By Laurence Lerman / New York City
My history of country music legend Loretta Lynn is fair to Midland at best, but it is one that definitely made a respectful impression. Perhaps it was the unique way I was introduced to her singing and songwriting that made a dent in my psyche. Or maybe it was just a natural curiosity of what I sensed as a wildly potent and engaging talent. Ultimately, it took an outlier like myself decades to truly appreciate her, while generations of music lovers embraced her with a genuine and affectionate feeling from the beginning of her 60-year career.
Lynn died on Tuesday, October 5, at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. She was 90. According to a statement from her family, she died in her sleep.
My first impression of Loretta Lynn came in the summer of 1975, when 12-year-old me was spending a month at a mostly Jewish sleepaway camp in the wilds of Northern New Jersey. It was a pretty major summer—my first time away from home for a significant amount of time sans parents, first time riding a horse, first time dancing with a girl (at a sock hop-styled “social” featuring contemporary Top 40 music) where I even received a little smooch for my efforts (a tiny one).
And the first time I heard a Loretta Lynn song. Not sung by Lynn, mind you, but rather a pretty, distinctly non-Jewish girl named Lisa—nickname: Lee-Lee—a Georgia native with an adorably peachy voice whose family had recently moved to Jersey.
Lee-Lee was always humming or sing-songing tunes that I recognized as country ditties, though at that time I don’t think I was even able to identify a single country song by name. She used to tell me that she thought songs on the Top 40 pop charts were silly—I can’t argue with her when I think of such popular tunes of that moment as Frankie Valli’s “Swearing to God” or Pilot’s “Magic”—and then she’d warble the lyric that led her country repertoire:
“It’ll be over my dead body, so get out while you can,
'Cause you ain’t woman enough to take my man.”
“It’s mama’s favorite song—she’s been singing it to me since I was a little girl,” Lee-Lee told me. “It’s by Loretta!”
The song was 1966’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” written and performed by Loretta—or Loretta Lynn, for Jersey boys like me who weren’t yet on a first-name basis with her.
I never saw Lee-Lee again after the summer of ‘75—I returned to camp for a couple of more years but she did not—so I was left with a nice memory of her, and of that earworm of a song that she sang. I actually scanned a couple of country radio stations over the next year and heard the original version as sung by its writer (this being a time that there were country radio stations being broadcast in the New York area).
Though the lovely and plucky “You Ain’t Woman Enough” remained my gateway to Ms. Lynn—and probably my favorite of her songs—I became familiar with many more of her most popular numbers over the subsequent decades. “Don’t Come Home Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “One’s on the Way,” “The First is Gone,” “Love is the Foundation,” and “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed” immediately come to mind, but there were other ways that her presence—her Kentucky-accented spirit—penetrated my consciousness.
Ms. Lynn appeared seasonally on all the big talk shows from the Seventies onward, from Griffin and Carson to Letterman and Fallon. All those TV variety shows and celebrity specials that defined the landscape in the Seventies and Eighties regularly featured her doing a song or two, and she always popped up on country music documentaries and awards shows. Hell, I must have bumped into her on Hee Haw at least a dozen times over the years. (Yes, I watched it every now and then and yes, she was pretty funny when she appeared.)
I learned about Loretta Lynn’s personal and professional history and details of her songwriting and performing genius the same way a lot of non-country music folk were informed—through Michael Apted’s 1981 bio-pic Coal Miner’s Daughter, based on Lynn’s 1976 autobiography and starring an Oscar-winning Sissy Spacek.
I wasn’t transformed into an ardent fan, mind you, not by a longshot, but I came to admire her prolific output and longevity, and her prodigious talent in crafting deceptively sweet-sounding songs that spoke of heartache, infidelity, anger, revenge and resentment. Much of it was prompted by her husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, to whom she was married for 48 years until he died in 1996.
In a career spanning some six decades, Loretta Lynn received virtually every honor that can be bestowed upon an American artist who happens to be a country music star (Grammy and CMA Awards, multiple Halls of Fame admissions, tribute albums and so on). And I saw a clip of her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013.
Loretta Lynn did what she loved until close to the end. She held her last full concert in 2017 and though she spent most of the show sitting, guitar in hand, she was reportedly in fine voice. Her 46th and final solo studio album was released in March, 2021.
The album’s name: Still Woman Enough.
Which reminds me of a question I’ve had for decades: How did Lee-Lee end up at a Jewish summer camp?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.