepers, almost all men at the time, couldn’t stomach a little song about a little pill. Radio stations refused to play the song, and the New York Times declared that the “new type of country song separates sex from joy, undercuts marital love and fidelity, and debases women.” The 1975 article reads, “Few could listen to these songs without arriving at the realization that the soul of man is soiled with the corruption of his transgressions.”

But you know who fucking loved it? Women and regular old Joes who were catching the wave of the rising tide of feminism in the 70s. Not only did the song have success on the charts, but Lynn told Playgirl in a 1975 interview that “medical professionals routinely told her that ‘The Pill’ had done more to promote rural acceptance of birth control than any official medical or social services efforts.”

Of course, her pride in that accomplishment plainly clashes with her later affiliation with the GOP, a party morbidly dedicated to spreading disinformation about women’s reproductive rights and access. While not to be celebrated, Lynn once again nailed a fundamental truth about a lot of women: We’re full of messy contradictions, and our actions don’t always align with the self-mythologies we’ve created in our heads.

Lynn’s later politics were difficult to stomach, as someone so attached to her empowering anthems. But those radical, catchy anthems nevertheless cemented themselves in a feminist history and echo beyond country music and Lynn herself. May she rest in peace.

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