In honor of Loretta Lynn’s 88th birthday, we look at the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s 20 essential songs, from her autobiographical signature “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the empowering “The Pill,” to her full-throttle duet with Jack White, “Portland, Oregon.”
Miss Loretta wrote several tunes showcasing her feisty nature, but none better illustrates the fightin’ side of the coal miner’s daughter than this warning that a knuckle sandwich will be served to a woman trying to cozy up to her beloved Doolittle. The song’s delicious combination of completely straightforward threats and sick burns, sung over a jaunty beat, is simultaneously comical and ice cold. Lynn enjoyed this controversial Number One hit so much she included a new version on her recently released album Full Circle. We’d never advocate violence, but cranking up “Fist City” is one healthy way to blow off steam.
It should be an assignment for aspiring writers: tell your life story in three minutes or less. Lynn did just that with “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which became her signature song and inspired a motion picture. With astonishing economy, the pride of Butcher Holler details her sparse but happy childhood — “Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner’s pay/ Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard ever’ day” — and the things they did keep shoes on their feet (specifically, sell a hog). She ends the tune in a place of greater means, but undeniably proud of where she’s been.
Lynn’s first single, written not long after hubby Doolittle gave her a guitar for an anniversary present, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” remains one of her finest moments and a concise portrait of the spitfire she has always presented on record and onstage. A country shuffle with some Bakersfield swing, the song reconciled the shame of losing her man with the joy of the independence it sparked. And the tangy twang of her young voice was a tell-tale sign that Lynn would never really stray far from her Appalachian roots.
When Jack White enlisted Lynn to open for him at a Nashville concert last year, he made a special request. He wanted her to dust off “Whispering Sea,” the first song she ever wrote and the B side to “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” Written and sung like a timeless folk tale, it has taken on new life more than 50 years after she penned it: Lynn rerecorded “Sea” as the opener of this year’s Full Circle.
The title track of her 1968 gospel album, “Who Says God Is Dead!” was Lynn’s unusually strident ode to her faith. “Who says God is dead?/ That’s stooping mighty low/ I’d like to meet ’em face to face/ And tell ’em it’s not so,” she sang with the kind of swagger you don’t hear in Sunday school. Even the Anita Kerr Singers chirping in the background couldn’t soften the bite of Lynn’s fervor. Who Says God Is Dead! was her second collection of religious songs.
Johnny Mullins wrote it, but Lynn embodied the ache of a heartsick young woman waiting for her beloved to come home from “the bright lights of the town.” Over the polite pluck of banjo and the Jordanaires cooing in the distance, Lynn relayed the story as if it were a diary entry. It was an unabashedly romantic performance, coming close to something her idol Patsy Cline might have recorded. Emmylou Harris had a hit with the song in 1979.
It’s hard to say for certain if “You’re Lookin’ at Country” was the first example of the kind of rural pride that now runs through so many country songs, but it’s certainly one of the earliest to tackle the idea. Briefly moving away from relationship-oriented songs, Lynn sings with confidence about how she loves “runnin’ barefoot through the old cornfields” and wants a man who appreciates that. Even when she’s not laying down the law for a two-timin’ man, Lynn’s still invested in who she is and fully in control.
Long before Lynn sent shockwaves through country music with “Rated ‘X'” and “The Pill,” she explored another controversial topic: war and the emotional havoc it wreaks. Lynn has said in interviews that she got the idea for “Dear Uncle Sam” after listening to the radio and feeling upset about the Vietnam War. “Don’t misunderstand/ I know he’s fighting for our land,” she sang. “I really love my country/ But I also love my man.” Lynn regularly performs this one in concert, acknowledging that war still weighs heavily in the hearts and minds of her fans.
In Still a Mountain Girl, the PBS American Masters documentary, Lynn laughs when she admits her late husband inspired most of her songs. The man was a handful, to say the least. “You Ain’t Woman Enough” was one of the first songs to establish Lynn as a force who wouldn’t tolerate his cheating ways. Except she didn’t call out Doolittle so much as threaten the woman he was catting around with. Along with “Fist City,” this song made it clear that Lynn wasn’t one with whom to mess.
Her first Number One hit, “Don’t Come A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind”) was and is a Loretta Lynn song for the ages. Talk about a universal theme, one that cut across genres and generations. Reeking of booze after a night on the town, her husband comes home to an earful about why he won’t be getting any that night. (In a delicious bit of irony, the song knocked Jack Greene’s sentimental “There Goes My Everything” from the top of the country charts.)
