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Loretta Lynn Didn’t Pretty Things Up

The country star sang about desire, cheating, heartache and righteous revenge in three-minute vignettes that depicted lives she knew and understood.

Time to listen to Loretta Lynn again ....

“Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em.” Plain-spoken and unassailable, that was not only the title of an album she released in 1970, but also a typically laconic summation of what made her a titan of American music.

Lynn, who died Tuesday at 90, was nobody’s mouthpiece but her own, and she created an archetype that spoke to the heart of country music and reached far beyond it. Her songs were terse, scrappy and so skillfully phrased that they sounded like conversation, despite the neatness of their rhymes. With each three-minute vignette, she sketched a down-to-earth version of lives she knew and understood, refusing to pretty things up.

Lynn was the coal miner’s daughter who kept her Kentucky drawl and remembered clearly what it was like growing up poor in Butcher Holler. She was a loyal wife but hardly a doormat. Drawing on the experiences of the turbulent 48-year marriage that she began in her teens, she sang about desire, cheating, heartache and righteous revenge. With anger and just a hint of humor, she set strict boundaries for both her husband and any would-be rivals in songs like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.”

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While mainstream country moved away from Lynn’s lean traditionalism toward arena-scale production, she persevered, earning generation upon generation of new admirers.
Credit...David Redfern/Redferns“The more you hurt, the better the song is,” she told me in a 2016 New York Times interview, when I visited her at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. “You put your whole heart into a song when you’re hurting.”

During the 1970s, Lynn chose and wrote songs, like “One’s on the Way” (by Shel Silverstein) and “The Pill,” that were bluntly and realistically resentful about the drudgery of parenthood. “The Pill”— with a narrator who compares herself to a brood hen and declares, “You’ve set this chicken your last time/’cause now I’ve got the pill” — was banned by many country stations when it was released in 1975, but reached the country Top 10 anyway.

“I wasn’t the first woman in country music,” Lynn said in an Esquire interview in 2002. “I was just the first one to stand up there and say what I thought, what life was about. The rest were afraid to.”

Lynn’s forthrightness — along with the homely details that make her songs so believable — has become a foundation of country songwriting over the last half-century: through Reba McEntire, the Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Margo Price and Ashley McBryde, to note just a few names from a list that could run into the hundreds.

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