Country Legend Loretta Lynn Braved Controversy to Tell the Truth About Women’s Experiences

On her 90th birthday, the self-taught singer-songwriter is donating personal items to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Loretta Lynn laughs while holding a microphone
Singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn was applauded—and sometimes banned—for her daring songs about women's lives.  Photo by Erika Goldring / Getty Images

When country music star Loretta Lynn suspected her husband was cheating on her, she wrote an upbeat tune warning the other woman to steer clear “if you don’t wanna go to Fist City.”

It was a hit: The 1968 song spent a week atop the Billboard hot country chart and helped solidify Lynn’s reputation as a country chanteuse who penned relatable—and sometimes controversial—songs about women’s real-life experiences.

Now, the singer’s handwritten lyrics for “Fist City,” as well as other personal items from her six-decade career, are joining the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Sony Music Entertainment’s Legacy Recordings division, which released Lynn’s newest album, Still Woman Enough, in March 2021, announced the donation on Thursday—the artist’s 90th birthday.

“Most songwriters tended to write about falling in love, breaking up and being alone, things like that,” Lynn told the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers in 2016. “The female view I wrote about was new. … I just wrote about what I knew, and what I knew usually involved something that somebody did to me.”

In the case of “Fist City,” inspiration struck in the form of rumors that her husband hadn’t been true to her while she was recording music in Nashville. As she angrily made the 75-mile drive back home to Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, she began writing about the situation in her head.

Once home, Lynn stormed straight past her husband into her home office and wrote three pages of lyrics for the song. Like many of her hits, “Fist City” resonated because it candidly spotlighted an issue many women faced in silence.

According to a statement, Lynn is also donating a 1960s yellow gingham dress she sewed herself and a photo of her wearing the dress while signing autographs; a red gown, designed by Tim Cobb, that she wore in 2003 at the 26th Kennedy Center Honors; first edition copies of her autobiographies Coal Miner’s Daughter and Still Woman Enough; and other items.

Throughout her storied career, Lynn has often written about her life’s ups and downs. She penned the 1970 hit song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” about growing up poor in a one-room log cabin in rural Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, during the Great Depression. Born in 1932, Lynn had seven siblings. She met and married Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn when she was just 15 years old and became pregnant with their first of six children at age 16.

The growing family eventually moved in search of better job prospects. Lynn often sang around the house, and in 1953, Mooney bought his wife a $17 Gibson guitar and arranged for her first public performance at a local Grange Hall.

Lynn’s star rose from there. Over the past 60 years, she’s had 16 No. 1 country singles and received numerous accolades and honors, including four Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honors award and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

“Her first guitar cost $17, and with it this coal miner’s daughter gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted to talk about and saying what no one wanted to think about,” Obama said at the medal ceremony.

To date, Lynn has sold more than 45 million records worldwide.“She gave voice to what women across the country were thinking as they dealt with their own challenges in life,” Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell told the Sun’s Simon Cosyns in 2021. “They could finally turn on their radios and relate to what they heard.” Audiences heard Lynn sing frankly about sex, infidelity and pregnancy—songs that homed in on what the Wall Street Journal’s Mark Richardson calls “the emotional truth of everyday situations.”

Loretta Lynn singing in a red dress
The 90-year-old singer-songwriter released her most recent album in 2021. Anna Hanks via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

Many of her most popular songs—tracks like “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “Rated X” and “The Pill”—boldly tackled women’s topics that were considered taboo at the time. Some got her banned from country music stations in a nation still grappling with changing sexual mores and expanding women’s rights.

Through it all, Lynn has remained humble—and thankful for the pioneering role she’s played in country music.

“As a little girl, I could never have imagined that I’d write books and wear dresses that would wind up in the Smithsonian,” she says in the statement. “These are the kinds of things that make me realize what an amazing life I’ve been given and grateful for what I’m able to share with the world.”

For her friends, collaborators and fans, the feeling is mutual. As country music star Reba McEntire said in a 2021 promotional video for Still Woman Enough, whose title track she sang with Lynn and Carrie Underwood, “She is the most special thing country music has ever had.”