It’s been more than 40 years since Loretta Lynn released “The Pill” — a controversial song bemoaning a life comprised of birthing and raising children and singing praise for birth control.
The song was banned from many country radio stations, but it continued to be popular among fans despite the stations’ reluctance to spin it. It became a national story: A line in an Associated Press story writing: “To some, Loretta Lynn’s new song ‘The Pill’ might be too bitter to swallow. But to the country music star it has the sweet taste of success.”
Lynn had already been on the music scene more than a decade when the song was released, but its popularity was about much more than that. Working-class women all over the country could identify with the song’s lyrics: “All these years I've stayed at home/While you had all your fun/And every year that's gone by/Another baby's come/There's a gonna be some changes made/Right here on nursery hill/You've set this chicken your last time/'Cause now I've got the pill.” It turns out she didn’t need the airplay to sell the single.
The song was about liberation, about women making their own choices. Lynn herself got married at 13 years old and had six children before she released “The Pill” in 1975. And she didn’t play coy about whether she identified personally with the song: She did feel the words in her song, she told reporters at the time, and even said if she’d known about birth control earlier, she likely wouldn’t have had so many children.
“If they’d had the pill a little earlier,” Lynn said. “I think I’d have eaten ‘em like popcorn.”
All these years later — as we’re all well aware — Lynn remains a success: Despite some health issues in previous years, Lynn still remains active in the country music scene. She’ll be celebrating her 87th birthday with a huge all-star tribute show at Bridgestone Arena on April 1.
While Lynn won’t be performing at the show, it includes a bevy of artists, including: Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Jack White, Brandy Clark, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Pistol Annies, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, Little Big Town, Darius Rucker, Martina McBride and Keith Urban — all of whom could claim some influence from Lynn. (The show is sold out, but keep an eye out for folks trying to get rid of their tickets last minute. It’ll definitely be a show for the record books.) In advance of the show, Price chatted with The Contributor about Lynn’s legacy, country music and the difficulties facing women involved in the music industry.
“I’m really excited about playing the Loretta tribute, she’s been such a pioneer, especially when talking about birth control,” says Price.
Price’s up-and-coming career draws some parallels with Lynn’s, particularly when it comes to radio play. Price says that while there’s a huge space that women are not occupying on the radio, she addresses the lack of play as something much more to do with subject matter, with songs that are either outright political or have political undertones. It’s obviously harder for women, she says, so it’s compounded when a woman releases music with a message. Price’s second album All-American Made includes a song about women getting paid less for the same amount of work, called “Pay Gap,” and her first album Midwest Farmer's Daughter includes songs like “This Town Gets Around,” which calls out the country music industry for its many misdeeds.
“Those things are going to be kept off the radio regardless of your gender — so if you’re a women and you have songs that are not pop songs about love and money and whatever, you’re going to really have a hard time fighting to get your voice heard,” Price says. “Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers — those guys don’t get played on the radio either. Obviously they have a huge fan base and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be played.”
Price says she’s fine with not having the radio play because she doesn’t really think the people who like to play Top 40 bro country is really the space for her. Local station WMOT out of Murfreesboro plays Price often, but they’re more likely to play roots and Americana music — not to mention the station is run by women. Part of the reason it took Price so long to break out is that she was unwilling to compromise herself to sell records.
“I mean, I felt it more during the second record, but definitely there were people at radio stations and people at CMAs — that’s just not the kind of message they want to promote. [Record companies] want something that’s glossy, that doesn’t touch on any issue like gender equality or a living wage,” Price says. “I felt that from the very beginning, that I wasn’t going to fit into the mold and that I wasn’t going to be objectified. They have always just wanted women to be sex objects, and that’s never what I had set out to do.”
While Price agrees that “Women with opinions are definitely kind of shut out of certain circles in this industry,” she says it’s become more fashionable in recent years to voice opinions — and definitely easier to become and remain successful while producing controversial music than when Lynn was coming up.
“For a while, I thought there was this revolution going on and that good music was going to be championed more, but while I think that some people are appreciating actual songwriting and that maybe people that are appreciating music that’s more rough around the edges and outside of the box, there’s still such a monopoly from major labels,” Price says.
With the advent of social media, artists now have a more direct opportunity to make their positions on major issues known. Undoubtedly artists like Lynn could get a message out to media or at shows, but modern artists often have more of a chance to explain their work or speak out about issues. Price often uses her social media accounts to champion various causes.
“I like it to be in my wording, I don’t want anyone else speaking for me,” Price says. “I think there’s something to be said about having your own voice and saying things the way you want them to be said. But obviously it’s time consuming and honestly a little draining.”
It comes with downsides, of course: You have the chance to say what you think, but often that can come with a deluge of comments or messages disagreeing with your position or even harassment.
“I do try to not let other people’s comments get to me,” Price says. “A few weeks ago someone got mad that I liked something, and they didn’t think it was appropriate and all these people starting attacking me and talking about how ugly I was and how I needed a nose job. Those things really can hurt you. But I’ve grown a thick skin in the past three years, that’s for damn sure.”
She’s been particularly struck by how people continue to support men like R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and Ryan Adams after compelling testimonials from survivors of alleged assaults. She’s seen on social media how quickly some people have jumped to defend artists.
“It’s important to believe survivors whether they’re female or male…” Price says. “Fame and money will blind people into looking the other way. It’s just really unsettling.”
More close to home, Price worked with Adams briefly. Price played a few shows with him earlier on in her career. Adams was recently accused of extremely manipulative and abusive behavior toward female musicians and alleged to have exchanged sexual texts with a 13-year-old girl.
“I do think that he got what was coming to him,” Price says. “I've heard for years from different women that he was kind of manipulative… He did try and turn me against one of his ex-girlfriends by saying that she was saying bad things about me and that she was jealous that he was touring with me. I just, I think that for him to be messaging a 13-year-old girl is pretty disgusting and I’m really proud of the radio stations that have pulled his music.”
But she’s encouraged that the tide does seem to be turning against behavior that used to be considered less scandalous: In rock history, male musicians have often used their power to take advantage of younger girls.
“People are finally starting to take notice, that’s the good thing about it,” Price says.
Forty years ago, stations were pulling Lynn’s music for lyrics that empowered women to make their own choices about their reproductive health. Today, they might not be much better about playing music at an equal rate to that of men. But some are becoming better at pulling music by women from men who’ve behaved badly.
All those years ago, Lynn stood up for something she knew her audience would get behind. It clearly didn’t matter to her whether a radio station didn’t want to play a song she felt strongly about. It might not be a cakewalk for Price to do the same, but a way was paved long ago for women who want to speak their minds in the country music industry.
“I think Loretta was really, really brave and she definitely inspired me to speak what was on my mind,” Price says. “I’m honored I get to do it.”