15 essential Loretta Lynn songs

Even though she was 90 years old, it's still tough for us to come to terms with the death of Loretta Lynn. She was not just a country-western superstar, but an out-and-out trailblazer; like her pal Patsy Cline, Lynn paved the way for solo female country artists. She maintains in her famous 1976 memoir Coal Miner's Daughter, "I was born to be a housewife, not a singer," but it's tremendously lucky for all of us that her country career beckoned. Her ability to tap into deep emotions in her songwriting, as well as her tremendous generosity and eternally young spirit, meant that Lynn's eventual fame was truly written in the stars: "I guess that's why people follow me from show to show," she wrote. "Love is like a magnet."

Loretta Lynn embodied multiple contrasts: a girl who grew up in abject poverty in Kentucky who wound up becoming the queen of country music. A self-professed non-feminist who wrote an anthem depicting the sexual revolution the Pill would bring. A one-man woman (she married her longtime husband Doolitte Lynn, who she called Doo, when he was 21 and she was just a teenager; she had four kids with him before she turned 21, then twins after that) who wrote unflinchingly about the universal issues in any relationship.

As a songwriter, she loved fiercely, defending her relationship from any obstacle, but also looked forward, into a future where women could have sex as often as men did without having to have a baby every few years. The myriad collaborations with musicians as varied as Dolly Parton to Jack White, the multiple readings (and viewings) of Coal Miner's Daughter, the searching out of her variety show appearances on YouTube (The Muppet Show is a must)... we have a ton to be grateful to Loretta Lynn for — but most of all, the music. We tried to whittle down our favorites to the 15 most essential tracks, to honor a woman who transported her own damn self from humble mountain beginnings to the Grand Ole Opry stratosphere, becoming a straight-up legend — on several levels — in the process.

(Note: all Lynn quotes below are from the updated 2021 edition of Coal Miner's Daughter.)

"I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" (1960)

Loretta Lynn's first hit was like her own version of a Hank Williams song. It's as bleak as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," made even more acute by the fact that it's unrequited love Loretta is pining for. You get flickers of the sunny girl she once was before her heart was stolen, and it's her fetching delivery of desolate lines like "I've lost everything in this world" that made her stardom all but inevitable.

Listening to the single now, it's kind of unbelievable how young she sounds, almost like a different singer entirely. She performed the song on the Grand Ole Opry and was a huge hit, got invited back a record 17 times, and the rest is country music history.

"Coal Miner's Daughter" (1971)

Lynn's origin song doesn't even have a chorus, just one verse that unfurls after another to tell the story of her humble upbringing in "Butcher Holler." The song wouldn't work without Loretta's unabashed affection for those simpler times, when "We were poor but we had love / that's the one thing Daddy made sure of." Said Loretta of her signature song: "I wrote it myself, nine verses, and it broke my heart when I had to cut three verses out because it was too long."

Part of her appeal was that no matter how famous she got, she never lost track of the mountain girl she started out as. The song, of course, not only became the title of her best-selling memoir but the 1980 Oscar-winning movie starring Sissy Spacek, a milestone in the world of music biopics.

"You're Lookin' at Country" (1971)

"People forget that I'm a songwriter. They think of me as just a lady up on the stage, with a band backing her up. Well let me tell you, I've sat in my room all night, scratching out most of my songs." One of her most famous cements how much of Loretta Lynn's heart remained in the rural area where she grew up.

"You're Lookin' at Country'' is a bonafide anthem to her upbringing, a universal love of everything rural that everyone in a town of about 10,000 people (or less) could relate to: "You don't see no city when you look at me cause country's all I am / I love runnin' barefoot through the old cornfields and I love that country ham."

"Don't Come Home A Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" (1967)

Many of Loretta's songs dealt with trying to keep her husband Doo in line, and this is one of the greats. She wrote, "Doo liked to go out with the boys and have a few beers… it was them days that gave me the idea for the song… which I wrote with my sister Peggy Sue."

By all accounts, Doo was a force to be reckoned with, which is why songs like this one, where Lynn put him in his (sauced) place, were so gratifying: "Don't come home-a drinkin / with lovin' on your mind / Just stay right there on the town, and see what you can find." After all, think you're going to discover anyone better than Loretta Lynn? Think again. The song also became Lynn's first number one single, and the album of the same name was the first by a female country artist to be certified gold.

"Fist City" (1968)/"You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" (1966)

But then again, you may just want to take on the other woman straight away. Doo was not only drinker, but a bit of a womanizer, leading to a string of Loretta's songs like "Fist City" and "You Ain't Woman" that put these extramarital trollops in their rightful, lesser places.

"Fist City" is about as brutal as Loretta ever got ("The man I love / When he picks up trash / He puts it in a garbage can"), while "You Ain't Woman" is almost as caustic: "Women like you are a dime a dozen / You can buy 'em anywhere." The singer actually recited a version of the latter title to a friend backstage who was worried about another girl flirting with her husband. Loretta told her, "'Why, she ain't woman enough to take your man!' Just like that, as soon as I said it, I knew I had a hit song."

"One's On the Way" (1972)

Penned by Where the Sidewalk Ends poet (and "Boy Named Sue" scribe) Shel Silverstein, "One's on the Way" is really an accurate depiction of Lynn's early years, when she had four kids in just about as many years, only to be followed by a set of twins. Just substitute "Kentucky" for "Topeka," and you get the frantic, hectic pace of a young, exhausted mother's life, when she can't even get her husband to run to the market while the kids crawl all over her.

