Loretta Lynn's Complicated Politics Come Full Circle

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In the history of country music, there has been no woman more influential than Loretta Lynn. Over more than 60 years in the business, Lynn has released nearly 60 albums, broken down barriers and won armfuls of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For an artist who has been so incredibly prolific, it’s statistically improbable that, at 83 years old,  Lynn would be recording some of the best music of her career.

But that’s exactly what Full Circle is. The album, her first in more than ten years, is a remarkably personal affair, in terms of both subject matter and production. In this collaboration between her husband and her daughter Patsy, Lynn takes the listener on a gloriously stripped-down journey throughout her remarkable career. Newly written tracks are seamlessly woven with old country standards to produce an album that is, somehow, as artistically sound as anything Loretta Lynn has ever done.

For the better part of the past 60 years, Lynn has also been one of the most vocal champions for women in country music. Her feisty, working-woman’s tunes have long been the sound track for independent, forward-thinking Southern women. It was a lyrical ideology that stood in stark contrast to the “women’s libbers," of the 1960s and ’70s, a more genteel version of feminism.

So genteel, in fact, that the word must never be spoken. Despite Lynn’s long and expansive catalog of songs that are inarguably feminist, ranging from birth-control anthems to a nuanced discussion of the post-divorce woman, she’s repeatedly refused to identify herself as such. As she distanced herself from Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in the 1970s, Lynn wrote songs that purely and explicitly espoused their ideas.

It’s a complicated dynamic, to be sure. Just a few weeks ago, Lynn threw yet another wrench into plans to canonize her in the feminist hall of fame. When asked by a reporter, Lynn enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump, saying, “Trump has sold me – what more can I say?”

If it weren’t for Trump’s overt racism and complete and utter disdain for acting like a human being, it would be easy enough to dismiss Loretta Lynn’s politics as the thoughts of a rich old woman.     

But Loretta Lynn has always presented us with a complex notion of view of life, women and politics. Full Circle is a much simpler but equally revelatory work, and the context is still there. The album is Loretta Lynn singing her history, quite literally. Much will be written about her when she walks on to the other side, but Full Circle stands on its own as an autobiography. And it’s a pretty damn incredible story to tell.  

The presence of “Fist City” and “Whispering Sea” from her first-ever release exemplifies just how unchanging Loretta Lynn’s musical aesthetic has been. The songs sound the same as they did in the 1960s, and are somehow still relevant in the current Americana conversation. It’s certainly been a journey, but Lynn has never strayed far from her musical roots and today stands as one of country’s few legendary artists whose voice and songwriting ability have stayed strong throughout the years.

Maddeningly, though, Lynn continues that “Fist City” lineage with “Everything It Takes,” a duet with Elvis Costello. For whatever reason, Lynn frequently misplaces that anger that should have been directed at her philandering husband, who had a well-documented history of steppin’ out, even in Lynn’s own song catalog. These songs are certainly charming and will make you giggle a little bit, but there comes a point where you just want to scream, “Loretta! Start bitching about ‘Doo and leave those other broads alone.”

But Loretta Lynn is from a different time, and she’s not the type of woman who’s going to burn her bra or participate in a SlutWalk. It’s important to keep that context in mind. Considering the fact that the current country landscape doesn’t provide much in the way of opportunities for women to speak their mind, Loretta can do it because she’s been doing it since the 1960s and nobody could quite keep her from it.

On "Who's Gonna Miss Me," Lynn openly wonders about her legacy, questioning who exists to fill her shoes and carry on that torch. It's an important question, one that's certainly been asked before in reference to legends like Cash and Hank Williams, but Lynn addresses the issue herself. Fortunately, there are plenty of incredible female artists who will step into Loretta Lynn's shoes. It's not difficult to envision Kacey Musgraves at 83 doing the same damn thing. 

Despite a few minor feminist quibbles, Full Circle is a triumph wrapped up in a nostalgic time capsule. If this were Loretta Lynn’s last album – and you can be sure it won’t be; she’s still kicking – it would be a fine synopsis of her career, for a lifelong fan or someone who has just stumbled upon her brilliance. You don’t have to love her politics to love this record, whatever side of the fence you live on.

With this album, Lynn has officially made the argument that she is the hardest-working, most talented woman in country music. At the same time, it also exemplifies why no one’s ever disputed that fact. And to answer her question, we're all going to miss Loretta when she's gone.

Loretta Lynn and her band perform at Houston's Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway, on Saturday, May 14. Tickets are on sale now.

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