A coal miner’s daughter born in Appalachia. Many country music fans know at least that much about country star Loretta Lynn. But even her biggest fans may not know the history and heartache of her talented musical family, a family that recently suffered a terrible loss.
Her Family Roots
A native of Kentucky, Loretta Lynn was born Loretta Webb. In her hometown of Butcher Hollow, she was raised in the poverty she would later sing about. Growing up in a small cabin with seven siblings, she truly was a coal-miner’s daughter. (She was 28 years old before she wore high heels.)
Her music career began early, with her singing in church as a child. Additionally, she was surrounded by music, as she describes:
“I thought everybody sang because everybody up there in Butcher Holler did. Everybody in my family sang. So I really didn’t understand until I left Butcher Holler that there were some people who couldn’t. And it was kind of a shock.”
Marriage and Children
She married Oliver “Doo” Lynn young in life; whether she was 13 or 15 is a matter of some debate. However, she then became Loretta Lynn. Their marriage was described as “combative but enduring.”
The couple had six children, four of which were born by the time Loretta was 20. For a time, they were Lynn’s focus as she cared for them and did odd jobs.
However, she never gave up on music. In addition to it being her family history, it was also her solace. (She and Oliver had moved to Washington State, and thus she was far from her roots.) And besides that, her husband encouraged her to go further with her music.
It seems he heard her “singing at her chores and declared that she sounded just as good as anyone he heard on the radio.” He brought a guitar home for her and said she should learn how to play. Loretta did, and also wrote songs. Her songs were an honest depiction of life because those were the songs she knew how to write.
One quote from Loretta stands out. In it, she described what it takes to be successful: “To make it in this business, you either have to be first, great or different. And I was the first to ever go into Nashville, singin’ it like the women lived it.”
Most country music fans know Lynn. She became famous in the 1960s and 1970s with several hits, including “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Fist City.”
Her most famous song is arguably,”Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The song was the name of her autobiography and made into a movie. Both of these helped propel the song’s fame.
She also collaborated with Conway Twitty on a number of occasions.
Notably, her friendship with Conway lasted a lifetime. In an interview, she described her relationship with Twitty: “I loved Conway as a friend, and my husband loved him. Conway was really the only one in the music business that Doo gave a dag-gone for.”
Loretta devoted much of her adult life to music. In fact, she was on tour up until a stroke disabled her at age 85.
However, Loretta’s isn’t alone in her love of music. Several of her siblings, children, and grandchildren share this love.
A Famous Sister
Likely you know Brenda Gail Webb. But if that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s probably because you know her as Crystal Gayle. What you may not know is that she is a full sister of Loretta Lynn.
According to Biography, Lynn was already out of the house when her sister was born. But Lynn’s success inspired Gayle to begin writing and singing. And Loretta encouraged her younger sister.
According to Gayle, it was Loretta who renamed her. Loretta recognized there was already a successful ‘Brenda Lee’ in the industry at that time, so she suggested Crystal when her sister began recording.
Like her sister, Gayle has produced chart-topping hits.
Her first single, “I’ve Cried the Blue Right Out of my Eyes” was written by Loretta, and hit in the Top 25 on the country charts. Her first No. 1 single was “I’ll Get Over You,” but she didn’t stop there.
With her fourth album (We Must Believe in Magic), she achieved a historic landmark: she became the first female country music artist to make platinum in album sales.
Following that, she released what is arguably her most notable hit, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
It is rumored that Gayle and Lynn don’t get along, but Gayle asserted in an interview that there is “nothing but love” between the two of them. She said that they might disagree, but nothing more than that.
A Lost Brother
Though he lacked the fame enjoyed by his two sisters, Donald Ray Webb was also an accomplished musician who embraced his musical roots. In fact, he contributed “Clock on the Wall” to his sister Gayle’s 1978 compilation album, I’ve Cried the Blue Right Out of My Eyes. He also recorded his songs, something of which he was quite proud.
Sadly, he passed away on October 13, 2017. He was 76 years old.
According to his obituary, he passed away at his home in Wabash, Indiana, surrounded by family and friends. He obituary also noted that “he enjoyed fishing, playing and singing music, and he was an avid mushroom hunter.”
Donald is survived by his wife Debra (Ross) Webb, two daughters, a son, and a stepdaughter. He also survived by his four sisters and one of his brothers: Loretta Lynn, Peggy (Sonny) Wright, Brenda (Bill) Gatzimos, Betty (Gene) Hopkins, and Herman Webb. He was proceeded in death by his parents and brothers, Melvin Webb Jr. and Jay Lee Webb.
A Family Tradition
Loretta and Crystal aren’t the only Webb children to have record deals or songs that hit the charts. Peggy Sue and Jay Lee also did. Additionally, four of Loretta’s six children had record deals, as well as a grandchild (Tayla Lynn) and great-grandchild (Emmy Rose Lynn).
Loretta has suffered more than the loss of her brother. In her autobiography, she wrote, “My life has run from misery to happiness—and sometimes back to misery.”
After 48 years of marriage, her husband Doo died in 1996. Loretta did not remarry after.
A dozen years before, in 1984, her 34-year old son, Jack Benny Lynn, died in a tragic accident. Reportedly, he went for an evening ride on his quarter horse, Black Jack. Jack and Black Jack attempted to ford the Duck River– a common activity on the almost 5,000-acre ranch. But Jack didn’t return home that night. A search party located his body in the river two days later, his horse beneath a bluff.
One article described Jack as the “heart’s favorite” of Loretta among her six children. Grief hospitalized her shortly after his death. However, she did attend his funeral. She wept for all 45-minutes of it and sobbed uncontrollably on her knees before they lowered his casket.
In 2013, she lost a second child. Her oldest daughter, Betty Sue, died of complications from emphysema. Betty Sue was 64 years old.
In 2016, ten years after her husband passed, her eldest grandson, Jeffrey Allen Lynn, died unexpectedly at just 47 years old. Reportedly, he lived and worked on her ranch in Hurricane Mills, TN. Jeffrey Allen Lynn was Jack Benny Lynn’s eldest son. The 84-year old Loretta canceled several shows following his passing.
The family is something Loretta has always kept close. And it seems part of what carries her.
Both her son Jack and her grandson Jeffrey lived and worked on her ranch before their respective passings.
Her 82-year-old brother, Herman Webb, issued the press release about Loretta after her stroke, and said that she told him she thought she “would be ok.”
She is close with her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell. In fact, when Lynn couldn’t appear at the opening of her exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame due to her stroke, she sent Patsy in her stead. She even gave Patsy the two wedding bands Loretta’s late husband gave her, which she called “a piece of me.”
Following her stroke in summer 2017, she promised fans an appearance at the Tennessee Motorcycle and Music Revival. She made good on that promise. The last day of the event, a seated Lynn performed portions of two of her greatest hits, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Her family surrounded her.
The Ties that Bind
Unquestionably, her Appalachian family influenced Loretta, and what a musical family they turned out to be. There is no lack of artistic talent in the family.
But more importantly, there is no lack of love.
Though she has suffered unimaginable losses, Loretta carries on with her family by her side. That legacy is every bit as enduring as her music.