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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

Loretta Lynn Reflects on Her Cross-Genre Appeal

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In one of the many country traditions she refuses to let pass, Loretta Lynn still wears elaborate gowns in concert, long-sleeved dresses loaded with sequins and pillows of fabric. Each is one of a kind, handmade by her assistant Tim Cobb.

“He’s done all the sewing for 30 years and keeps us looking good, or me at least,” says the 76-year-old singer. “Somebody once said, ‘Loretta’s the only one on stage all fixed up,’ because the boys in the band come out in their blue jeans and T-shirts. I do think that’s cheating the public. People come out to see how you sound and what you’re wearing, so looking good is important.”

Lynn has always been a country traditionalist at heart. She began her recording career in the early ’60s, during a time when the genre’s few female stars earned their fame by reaching a crossover audience. “At the time there weren’t really any women doing country music except for Kitty Wells,” Lynn recalls. “Patsy Cline was going down the middle of the road, doing pop and country, and Wanda Jackson was in the middle of the road, too.”

Lynn preferred hard-edged, meat-and-potatoes honky-tonk to glamorous crossover ballads, and it was in part because of that adherence to genre orthodoxy that she was able to take songwriting risks none of her peers dared. Using the traditional country sound to challenge traditional country values, she emerged as the genre’s first feminist, not only standing up to her husband on hits like “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” but also tackling elephant-in-the-room social issues. “Rated X” addressed the stigma facing divorced women, while “The Pill” celebrated the birth-control breakthrough that by the mid-’70s was still taboo in rural America.

“I wrote that song without realizing that people were going to be upset about it,” Lynn says of “The Pill,” which became her most controversial song. “All the women I knew took the pill except for me, and I had the kids to prove I didn’t. So since every woman I met told me they were on the pill, I wrote a song about it. I couldn’t believe the way people acted when it was released. They tried banning it on radio, but it didn’t hurt the song at all. It still went up to No. 1.”

Lynn’s feisty songs also earned her an unlikely audience beyond country radio.

“The college kids always bought my records, too,” Lynn says. “I know it was hard to believe for a rural country girl like me, but when I’d go into town on tour, the college kids would be out there to welcome me. It was really neat, and they never acted like they were better than me.”

Lynn is still delighted by the diverse audience she draws. She says that since releasing her Jack White-produced 2004 comeback album, Van Lear Rose, she’s seen more rock fans at her shows—“They’ll tell me how great I sounded, and that always makes me feel good,” she says—and she’s particularly proud that her new tribute album, Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn, includes covers from rock acts like Kid Rock and Paramore as well as from country singers like Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill and Gretchen Wilson.

Asked what draws rock and country audiences alike to her music, she speculates that it’s her songwriting.

“I write true to life,” she says. “I always write the way I am feeling at the time I write each song, and I think that other people share those feelings, too. Life ain’t a bed of roses, and my songs convey that.”

Loretta Lynn plays the Riverside Theater on Saturday, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m.