Wow, what a huge loss. Just a few thoughts here for now.
With the loss of Loretta, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are basically the last major artists standing from the country music of the 1960s. There are a few hitmakers like Bill Anderson still floating around too but no one is going to remember Anderson in the same way as Loretta or Willie or Dolly. These deaths are a natural state of affairs, but also a sad one. It was such a rich era of the music, arguably its greatest decade, and there were so many greats coming out of that fertile era where the old-timey music of the South combined with the new production methods pioneering by people such as Owen Bradley combined with the influence of rock and roll. Loretta was right at the center of all of that. She was as country as one could possibly imagine–just that voice. Despite the usual dismissal of the Nashville Sound by those who think A Man And His Guitar is the peak of country music experience, Loretta used all that stuff and she is as country as anyone who ever lived.
Loretta herself was a pretty weird person–hard-right politics, superstitious, conspiracy theorist minded. I knew someone who knew her in Tennessee and this person said she was genuinely the dumbest person she had ever met, but on the other hand, how dumb could one be making that much money (since commenters are misinterpreting this, it was the woman I knew who said this, not me). There’s also the completely incongruous history of her songwriting with her personal life–she was with her terrible awful no good husband for his whole life while writing feminist country music anthems that often got her banned from country radio. It’s hard to square the feminism of “Rated X” or “The Pill” with anything else in her life. But no one in country music could speak to the changing lives of women more than Lynn and that includes Parton.
Like most country artists of the period, Loretta’s actual albums are extremely hit and miss. The reality of the period was that the country music establishment wanted at least two if not three or four albums a year, which meant throwing the next great song on as the lead track and then covering other people’s music or (usually badly) the big hits of the day as filler. That’s why there are like 75,000 country covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in these years, none of which are worth hearing in my view. There are some good ones, but if you really want the distilled Loretta experience at its peak, getting The Definitive Collection is the way to go.
Loretta’s combination of continuing to work and her willingness to at least sort of change with the times set her up brilliantly for her late life collaboration with Jack White on the epic Van Lear Rose album. Though she was still wearing the ridiculous old-timey cotillion dresses, she was also singing with electric guitar riffs. That’s a great album, better than the Rubin recreation of Johnny Cash and any other example of reviving aging country singers that was a big thing as they were passing from the scene in the 90s and 00s.
Finally, her willingness to quasi-mythologize her own life with “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and then the biopic about her starring Sissy Spacek and Levon Helm should have led to total cheese, but it did not. The song is awesome of course and the film is surprisingly strong. Did I go find Butcher Holler and Loretta’s childhood home when I was in the area several years ago? You know that I did. In fact, here it is:
Pretty cool to see.
What an epic legend. What a voice. What a singer. What a songwriter. Just an all time great. RIP Loretta, you rule.