This week, we said farewell to one of the OG queens of country music, Miss Loretta Lynn. Lynn peacefully passed away at the age of 90 on Tuesday, October 4. She leaves behind a brilliant discography, and a legacy that helped pave the way for other women working in country music today.
As much as she is a brave trailblazer, Lynn is also a woman with a fascinating life story. After growing up as a poor coal miner's daughter in Kentucky, 15-year-old Loretta Webb married Oliver Vanetta "Doolittle" Lynn in 1948. The many ups and downs of their early years of marriage would help to inspire Loretta's songwriting, and in 1953, Doolittle bought her a guitar and Lynn taught herself to play. With Doolittle's encouragement, she started her own band with her brother Jay Lee and eventually cut her first record, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," in February 1960 – and it became an instant success.
In a career which spanned six decades, Lynn released multiple gold albums, received many awards and other accolades for her groundbreaking role in country music (including awards from both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music), and earned 18 noms and 3 wins at the Grammy Awards. As of 2022, Lynn was the most awarded female country recording artist, and the only female ACM Artist of the Decade (1970s). Lynn scored 24 #1 hit singles and 11 #1 albums during her lifetime. And she was so tough, she ended 57 years of touring only after she suffered a stroke in 2017 and a hip injury in 2018.
It's about time we paid our respects to Lynn with a Top 10 list of her best songs. For this list, we'll only be going through Lynn's solo work. (Perhaps we'll save her collaborations for another Top 10 list.) We hope this list encourages you to express your inner fearlessness and truth, just like Loretta did in her lifetime. Without further ado, here's 10 of her greatest hits.
10. "Love Is the Foundation"
One of the most 70s-sounding songs to come out of the 70s, "Love Is the Foundation" is a pretty love song from Lynn. She didn't sing too many romantic tunes in her lifetime (most of her beloved hits were about divorce and infidelity, after all), but the singer aimed directly for the heart on this 1973 song, from the pen of William Cody Hall.
In 1994, Lynn re-visited "Love Is the Foundation" on her album Making More Memories. We love this tune's intimacy, slowness, and grand chorus. There's nothing better than country love!
9. "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl"
Loretta's first song to make it big! While some folks prefer "You’re Lookin’ at Country," we prefer this earlier declaration of Kentucky pride. Besides being Loretta's first hit, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" is the first song Loretta Lynn ever wrote, right after her husband bought her a $17 guitar as an eleventh anniversary present. It's a real toe-tapper.
What makes this song so memorable is the opening guitar bits, Loretta's cutesy high-pitched vocals, and some fiddle garnish. Not everyone is a true Honky Tonk girl, and Loretta makes us want to be one.
8. "One's On the Way"
For a song with a somewhat dark subject matter, "One's On the Way" is a chipper-sounding delight. It's all about how country life can feel lonesome and bleak compared to the glitz and glamour of other locations. In Topeka, the kids are bawling, toddling, crawling, and one's on the way (as in, "still in the womb"). It could also be taken as a subtle commentary on rural poverty.
This song is one of the many country hits penned by famed musician, poet, and raconteur Shel Silverstein, who is perhaps most famous today for his children’s poetry books like A Light in the Attic and Falling Up. However, Silverstein’s songs have been recorded by country stars like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and even Blake Shelton. Loretta Lynn also recorded Silverstein’s “Hey, Loretta,” although she allegedly didn’t like it.
7. "Blue Kentucky Girl"
"Blue Kentucky Girl" is a swaying ballad all about the heartbreak of someone moving on from you via traveling to another place. It's always devastating when a relationship needs to amicably end due to both partners wanting to grow in different places, and "Blue Kentucky Girl" touches on this sadness in a poignant way that doesn't get too sappy.
While the majority of classic Loretta Lynn songs flowed from her own pen, this aching song of loneliness – from her 1964 album Songs From My Heart – features the songwriting credit of Johnny Mullins. Fifteen years later, Emmylou Harris tipped her hat to Lynn with a cover of this timeless tune.
6. "Miss Being Mrs."
We think if "Miss Being Mrs." were released today, it would be up there with other sad girl anthems among the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, and Fiona Apple. A standout track on Van Lear Rose, this emotional acoustic tune will resonate with anyone who's lost their hubby: whether by legal separation or the cruel reality of death.
In this Jack White team-up, Lynn laments about sleeping alone in a way that is more bittersweet than outright sad. Presumably, she’s singing about being widowed – having lost her husband of 48 years in 1996. We recommend grabbing a box of tissues while listening to "Miss Being Mrs."