There's a marked contrast of the mom's harried home to the jetset lifestyles of Liz (Elizabeth Taylor), Debbie (Reynolds), and Jackie (Kennedy)… but Lynn still manages to convey the charm of domestic life, hinting that a kid needing a huggin' may be even more appealing than getting your hair done in France.

"The Pill" (1975)

Eventually, and fortunately, there was a way around such frequent pregnancies, and Loretta Lynn took a giant step forward for feminism with "The Pill." She wrote, "That's why I was so proud of my song 'The Pill,' my best-selling record in 1975. I really believe in those words… I think it's great that women have a way of protecting themselves now, without a man." Sex-positive female-forward lyrics like "Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills / Yeah I'm makin' up for all those years / Since I've got the pill" were straight-up revolutionary in the mid-'70s.

Male DJs didn't exactly get the song, but women immediately did, making it a huge hit. But Lynn downplayed the "women's lib" aspect of "The Pill," saying: "People say I sang what women were thinking and feeling… All I know is I wrote what I felt. I wasn't trying to make a statement or fight for women's rights. I was fighting for me."

"When the Tingle Becomes a Chill" (1976)

Loretta Lynn may only have loved one man in her life, but their decades-long union gave her plenty of fodder for epic songs. "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill" aptly depicts one of the many low points that can come with a decades-long marriage. It was nominated for an Academy of Country Music Award for Song of the Year, likely due to Lynn's anguished delivery of lyrics like, "I never wanted to stop lovin' you / I'll swear by the breathe in my body that's true," ironically delivering straight-up chills herself.

"Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be" with Ernest Tubb (1964)

Lynn grew up listening to Ernest Tubb on the radio, so she was especially thrilled when he chose her as a duet partner for a song like "Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be," calling her "an honest country performer who sang with her heart and soul."

It was one of the first collaborations that showed what a valuable duet partner Loretta Lynn could be, unafraid to open up to whatever partner she was singing with. Her voice combines seamlessly with Tubb's, as the dumbfounded pair attempts to trace exactly what made their union unravel, ending with a real heart-twister: "Kiss the kids for me."

"After the Fire Is Gone" (1971)

Loretta's longtime connection with Conway Twitty made for one of her most effective pairings; their voices just united poignantly well together. And despite some fans' protests that Lynn broke up Twitty's marriage, she maintained that he was very good friends not only with her but with her husband Doo as well.

The pair even started their own agency, United Talent, and all three were even together on the day Twitty died. Despite all of Loretta's public disdain for infidelity, "After the Fire" makes the case for it quite well, fueled by the pair's obvious chemistry: "Love is where you find it / When you find no love at home." And with harmonizing like that, who could resist?

"Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" (1973)

In fact, it was Doo who brought Conway and Loretta one of their biggest hits, rightly predicting the pair would do it justice: "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" starts out with the most infectious hook country imaginable and never lets go, telling the story of two lovers separated only by the mighty Mississippi. Geography, alligators, even hurricanes can't separate these two, as their unbridled mutual affection for each other comes across clear as day in the song; especially in Loretta's delivery, as she insists: "If he can't come to me I'ma gonna go to him / That Mississippi River, Lord, I'm gonna swim."

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette (1993)

"Honky Tonk Angels" was originally recorded by country legend Kitty Wells, so it made sense that following female country royalty would pick up that mantle. The song is a thorough defense of the put-upon wives left home as their husbands go out cavorting, a subject Lynn was very familiar with. (Wells even makes a vocal cameo in the song.) The song was just one track on the Honky Tonk Angels album released with Wynette and Parton, in a project steered by the latter; Lynn maintained that Dolly is her twins' favorite singer and enthused of her fellow star: "We talk the same hillbilly language. Dolly is from Tennessee, and when we get going, nobody can understand us."

"I Fall to Pieces" (1977)

Patsy Cline famously took Loretta under her wing in the somewhat thorny landscape of Nashville in the early days of her career, and Lynn was devastated by her close friend's death in a plane crash in 1963. She said of Cline: "She was really like Hank Williams, the way she got this throb in her voice and really touched people's emotions."

So any time Loretta covers one of her mentor's songs, the performance is immediately fraught with different levels of loss and longing, which makes an already anguished song like "I Fall to Pieces" even more acute. She included the track along with several others on a tribute album to her friend, I Remember Patsy, in 1977.

"Portland, Oregon" with Jack White (2004)

Loretta Lynn never really slowed down, releasing her final record just last year: Still Woman Enough, produced by her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash. In 2004, Lynn famously collaborated with Jack White on her album Van Lear Rose and, as she put it, "Together we made one of my favorite records of my career."

One of the album's many highlights is "Portland, Oregon," telling the scintillating story of a late-night flirtation – fueled by the teetotaling Lynn's favorite drink, the sloe gin fizz – that sizzled for one night but never really got off the ground. She admitted later that it was about a night out with her fellow country singer Cal Smith: "Now, I never did fool around on Doo, but if I had, it'd have been with Cal."

The pairing of White and Lynn brings out the best in both, as he reverently respects her legendary status and she is clearly not ready to quit tearing it up, no matter what age she is. She said of the record: "Country music wouldn't play it. They thought I was going too rock 'n' roll. But it's not. It's as country as anything I ever cut." The album wound up winning two Grammys, just some of the many awards Lynn collected over the course of her unprecedented career.

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