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Canadian lumberyard owner Norm Burley paid for Loretta Lynn's first recording session in Los Angeles.Kyle Dean Reinford/The New York Times News Service

Loretta Lynn may have been a coal miner’s daughter, but her benefactor was a Canadian lumber merchant.

He was Norm Burley, born in Neepawa, Man., and brought up in Vancouver, where his father owned the B.C. Fir and Cedar Lumber Company. At the turn of the 1960s, Burley was a widower who saw an unknown Lynn on a television show hosted by a nascent Buck Owens in Tacoma, Wa. At the time, the homemaker-singer and her husband, Oliver (Doolittle) Lynn, were living in that northwestern state. According to Lynn, Burley was lonely and “kind of adopted” the young couple.

“He was a pretty wealthy man, he had a lumber yard,” Lynn told The Globe and Mail in 2004. “He sent me to L.A., he furnished everything, the gas and everything.”

The recording sessions in Los Angeles yielded the twangy single I’m a Honky Tonk Girl and the flip side Whispering Sea, released on the upstart Vancouver-based label Zero Records. The company was run by Canadian producer-songwriter Don Grashey and financed by future Vancouver mayor Art Phillips and the majority owner Burley.

According to Lynn, Burley kick-started her career. “He was the one who really let everyone know that I sang.”

Lynn, often identified with her autobiographical 1970 single Coal Miner’s Daughter, died on Tuesday at age 90. She was a proudly Kentucky-born country music queen whose forthright songs about the life and the complicated love attached to the rural experience spoke to generations of women and achieved iconic pop-culture status.

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The hits she wrote and co-wrote were marked by a defiant, empowered edge that stood in stark contrast to the Stand by Your Man mentality promoted by Tammy Wynette. Lynn defended her matrimonial territory – on Fist City and You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man) – but, as indicated by Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind), she was no pushover. Lynn spoke publicly about her alcoholic husband’s philandering.

While Lynn stayed with her husband until the day he died, she recorded I Wanna Be Free – “I broke the chains, the ring of gold before it broke my mind” – twice: First in 1971, and then again for last year’s Still Woman Enough. An unflinching lyricist, Lynn wrote Rated “X” about the stigma attached to divorced women in the 1970s. The controversial 1975 single The Pill dealt with a woman’s reproductive choices. (Lynn had six children – four of whom were born before she was 20.)

Loretta Lynn, coal miner’s daughter and country queen, dies at 90

“She was a tenacious firecracker who kept rising out of the flames of patriarchy,” Canadian musician Amy Millan said on social media.

The song that launched Lynn’s career, I’m a Honky Tonk Girl, was written about a woman the singer-songwriter noticed at a local tavern drinking beer and crying. Using artistic license and a woman’s intuition, Lynn presumed the despondent barfly to be heartbroken:

So turn that jukebox way up high

And fill my glass up while I cry

I’ve lost everything in this world

And now I’m a honky tonk girl

In her bestselling memoir, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lynn said she didn’t think the titular honky tonker ever knew the song was about her. Of course, that is entirely beside the point. The song, like so many of Lynn’s, was personal to any woman who felt their own experiences were being represented by Lynn’s truth and empathy.

I’m a Honky Tonk Girl was released in March, 1960. Though the now defunct Zero Records was headquartered at 1620 Barclay St. in Vancouver, its business was geared toward the American market. All records were pressed in (and distributed from) the United States. For Lynn and her manager-husband, it wasn’t the big time just yet.

“The record was fine, but we were pitiful,” Lynn wrote in Coal Miner’s Daughter. “We didn’t know anything about releasing a record, but we tried our best.”

They sent out some 3,500 copies of the single to radio stations. On July 25, 1960, the record hit No. 14 on Billboard’s national country music chart. “We were so stupid, we didn’t know what the charts meant,” Lynn later recalled.

Burley then paid for Lynn and her husband to hit the road in a beat-up Mercury to self-promote the record by visiting country radio stations all the way to Nashville. The barnstorming tour was not lavish. The couple slept in their car and subsisted on baloney-and-cheese sandwiches. “To this day I can’t stand any sandwiches for that reason,” Lynn wrote in her memoir.

(What is it about Lynn and sandwiches? Toronto lore has it that Horseshoe Tavern owner Jack Starr packed picnic lunches for Lynn and her band after appearances at his club.)

As depicted in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, the unsophisticated I’m a Honky Tonk Girl promotional tour became a landmark event in Lynn’s hillbilly-to-riches mythology.

Against the odds, Lynn made it onto the Grand Ole Opry by the end of 1960. Burley (who died in 1985) later made good on his promise to release his rising-star singer from her Zero Records contract if she scored a major label deal – Decca Records, as it turned out – in Nashville.

Lynn had made it to stardom and Music City, by way of Vancouver.

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