5. "The Pill"
Of course, we had to include Lynn's most controversial – and downright brave – song on this list. "The Pill" is Loretta Lynn’s ode to the freedoms and choices that the birth control pill (which was introduced in 1960) gave to women. Keep in mind: this song came out in 1975. And Loretta's fanbase was mostly conservative country folk. So yes: releasing this song, which is all about denying a husband any more children and embracing female sexual liberation, was a ballsy move by Lynn.
Though not strictly autobiographical, the song hints at Loretta’s life – she was the mother of six children, two of whom were born before she turned 19. Soon after the song came out, Lynn told People magazine: "If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ’em like popcorn. The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s. But I wouldn’t necessarily have had six and I sure would have spaced ’em better."
Though "The Pill" was timely, it was also criticized, especially for country music. Many radio stations banned the popular song, keeping it from reaching the top of the charts. But you know what they say: well-behaved women seldom make history.
4. "Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)"
The first of Loretta Lynn’s songs to top the Billboard country charts came with this heated offering about a woman who was tired of her husband wanting to get romantic when he was intoxicated. While it has a pretty specific story, "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" is sort of an anthem for any and all women who know they deserve better in their relationship.
We adore this track for Lynn's bold vocals and songwriting. "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'" is considered the first of Lynn's hits to show the take-no-prisoners mentality that she became so famous for with her material. We don't know if it's pure irony or just the mark of really good music business that this song peaked at the top during Valentine’s week of 1967.
3. "Fist City"
Better than a knuckle sandwich, and worth more than a ticket to Pound Town! Trust us: this Loretta Lynn song will make you chuckle. The tongue-in-cheek "Fist City" is a clever warning to every young woman dumb enough to mess around with her man. And to boot, it's a very catchy tune.
On the fiesty song, Lynn stated in her autobiography Still Woman Enough, "I’ve been in a couple of fights in my life. I fight like a woman. I scratch and kick and bite and punch. Women are much meaner than men. So I warned any girl making eyes at Doo then, and I’m still jealous enough to warn ‘em today—if you see this cute little old boy near me wearing his cowboy hat, you’d better walk a circle around us if you don’t want to go to Fist City."
In an interview with Marc Myers for the book Anatomy of a Song, Lynn described writing the hit while going to confront the latest woman who was having an affair with her husband, Oliver "Doolittle" Lynn:
"The last straw was hearing rumors about them while I was in Nashville recording for Decca. Driving home to Hurricane Mills [Tennessee] that afternoon in my Cadillac, I was real mad and wrote “Fist City” in my head during the 75-mile trip. All I could think about was what she was doing to my family and what I wanted to say to her...When I walked in the door, Doo said, 'What the hell are you so mad about?' I went straight into my home office, sat down at my desk, and wrote what I had come up with on the highway...The next day, I changed a few things so they’d be able to play the record on the radio."
2. "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)"
This song is the reason why we love Loretta Lynn. Similar to "Fist City," this track is a ferocious warning to another woman who had her heart set on the singer’s man. Inspired by a real-life incident, "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" shows off not only Lynn's admirable strength, but also her unwavering faith in her husband. With brilliant wordplay and a charming melody, it's hard not to sing along to this 1966 classic.
"You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" is so iconic, it's become one of the most covered of Lynn’s songs over the years. The Grateful Dead performed it in concert during the early 1970s, Martina McBride paid homage to Lynn with a cover on her 2005 album Timeless, and Paramore did a renowned unplugged performance of it at a 2009 concert in Tennessee. But perhaps the most interesting performance of this song goes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who recorded it as an extra for the 2005 film Be Cool.
1. "Coal Miner's Daughter"
Last but not least, the song so big in Lynn's catalogue, that her 1980 biopic is named after it. This isn't a typical moxie-filled Loretta Lynn track: "Coal Miner's Daughter" is a very personal portrait of her upbringing.
On Oct. 1, 1969, Loretta Lynn walked into the recording studio to begin work on her magnum opus. "Coal Miner's Daughter" has Lynn open up about her poor childhood in the mountains of Kentucky. The classic composition became not only her signature song and the name of her biopic, but also the name of her best-selling 1976 book.
While the song describes the hardships of Lynn's family, Loretta makes it very clear that "Coal Miner's Daughter" is not a sad story. Along an optimistic melody, she sings, "We were poor, but we had love / That's the one thing that Daddy made sure of", and later belts "Yeah, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter." We think this track has survived as the masterpiece of Lynn's discography because it shows off her resilience, hope, and heart of gold in a way that's hard to put into words. Rest easy, Loretta Lynn.
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Article Image: With a band behind her, Loretta Lynn holds a microphone and smiles while performing at SXSW in 2016 (Anna Hanks [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.)