In 2018, Loretta Lynn gave every impression of having quietly retired. Who could blame her? She was 86 years old and had recently suffered from a stroke and a broken hip, caused by a fall at home. Besides, she had presided over one of country music’s most extraordinary careers: since 1960, she has cut an authentically groundbreaking figure, such a trailblazer for women in country that one writer suggested most modern female country artists could be called Lynettes. Her brand of “advocacy for ordinary women” – she is “not a big fan” of the term “feminist”, considering it to be insufficiently concerned with working-class women – bordered on the confrontational, at least by the conservative standards of Nashville.
The horrified reaction to her 1975 single The Pill is legendary – the song was suppressed for three years, then banned by country radio stations on release – but it’s just one in a succession of two-fisted reproaches of patriarchal mores. On 2018’s Wouldn’t It Be Great? – an album recorded before, but released after, her illness – she re-recorded one classic example, 1967’s Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’, a song that hides a dark saga of sexual consent behind its wry humour. She did the same with her autobiographical theme song Coal Miner’s Daughter. It felt like a neat way of tying things up: that, one might have assumed, was that.
And yet, here we are, three years on, with Lynn weeks away from her 89th birthday and a new album named after her second volume of autobiography. Its cover depicts the singer clad in one of her trademark gowns, sitting on a throne and wearing an expression that suggests – as so many of her songs do – a woman who’s had enough of your bullshit, or perhaps a woman who’s heard you’ve been spreading rumours about her retirement and isn’t terribly pleased about it. Its contents speak of an understandable decline in songwriting productivity – there’s only one new Lynn original, the title track, co-written with her daughter; Coal Miner’s Daughter makes yet another appearance, this time as a recitation of the lyrics set to music – but her voice sounds frankly astonishing.
The woman singing I Wanna Be Free has a slightly flintier tone than the woman who first recorded it 50 years ago, but she still sounds strident and authoritative: there’s none of the diminution in clout you might expect from someone whose professional career is now into its seventh decade. Certainly, her guest stars – Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Tanya Tucker and Margo Price – never feel like they’re there to do the heavy lifting vocally, or bolster a waning talent: they sound like they’re sparring with her, particularly Price, who performs on a version of 1971’s One’s on the Way, a classic Lynn saga of domestic strife (albeit one written by Shel Silverstein, best-known as the author of Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue). The cultural references – Liz Taylor, Raquel Welch, Jackie Onassis – might have dated, but the song’s theme seems timeless: it deals with the gulf between a perfectly airbrushed world of celebrity and the reality of daily life, as relevant in the Instagram age as it was when it was written.
Other covers delve so deep into country’s history that Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light – breezily rendered by Lynn here – counts as relatively recent, the original merely having been recorded in 1948. There are three songs from the 1930s oeuvre of the Carter Family and the standard Old Kentucky Home, a song first published in 1853. Whether religious or secular in theme, they’re linked by a tone of steely determination that suits Lynn perfectly. The protagonist of I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight declines to show weakness while watching the man she loves marry someone else; the hard-boiled stoicism of I Don’t Feel at Home Anymore found popularity among dust bowl refugees in the 1930s, its tone of acceptance so infuriating Woody Guthrie that he rewrote it, throwing in a reference to Donald Trump’s racist father for good measure. Guthrie saw the song as meek, but Lynn sings it with an affecting combination of joy and conviction.
It ends with a rerecording of her 1966 hit You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man) as a duet with Tanya Tucker, a song characteristic of what you might call the other side of Loretta Lynn: when she wasn’t calling out men, she was frequently to be found offering female rivals out for a fight. The subject of You Ain’t Woman Enough fares better than that of 1968’s Fist City (“I’ll grab you by the hair of your head and lift you off the ground”) but not much. “For you to get to him, I’ll have to move over,” she sings, “and I’m gonna stand right here – it’ll be over my dead body.” Delightfully enough, she sounds like she means every word: there’s a toughness that doubtless accounts for Still Woman Enough’s very existence. Long may she decline to budge.
This week Alexis listened to
Perfect, super-smooth updating of the Delfonics/Stylistics brand of pillowy Philly soul: the ideal musical remedy for 2021’s ongoing woes.