At 82 years old, Loretta Lynn recently played her first-ever full show at the Ryman Auditorium — almost 54 years to the day since she graced that stage for her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Her remarkable career has included 16 number one singles from more than 50 albums, 10 of which also went to number one, and too many awards to mention. In 1966, “You Ain’t Woman Enough” made Loretta the first female artist to write a number one country song. The next year, her Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin album also topped the charts and was the first gold record ever achieved by a female country artist. And she did all that while raising six kids.
To be sure, Loretta shattered the glass ceiling in country music all to pieces, clearing the way for female artists like Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Tanya Tucker, and Barbara Mandrell to rise on up and come on through. Even today, female country artists continue to tip their hats in honor and awe of Loretta. Singer/songwriter Lori McKenna — who has five kids, eight albums, and a handful of country cuts with her name on them — was a latecomer to Loretta’s work, but doesn’t fail to feel the import of it all. In fact, she feels it even more personally than most.
When did Loretta’s music first impact you to the point that you understood what you were hearing?
I didn’t really know Loretta Lynn’s music until I saw Coal Miner’s Daughter (which, to date, is the only movie I’ve seen in a movie theater twice). I was probably just starting to write songs at that point and she inspired me. All I knew about country music growing up was that it was simple and it made sense. But I didn’t grow up on country music. I grew up on singer/songwriters and musicals — James Taylor and Jesus in my house.
Loretta-Lynn_Dont-Come-Home-A-Drinkin-600x602Fist City,” which is a song about fighting a woman for a man, was her second number one in 1968. Feminism is such a hot topic these days and, back then, those songs were considered feminist which is, perhaps, arguable. But, for Loretta to sing “Wings Upon Your Horns” in 1970 and “The Pill” in 1975 and reach all those ears with messages of true female empowerment… that was huge!
If I were the same age as Loretta Lynn — she married at 15 and I married at 19 — if I started writing songs the exact same time as she did, I KNOW I wouldn’t have been half as brave as she was. The courage she had right from the start… the honesty is remarkable. I think she saved people. I think she saved marriages — and gave some women the strength to end some (“Let Me Go, You’re Hurting Me”).
I think she was the voice that many women needed to hear. The voice that said, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” The voice that said, “DON’T SLEEP WITH A MARRIED MAN.” It is impossible to measure the impact she had on the world, but it’s easy to imagine — at least in my eyes — that it was enormous.
Even putting her milestone achievements aside, how would country music be different had Loretta not gotten out of Butcher Hollow?
Without Loretta, I think it would have taken a long, damn time for the real words to get out in songs. She told the truth. She sang it like she was sitting at your kitchen table with you drinking a cup of coffee before the kids came home from school. She still does, of course. I can’t think of anyone in popular music who cut to the bone the way she did at that time.
You’re a fan of 2004’s Van Lear Rose — the record produced by Jack White. Loretta has called it “countrier than anything [she’s] ever cut.” What is it about that record that means so much to you?
It was the first Loretta Lynn record I bought — probably a terrible thing to admit, but I’m a bad liar. I love how those two worlds came together (Jack and Loretta), especially in “Little Red Shoes.” I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Loretta, but I can tell she’s one of those people that I could listen to for hours.
Obviously, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is her signature piece, but is there another cut — or entire album — that you think could be considered her seminal work?
I think “One’s on the Way” is brilliant. I love the way she twists words… “One needs a spanking and one needs a hugging.” I love the way she talks so universally about the world then brings it right back to that kitchen.
Who do you hear carrying on Loretta’s legacy?
I think Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandy Clark are all doing just that — each in a different way. They are all great writers and Nashville is full of incredible women songwriters who have the balls to say what needs to be heard… Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon, Caitlyn Smith. Women seem to be the ones who bring up the issues up in song, don’t they?

This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.