Loretta Lynn’s 1970 single “Coal Miner’s Daughter” showed a master storyteller at work. Through well-observed and finely detailed verses, Lynn told the story of her hardscrabble Kentucky childhood in a sincere, warmhearted manner that touched all listeners, regardless of their own personal upbringing. Lynn described how her father labored in the Kentucky coal mines, raising “eight kids on a miner’s pay,” while her mother worked tirelessly to keep the family washed and nourished, in all senses of that term. ‘Mommy rocked the babies at night/And read the Bible by the coal oil light,’ she sang in one memorable line.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” reached No. 1 toward the end of 1970 and eventually became her signature song. The autobiographical tune served as the foundation for her album Coal Miner’s Daughter, released in January of 1971. The record received generally positive reviews and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart.
In celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, MCA Nashville/UMe is reissuing Coal Miner’s Daughter on vinyl, February 12th. To help mark the anniversary, we take a look back at the original album, its history, and ultimate country music legacy.
During the 1960s and 1970s, artists were pushed to the absolute limits when it came to recording, and here’s a prime example. Coal Miner’s Daughter marked the sixteenth solo album Lynn had released since her first one in 1964, Loretta Lynn Sings. That averages out to around two a year, a figure that would likely inspire threats of mutiny in today’s market.
Five of the tracks from Coal Miner’s Daughter, including the title song, had already been recorded for other albums and were still “in the can,” as the terminology goes. Each selection was cut at the famed Bradley’s Barn studio in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, owned by Lynn’s producer Owen Bradley, who had helmed all of Lynn’s previous albums.
“Most of the songs came together quickly and easily,” Lynn tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I remember some needing a little work, but for the most part, it was smooth sailing.” Bradley’s amiable, give-and-take mentorship made her feel comfortable in the studio, which otherwise can be an intimidating work environment. “Owen was quiet – more than lots of people you’d work with in this business,” she says. “He’d listen and think and bring a great idea, [or] an adjustment here, a thought there. We flowed back and forth so naturally. He was always easy to work with and had a big influence on my work.”
THE LONE SINGLE
The “Coal Miner’s Daughter” song was a grand piece of work in both scope and content, covering plenty of territory and originally containing nine verses without repetition. But it only took Lynn a matter of hours to compose it. She fleshed out the entire song in 1969 on the back porch of her hometown in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. In her 1976 autobiography, also titled Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lynn recalled that she began with the opening lines, ‘Well, I was borned a coal miner’s daughter/ In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler,’ and the words and the melody flowed like rushing water from that point. The only brief stumbling block occurred with the rhyme scheme. Lynn remembered, “I had to match up words like ‘holler’ and ‘daughter’ and ‘water.’ But after it was done, the rhymes weren’t so important. It started out as a bluegrass thing, ’cause that’s the way I was raised,” she added. “In a couple of hours, I had nine of the best verses I ever wrote. The next time I had a recording session, I did that song.”
But not exactly in its entirety. Nine verses might be an acceptable number if you’re Bob Dylan, but it’s out of the question for a mainstream country singer. Bradley took note of the song’s length and excised three of the verses, in particular one that referenced the family’s annual “hog-killin’ day.” Lynn tells Sounds Like Nashville, “I remember coming back and sharing the song with Owen and he was worried about how long it was and about it being a biographical song. But he loved that it was real – it was me and it was my story to tell.”
Bradley’s editing, however, took nothing away from the song, which is filled with vivid imagery of her childhood and memories of her mother and father. In right around three minutes, Lynn managed to tell the story of her life, with the final verse speaking of her return to Butcher Hollow, where “nothing lives here anymore” except the memories. As proud as she was of her yeoman writing effort, though, she felt unsure of the tune’s commercial prospects.
“We kept it in the can for a year,” Lynn recalled in Coal Miner’s Daughter. “I didn’t believe anybody would buy a song just about me.” The public ultimately disproved that notion. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” hit No. 1 on the country charts and also became her first to cross over to the pop charts. It’s duly considered one of the finest autobiographical songs ever written, in any genre of music. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” also scored a CMA award nomination for Song of the Year in 1971. It was written for its time but has also stood time’s test, easily the defining mark of a classic. “People still love, still work, still overcome,” Lynn says. “I love to sing ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter as much today as I did when I wrote it. It means the world to me that people still listen to it and love it.”
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” was the only single released from the album, surprising since most albums by established stars tend to run four or five singles deep. Lynn’s album certainly did not suffer from weak material, though. One particular selection, “Another Man Loved Me Last Night,” played right into Lynn’s wheelhouse and would have seemed ripe for a single release. The song, written by Lynn’s sister Peggy Sue Wells along with Lorene Allen, is as country and straightforward as they come, powered by a no-frills directiveness in lines like, ‘Yes, another man loved me last night/I’d almost forgotten what love was really like.’ If you’re looking for nuance or gray areas, you won’t find them here. Perhaps the risque subject matter prevented it from single consideration, but the hit potential was definitely there. Equally outstanding was “The Man of the House,” the B-side to “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The tune “What Makes Me Tick,” which Lynn wrote herself, also spoke to unfaithfulness, though in a more lighthearted and self-deprecating way (“I’m gonna have my head examin’ and find out what makes me tick,” she tells herself). Lynn agrees, “Those are some other great songs on the album.”
Why none of these received single release can only be speculated, but Lynn shares a possible theory. “I think ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ was just the heart of the album,” she explains. “It told my story and, in some ways, told everyone’s story. It was the story we all lived – hard times, love, family, gratitude. That song just shined.”
The cover tunes filled out the album quite nicely, with Lynn giving especially faithful renditions of Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’” and the pop/country crossover “Snowbird.” Not long after the album’s release, Loretta and Conway hit the charts with their first of many duets, “After the Fire Is Gone,” which went to the top in March of 1971 and took home a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Coal Miner’s Daughter remains a solid country album with a pleasing mix of sterling songwriting and relatable themes. Though it did not garner a CMA award nomination, the album performed well commercially, earning Gold certification for sales of 500,000 copies.
On February 12th, Coal Miner’s Daughter will be reissued on vinyl to help celebrate its milestone 50th anniversary. Fans can order this classic album through various outlets such as Amazon Music and Walmart. Lynn is elated about the project and shares her enthusiasm with Sounds Like Nashville. “It’s just so special to me. I honestly can’t believe it’s been fifty years,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to re-release this album!”