Right about now the nation needs a good ol’ Kentucky ballad to mark the Oct. 4 passing of country music legend Loretta Lynn. The trailblazing Grammy winner died at 90 years of age on her estate in Hurricane Mills, a town she bought in 1966. Needless to say, the Queen of Country Music came a long way since her impoverished beginnings in Appalachia.
As a teen, she married an ambitious 21-year-old army vet who she knew for just a month. Before Loretta turned 30, she raised four children, wrote and recorded her first single (“I’m a Honky Tonk Girl”) and was performing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. In the years that followed, she would have two more children, release 50 studio albums and 86 singles — 51 of which became Top 10 hits; 16 (5 duets with Conway Twitty and 11 solo songs) held the number 1 spot.
Lynn’s chart toppers “One’s on the Way”(1971) and “Rated X” (1972), among others, candidly conveyed the experiences of American women. The songs — such as her first number 1 hit “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” in 1966 — offered frank depictions of domestic situations when people didn’t discuss such things. While Tammy Wynette was singing “Stand by Your Man” (1968), Lynn was standing up to her husband with “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” (1969).
Before her female-empowerment hit “The Pill” (1975) reached number 1, it was considered too controversial to play on some radio stations. Despite her music being periodically banned, Lynn is the only woman to be named American Country Music’s “Artist of the Decade” [1970s]. She also became the first country music singer to grace the cover of Newsweek in 1973.
By 1976, Lynn was the first country music star to reach number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list with her autobiography “Coal Miner’s Daughter” co-written by George Vecsey. The book was adapted into the 1980 movie of the same name. Coal Miner’s Daughter (which can be streamed for a fee on Prime Video, Vudu, and Apple TV) traces Lynn’s rags-to-riches story from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Like her music which uses heartfelt humor and honesty to tell a story, the film relays its feisty heroine’s struggles in a straightforward and sometimes funny way. Thomas Rickman’s pithy script doesn’t sway from recounting the pitfalls of Lynn’s personal and professional life, nor does it paint her as a victim. Instead, British director Michael Apted lets audiences in on the creative process by showing the artist’s ability to turn life’s lemons into lyrical lemonade. With her own brand of practical poetry, Lynn spoke to generations of fans.
As a result, the biopic was a success at the box office and with critics. The film scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, and a Best Actress win for Sissy Spacek in the title role. Spacek, who did her own singing, also picked up a Best Actress win at the Golden Globe Awards where Coal Miner’s Daughter was named Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
In addition to the actress’s transcendent portrayal, the film features excellent performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Doolittle Lynn; Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline; and Levon Helm and Phyllis Boyens as Loretta’s parents. The cast also includes cameos by Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl as themselves.
Looking back, the movie may seem formulaic but that’s because its popularity helped define the biopic genre as it spawned the similarly-styled Great Balls of Fire! (1989), and the more heavy-handed Sweet Dreams (1985), Ray (2004), and Walk the Line (2005).
Coal Miner’s Daughter was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in 2019. Over the decades, Lynn performed at the White House for five presidents and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. During her long and groundbreaking career, the pioneering icon was dubbed the First Lady of Country Music — yet she will forever be a coal miner’s daughter.