In our previous (and first) edition of this series, we discussed Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, a pivotal album that doubled as a commercial smash success … and a needed artistic statement. In short, it changed the way the album art form could – and would further – operate in country music. So, OK, what about before, then? Well, with very few exceptions, most albums followed a very similar formula in country music, based around a hit lead single and little else. That doesn’t, however, mean that they couldn’t stand as more than just that. It’s a bit complicated, so let’s take a look at one prime example.
When did Loretta Lynn become a country music legend?
It’s an overly broad question, for sure, though it’s also an honest one with no correct answer – just several valid theories. Really, from the time she traveled around the country to promote her debut single all the way to the early 2000s when she reignited her career with Van Lear Rose, you could place the mark at any point, and I doubt you’d hear many arguments.
The most popular point, of course, is probably when both Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones starred in a 1980 movie based around Lynn’s life, from her Butcher Holler upbringing all the way to country music superstardom, aptly titled Coal Miner’s Daughter. Of course, before the movie came Lynn’s autobiography of the same name, which, even in pure text form, gives you the same amount of vivid detail, just told more through the same witty, conversational manner you’d expect from an artist who pulled no punches. For my money, it’s one of the paradoxically saddest and most humorous reads you’ll find: in country music or otherwise.
Granted, the title of that autobiography and subsequent film didn’t appear out of thin air. They were based on a song of the same name, and one that most agree is Lynn’s signature song. As for why, it’s because it summarizes Lynn as an artist in just three minutes. Her best? That’s subject to interpretation, naturally, though it is my personal favorite. The only one of hers you should hear? Of course not. But it is, without a doubt, Lynn’s story. And through it, she paints a picture of a classic rags to riches story most of us likely think requires sympathy on our parts for what she and her family experienced – in part not shying away from the darker reality – framed through a younger perspective where everything is magical. And that’s a relatable feeling that can affect someone’s view of the world regardless of time or setting. It’s the classic “rich in love” trope with the actual storytelling detail to stand proudly on its own. And though plenty of other artists have offered their own views of the same narrative time and time again, hearing Lynn sing about Butcher Holler will always make for my favorite version of it.
So yes, I think Lynn was a legend from day one, but even the best of the best need that signature song to cement their iconic status, and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was that song for Lynn. Of course, I also find it best never to place artists too high on a pedestal. I don’t say that to diminish anyone’s talent, mind you, but rather to serve as a reminder that artists are just, well, people – people who experience the same common emotions we do every single day, especially in country music, where pain and heartache is but a song away. And Lynn was always an artist who wanted to remind us that she was just like us and knew what we were going through, where despite differences in upbringing, we’re all enduring the same kind of different struggles in this life.
That was my roundabout way of saying that, in the early 1970s, Lynn was lot like other country artists of the time: a singles artist. If you think today’s rapid pace is bad (to be fair, it somewhat is), consider that in country music in the 1960s and ‘70s, artists were healthily pumping out around two albums per year. They weren’t the 30-plus song projects we’re experiencing today, but chances are if you had the money, there was likely always something new to listen to from your favorite artist of the time.
So, OK, what was the secret, then? Fittingly enough for the genre, nothing too fancy. Most albums were typically built around one or two lead singles, at most, and further padded out by covers of well-known recent hit songs meant to compete with one another, and … well, filler material. That last part wasn’t ever necessarily intentional; it usually just meant that of the singles chosen for the project, those songs were the ones that lost out to the intended bigger and better songs.
Basically, that’s probably why we think of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” first and foremost as an iconic single, rather than an intended thesis statement for its album of the same name, her sixteenth total album in just six years of recording. Released in very early 1971, it’s an album that follows the aforementioned formula and doesn’t necessarily do much to differentiate itself, yet either by sheer coincidence of the tracks picked or through Lynn’s talent as a performer, there’s a surprisingly underrated sense of cohesiveness to Coal Miner’s Daughter as an album that’s always exciting for me to revisit.
