"IF YOU WRITE about what's happening, it don't hurt as bad."
So says country music's 83-year old matriarch, Loretta Lynn, in Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl. The new two-hour documentary—part of PBS' American Masters series—premieres this week to coincide with the release of her first studio album in more than a decade, Full Circle.
Lynn's music has an incredible ability to withstand time. Jack White famously produced her last album, 2004's Van Lear Rose, which mixed her old-fashioned country with his electrifying rock 'n' roll. While it was an interesting experiment with modern production, Van Lear Rose sometimes felt like White had been given the keys to Lynn's car. Full Circle returns her to the steering wheel—raw, unfiltered, Appalachian country with unapologetic lyrics, sung in her beloved drawl.
The self-described "Coal Miner's Daughter" rose to fame in the early '60s for blunt songs about being a blue-collar young mother and her turbulent relationship with an often-drunk, philandering husband. Lynn grew up "in a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler" in rural Kentucky, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and idolizing female country singers like Kitty Wells. She married at 15 and moved to Washington State with her husband, Doolittle, while expecting their first child.
Lynn sang constantly—while she tended to her children (she had four before she turned 21), kept house, worked odd jobs, and canned vegetables. She wrote her debut single, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," while picking strawberries in a field with two of her children. Doolittle, convinced that his wife was just as good a singer as anyone he heard on the radio, bought her a guitar and encouraged her to start singing at a local bar. "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" charted shortly after the young couple traversed the country trying to convince radio stations to play it.
Lynn won legions of fans for her unabashedly honest lyrics—so honest that some of her songs were banned from radio play for their alleged impropriety. In her 1975 hit "The Pill," she sings her praises for birth control at a time when it was still highly controversial. "'The Pill' was banned, but when it hit the charts they had to take it out of being banned and play it," she says in Still a Mountain Girl. The song allows Lynn to fantasize about things that young motherhood robbed her of: wearing miniskirts, going out, and even enjoying sex without fear of pregnancy. She sings, with innuendo, "This incubator is overused/Because you've kept it filled/The feelin' good comes easy now/Since I've got the pill."
Doolittle was a notorious cheat. Lynn wrote a few songs like "Fist City" and "You Ain't Woman Enough" that physically threaten the women who flirted with her husband. While threats of violence are less than ideal, it's interesting how Lynn removes the agency of her husband in these theoretical scuffles. (This is also true in Dolly Parton's "Jolene," where Parton begs another woman, "Please don't take my man.") While it could be argued that doing so absolves the men of their responsibility for cheating, Lynn wrote plenty of songs that did put her husband on the hook for his bad behavior—like her first track to hit number one on the country charts, "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)."
"Say what you will, but she's a feminist," says Sissy Spacek, who portrayed Lynn in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter. Although her feminism wasn't conventional, Lynn gave voice to working-class women by singing about the ways that she felt trapped in the traditional roles of wife and mother. Her introduction to feminism was organic—she just got mad about things that were unfair in her life and set this anger to music.
These songs were both empowering and revolutionary at a time when women's liberation was happening in cities, but was slower to arrive in America's rural areas. Lynn sympathizes with fellow country women in "One's on the Way" (which was, oddly enough, written by Shel Silverstein), when she sings, "Here in Topeka, the flies are a-buzzin'/The dog is a-barkin' and the floor needs a-scrubbin'/One needs a-spankin' and one needs a-huggin'/Lord, one's on the way."
On Full Circle, Lynn's iconic, twangy croon remains country music's most inimitable voice, pairing magnificently with syrupy slide guitars on tracks like "Everything It Takes." While the album's title and songs like "Who's Gonna Miss Me?" seem to suggest otherwise, in Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, the Queen of Country makes no indication that she's slowing down.
Loretta Lynn, Full Circle (Sony Legacy), out Fri March 4
Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, premieres Fri March 4 on pbs.org, airs on OPB on Tues March 29 at 8 pm