When You’re Lookin’ at Her, You’re Lookin’ at History

Note: This blog post first appeared on the UNC Press Blog on March 21, 2011. I post it here in honor of Loretta Lynn who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week.

Loretta Lynn, Charlotte, NC, March 2011.
Loretta Lynn, Charlotte, NC, March 2011.

Whenever I visit the Thirsty Beaver, a local honky tonk in my neighborhood in Charlotte, I always find something new on the wall that catches my attention—a velvet Hank Jr. picture here, a child-size set of overalls done in Hee Haw fabric there. This time, it was a metal serving tray on which there was an image of Loretta Lynn.  Someone heard me comment on it and offered that Ms. Lynn’s tour would be coming to town.  I was so excited by that news that on the day the tickets went on sale, I beat a path to the ticket counter and had seats on the third row with a great view of the Queen of Country Music.

She sounded terrific as she sang hit after hit, and as I looked around the audience I noted that while there was strong representation from the senior set, there were also people who ran the gamut in age from teens through middle age.  My mother saw her in concert with Conway Twitty years ago, and here I was, a generation later, thrilled to hear her perform.  Loretta Lynn has experienced something of a renaissance.  Her work with Jack White, who produced her Grammy award-winning album Van Lear Rose (2004), as well as 2010’s tribute album marking her fifty years in country music, has garnered new fans for Lynn. Having her songs covered by artists ranging from young country music’s Carrie Underwood to rockers Paramore is indicative of Lynn’s broad appeal.

I also realized as I sat there enjoying her music and singing along with favorites like “Fist City” and “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” that I was bearing witness to a woman who serves as a link to country music’s past and its future.  Her first singing partner was Ernest Tubb, an icon of early country music, and her most recent partner was Miranda Lambert who, along with Sheryl Crow, re-recorded “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Loretta Lynn should also be understood as an important figure in women’s history.  Since she emerged on the country music scene in the early 1960s, she’s been unafraid of speaking on issues that affect women, though hers is more of a working-class feminism.  Her song “The Pill,” controversial for a country music artist, spoke of reproductive choice and being able to decide (through birth control pills) when to be pregnant.  “One’s On the Way” about those stream of pregnancies, also showed Lynn’s keen observation about how different the lives of women “here in Topeka,” (or any other small town for that matter) were from the feminists about whom we often read, write, and teach as these lyrics demonstrate:

The girls in New York City they all march for women’s lib
And Better Homes and Gardens shows the modern way to live
And the pill may change the world tomorrow but meanwhile today
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

As we mark Loretta Lynn’s 50th anniversary in country music, I think it’s important to recognize her not only for her contributions to country music, but also for her role in women’s history as a troubadour for working-class women everywhere.

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