Lynn often doesn’t get credit for her way with a pop song (check out her sassy cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) or, in this case, a blues-inflected number. “I Know How” was the lead single from 1970’s Loretta Lynn Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em, her first album featuring all of her own compositions (and one co-write with her sister Peggy Sue Wells). “I Know How” was Lynn’s salute to taking care of her man, sung with enough bravado to make you believe her.
Written in the back of her tour bus, Lynn looks out the window and sees “the breeze is blowin’ the leaves from the trees / Everything is free / Everything but me.” So what does she do? “I’m gonna take this chain from around my finger / And throw it just as far as I can sling / Cause I wanna be free.” That’s how you end a marriage, or at least fantasize about it. In addition to scoring Lynn another Number One hit, “I Wanna Be Free” was also the title track of her 1971 album.
This sardonic Shel Silverstein gem from 1971 follows a pregnant, frazzled Kansas housewife bemused by the glamorous exploits of such Seventies icons as Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis. Lynn takes dripping faucets and demanding kids in stride, yet by song’s end hopes “it ain’t twins again.” In 1966, when the first of Lynn’s more than 20 grandchildren was born, the last of her six children, Peggy and Patsy, were babies. A Number One hit and a Lynn concert mainstay (with updated cultural references including First Lady Michelle Obama), this understandably wasn’t her twins’ favorite.
Lynn rejects the feminist label, but certainly in country music she was one of the most outspoken voices in support of women’s issues. This track, a deep dive in a short space into the harsh judgments once faced by divorcee’s — “the women all look at you like you’re bad and the men all hope you are” — is a stunning example of Lynn’s fearlessness in speaking plainly but poignantly about the perils of perception. The chart-topping hit also offers a clue to Jack White’s future association with Lynn, as the White Stripes covered this tune as the B side to “Hotel Yorba.”
The phone rings, and Lynn says “hello” with palpable dread. Thus begins one of the most melodramatic country duets of all time. Lynn enlisted frequent duet partner Conway Twitty for this tale of he-said/she-said pathos, with a twist at the end that drew out one of Lynn’s most thunderous performances on record. The story goes that on the first take, Twitty hung up the phone too hard. Lynn was so caught up in the emotion that she told Twitty never to hang up on her like that again.
In the most controversial song of her career, Lynn triumphantly declared her freedom — and that of all women — of reproductive choice. This peppy ode to birth control, written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T. D. Bayless, certainly has wry moments as Lynn sings about the sartorial choices like mini-skirts that will now be available to her. But the underlying message — “I control my body” — was a powerful one, especially coming from the mother of six children, several of whom she had as a teenager. The buzz around the “The Pill” led to it becoming Lynn’s biggest success on the pop charts.
It’s over but only one of you knows it. Loretta Lynn knows how this feels. She found a song written by Lola Jean Dillon that put the loneliness and despair, and pity for the unaware partner, of that feeling into words and music so heartbreaking that listening to it conjures a shiver every time you hear Lynn sing candidly about faking it. “And though I pretend, you just don’t turn me on”. . . ouch. By song’s end, she concludes simply, “A woman can’t help the way that she feels.” Lots of other people know how it feels too, and the song went all the way to Number Two.
Long distance relationships were much harder before Facetime was invented, but people in love tried to make them work — even if it meant doing something crazy. On the funky title track from their 1973 album Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man, Lynn and her foil Conway Twitty play lovers separated by the Mississippi River, consumed with their next encounter. There’s “too much love” in each of their hearts, so much so that they’re contemplating a swim across the alligator-infested body of water just to be in one another’s arms. When Lynn soars against Twitty’s purr in the chorus, it’s hard not to want to see those crazy kids succeed.
“Portland, Oregon” was the first glimpse of the hell-raising fun and down-home storytelling Jack White extracted from Lynn on her Grammy-winning album Van Lear Rose. Recorded as a duet, Lynn recalled a memorable night in Portland, with the sloe-gin fizz flowing freely. By the end of it, they’ve decided to have the bartender to pour them “one more drink and a pitcher to go.” White’s nimble guitar work and cacophonous arrangement even helped introduce Lynn to a whole new generation of rock fans.
Presumably the title is a rhetorical question because the answer is an easy “everyone,” but maybe the deeper interpretation of this standout from Lynn’s triumphant 2016 release Full Circle is poking at something existential. With simple instrumental accompaniment of fiddle and acoustic guitar, Lynn wrestles with the big topics: “If I’ve made someone smile or just one life worthwhile,” she’d like to know that mattered to someone else. It’s a question that plagues ordinary people as well, leaving them wondering if their acts of kindness or creative works will somehow matter past their time on earth.