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Loretta Lynn, country music icon, has died at 90

Loretta Lynn performs on stage in California in 1972.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
Loretta Lynn performs on stage in California in 1972.

Loretta Lynn, the country music icon who brought unparalleled candor about the domestic realities of working-class women to country songwriting — and taught those who came after her to speak their minds, too – died today at her home in Tennessee. She was 90 years old.

"Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, in her sleep at home at her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills," her family said in a statement.

"The story of Loretta Lynn's life is unlike any other, yet she drew from that story a body of work that resonates with people who might never fully understand her bleak and remote childhood, her hardscrabble early days, or her adventures as a famous and beloved celebrity," Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement. "In a music business that is often concerned with aspiration and fantasy, Loretta insisted on sharing her own brash and brave truth."

Born Loretta Webb, the singer was raised in a remote coal mining community in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. One of the biggest songs of her career, "Coal Miner's Daughter," proudly recounted her background.

Lynn was barely a teenager when she started a family of her own with a 21-year-old former soldier, Oliver Lynn, better known as "Mooney" or "Doolittle." They wasted no time having the first four of their six children, and migrated to Washington state. It was there that her husband heard her bedtime lullabies and pushed her to start performing publicly. In a 2010 interview with Fresh Air, she insisted she wouldn't have done it otherwise: "I wouldn't get out in front of people. I was really bashful and I would have never sang in front of anybody."

Once her husband started scrounging up paying gigs for her, Lynn taught herself to write songs, says country music historian and journalist Robert Oermann.

"She got a copy of Country Song Roundup," Oermann says – a magazine that printed country lyrics and stories about the musicians. "She would read the country lyrics in the magazine, and she'd go, 'Well that's nothing. I can do that.' And she could, and had been."

Lynn and her husband drove around to radio stations, where she would introduce herself to the DJs and try to charm them into spinning her record. These efforts had begun to get Lynn noticed when the couple landed in Nashville in 1960. Artists like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline — who became Lynn's mentor — were having a lot of success with a lush, pop-sweetened production style known as the Nashville Sound. Lynn worked with Cline's producer, Owen Bradley, but hung onto her unsoftened twang.

Country songs had often portrayed hardship from male perspectives, but Lynn wasn't afraid to spell out the indignities endured in her marriage, or the double standards she saw other women facing when it came to divorce, pregnancy and birth control. She found that Nashville wasn't accustomed to that kind of frankness.

Fellow eastern Kentucky songwriter Angaleena Presley was raised on her mother's Loretta Lynn records, and recognizes what they must have meant to women of earlier generations.

"I'm positive that there probably were many, many women in that time, especially in the country," she says, "who thought, 'I'm not really allowed to say anything if my husband wants to drink. He works all day. He deserves to drink at night and come home and do what he wants. And I'll clean the house and raise the kids.' And [Lynn] said, 'Nope. It's not OK, and it's OK for you to say it's not OK.' "

Presley says Lynn's perspective "contributed a lot to the feminist movement," especially in rural parts of the country. "I feel like she was the voice," Presley says, "even if she never spoke out actively as a feminist, her songs certainly did."

No less than 51 of those songs became top 10 country hits on the Billboard charts. In 1972, Lynn was the first woman named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association. She would later be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1988, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008. She was also recognized with Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Though their relationship was complicated, Lynn and Doolittle remained married up until his death in 1996. (Lynn also made sure fans knew that her long-lasting musical partnership with Conway Twitty was all business.) Lynn continued performing and recording into the new millennium, attracting younger audiences through her collaboration with Jack White.

But it was essential to Lynn's enduring appeal that she never lost touch with her identity as a simultaneously modern and down-to-earth country woman who could communicate that to crowds throughout her career.

"This idea that I might be up here on stage singing this song, but I'm not better than you. I am you," journalist Oermann says. "That's kind of the message. That kind of humility is a really powerful and good thing."

That approach always informed her songwriting; Lynn's gutsiness comes through just as clearly today in the music she left behind.

"I like real life, because that's what we're doing today," Lynn told All Things Considered in 2004. "And I think that's why people bought my records, because they're living in this world. And so am I. So I see what's going on, and I grab it."

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Jewly Hight