The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
As noted by author Jada Watson in The Oxford Handbook of Country Music, popular music discourse, in general, has demonstrated how musicians craft their musical identity by assuming a distinct personality. Artists typically form that identity through their wardrobe choices, visual imagery, lyrical narratives, and by positioning themselves in relation to distinct styles and genre conventions. For country music, crafting identities through geographical narratives is one of its key elements; songs about the “homeplace,” in other words, have typically expressed feelings of nostalgia and longing for “simpler” times.
And it’s through those various perspectives that country music, as well as its various offshoots, has thrived with its own identity; Kentucky bluegrass, the singing cowboy, and Western Swing are among the earliest examples of that claim. Individually, Jimmie Rodgers was the “Singing Brakeman” from Mississippi; Johnny Cash sang about growing up in the cotton fields of Dyess, Arkansas; Dolly Parton was born to a poor sharecropper in Sevierville, Tennessee, and her 1968 single, “In The Good Ole Days (When Times Were Bad),” speaks nostalgically to those working-class origins.
And just two years after Parton’s single release, the country music community got to know Loretta Lynn’s hometown of Butcher Holler, Kentucky.
Lynn, who always exhibited her rural heritage through her recordings anyway, crafted her musical identity through similar means. The ultimate message of her story, of course, is positive, though it’s not quite the fantasy anyone would really dream of – a childhood spent in a bleak coal town, married by the age of 14, countless nights spent in clubs and grange halls trying to make it as a singer, and a brainstormed car trip with her husband, Doolittle, from one radio station to another hoping to push “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl,” her debut single; her first real “hit,” ironically, was called “Success.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that she had influences in Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline to look up to, and while Lynn’s earliest recordings resemble Wells, she quickly developed her own style and – in the spirit of this piece – artistic identity. Her songs spoke for working-class women in ways no other artist would approach at the time, with “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” and “Fist City” (among others, of course) bluntly laying out their respective messages, even in their titles. Disarming honesty is a character trait Lynn expressed better than anyone.
For someone from tiny Butcher Holler who persevered to get where she was, though, success was still a lot to take in. She had the hits, and she had singing parts in four movies: Forty Acre Feud, Music City U.S.A., Nashville Rebel, and Nashville Sound. More to the point, however, listeners knew what Lynn stood for, but they didn’t really know her. Her content wasn’t one-dimensional, of course, but Lynn wanted to show another side of herself to the general public. As she says in her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, “One day I was sitting around the television studio at WSIX, waiting to rehearse a show. I figured this was a good time to work on a song. I went to the dressing room and just wrote the first four words that came into my head. It started, ‘Well, I was borned to be a coal miner’s daughter … ’ which was nothing but the truth … it started out as a bluegrass thing, ‘cause that’s the way I was raised, with the guitar and the banjo just following along. Really, the way you hear it on the record is the way I imagined it.”
“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the song, was finished with nine verses, though while her team saw potential in it as a possible single, they also knew country radio wouldn’t play a song that long. So three verses were cut: a remembrance of an interior-decorating endeavor at Lynn’s log-cabin home, one about the frequent Kentucky floods, and one about “hog-killing day,” her and her family’s way of having fresh meat for Christmas.
The finished result still accurately described Lynn’s portrayal of her hometown, a place she describes as “the most backward part of the United States,” in a positive way, of course. Again, the song itself and Lynn’s autobiography tell the story better than anyone else could, but for as much as it was a departure, thematically, for Lynn, it blended seamlessly into her discography. That, as well as her earlier material, was all part of one woman’s experience triumphing in 20th-century America; “Coal Miner’s Daughter” simply threaded that story together.
But there may, understandably, also be some confusion regarding the “why” of all of this. Why, for instance, would any artist sentimentalize (what sounds like) childhood hardships and undesirable living conditions? Moreover, why would anyone care enough to help that song’s success inspire a biography and biopic of the same name?
The answer is in the beginning paragraph of this piece, namely in how artists choose to craft their personal and musical identities. Artists, specifically country ones, rely on these narratives to express their understanding and identification of working-class culture. And whether it’s Lynn or the aforementioned Cash or Parton, the notions of those origins, however far removed they are from each other or from their (or “the”) current reality, speak to us as music consumers, letting us know that they are just like us. And that personal connection, especially on a ground level, is what has helped shape country music’s artistic identity over time.
We’ll continue on with this discussion next time when we discuss Dolly Parton’s “In The Good Ole Days (When Times Were Bad).”
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