It is, however, funny to me that despite Lynn’s pedigree, her record label was initially hesitant to release a deemed risky lead single via the title track, out of fear that listeners wouldn’t connect with it. Not only could that not have been further from the truth, but the rest of the tracks that compile the album play both to and against expectations with Lynn’s artistic brand in surprisingly interesting ways. Intentional or not in its actual sequencing, despite being known as the artist who wouldn’t tolerate cheating or excessive drinking from her partner, there’s a lot of ironic vulnerability on display here – a glance from the other side, if you will. More often than not, she’s the one inflicting the hurt and having to apologize, or the one doing the cheating and playing the role of “the other woman” she often sang to (note that I didn’t say “for” there). Ironic as it is given their history as duet partners, her take on Conway Twitty’s aching “Hello Darlin’” stands as one example, but even the Glen Campbell cover of “Less of Me” right afterwards is an urgent, upbeat plea asking for strength in shooing away temptation.
Even setting aside their context as covers, however, there’s also a Lynn original in “Any One, Any Worse, Any Where,” where despite a playful pedal steel lead, she plays a role in which she loves another woman’s man, and even confronts her about it. And yet, despite not exactly having the moral high ground, in typical Lynn fashion – even despite playing an opposite role – she’s bold enough to claim that the wife’s hold is merely a vindictive one, and that their love died out while Lynn’s actually has a chance of going further. Bold now and especially for 1970, but even more when paired with another original – this one penned by Lynn’s sister Peggy Sue Wells – called “Another Man Loved Me Last Night,” in which Lynn plays another cheater. Only this time, the only other character present is her estranged husband, and instead of overwhelming guilt, the not-so-subtle conceit is that it’s hard to feel regret for what’s been done, given that the affair felt like her character’s first shot of real love in quite some time.
Really, for its time, it’s amazing what didn’t become a single, especially through a sole analysis of the original tracks. “What Makes Me Tick” fits pretty conventionally in Lynn’s wheelhouse, a humorous-as-hell, groove-driven kiss-off with enough bite and rollick to stand up with similar classics like “Don’t Come a Drinkin’…” or “Fist City.” And again, intentional or not, it’s amazing how much of a thematic cohesion there is to this project, lyrically and sonically. Given the time period, it’s no surprise to hear a lot of excellently interweaving Nashville Sound backing vocals and playful pedal steels to complement mostly plainspoken songs. Some of it feels a bit out of place at points, and there’s never really that one standout from a production standpoint, even if I really dig the funkier electric guitar sizzle seething across “It’ll Be Open Season On Your Heart.” But when the melodies and hooks are solid across the board and Lynn’s capabilities are enough to interject all the needed personality these songs could possibly need, it’s never necessarily a hindrance or a lacking component.
No, if anything, in keeping things as simple as they should for an artist as direct and blunt as Lynn, most of the issues just boil down to certain covers feeling out of place. The surprisingly obscure pick of Marty Robbins’ “Too Far” feels a bit plain and oversold, as does “For the Good Times,” even as iconic as it is. But even given that both she and Kris Kristofferson are two very different writers stylistically, it also feels like a forced cover. I’m tempted to say the same for the unneeded addition of “Snowbird,” but I like Lynn’s interpretation and feel it does well to represent the happy traditional country-meets-pop-country medium of this album stylistically, especially as a closing track. I like the brighter, pluckier nature of “The Man of the House” well enough, especially with the passionate hook, but between similar tracks like “Any One, Any Worse, Any Where” and “Another Man Loved Me Last Night,” it feels repetitive without being justifiable, especially without any of the Lynn family’s influence in the writing. Even still, it may loses its shine compared to that iconic first song and single, but there’s an underrated strength in following a traditional formula with this particular album that would become more fully realized on future projects, especially as country music moved closer and closer toward accepting the album art form.
We’ll get to those in due time, but there’s still more to add to this particular conversation, so join me next time, where we’ll discuss a similar artistic statement released around the same time, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.