Loretta Lynn is a singular figure in country music. At a time when ideas like women’s liberation and feminism were anathema in the genre, Lynn was the toughest and gutsiest singer in any honky tonk she rode into, male or female.
Not afraid to pick a fight or stand up to a man who was disrespecting her, Lynn’s songs positioned her as a take-no-bullshit leader who could still be gentle and compassionate when it was called for. But Lynn didn’t build her reputation on being understanding and sympathetic: she was, and is, still known as the most unshakable and unbreakable broad in country music.
Lynn has gone through every kind of professional peak and valley: critical success, commercial failures, trend-setting, trend-chasing, over-the-hill cast-offs, rapturous returns, and everything in between. All the while, she has never stopped working for well over 60 years, something that almost no other popular musician can claim.
She is so iconic that she got the biographical film treatment all the way back in 1980 with Coal Miner’s Daughter, and she is still continuing to record over 40 years later. For 56 years, Lynn toured nearly nonstop. Only a stroke and a broken hip could cause her to retire from the road, but not from music. Lynne’s latest album, Still Woman Enough, came out in 2021, and it is her 46th studio album to date.
The only thing that could match her incredible output is the influence that she has had on scores of musicians who have come in her wake. There would most assuredly not have been room for singers like Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Faith Hill or even The White Stripes if it wasn’t for Lynn blazing that trail that they all followed.
Today, to celebrate the legendary singer’s 90th birthday, we’ve compiled the six most essential songs that every music fan should know from the queen of hard-boiled country. If you’re looking to know why Loretta Lynn is so essential not just to country music but to every genre of music, these are the songs you need to know.
Loretta Lynn’s six definitive songs:
‘I’m a Honky Tonk Girl’ (1960)
Not just essential for establishing Lynn’s persona as a sympathetic figure to her fellow tribe of done-wrong women who have had to deal with the cruelty of uncaring men, ‘I’m a Honky Tonk Girl’ is also essential for positioning Lynn as a completely self-sufficient artist. Written on her own and shopped to different radio stations herself, Lynn took her career into her own hands from day one.
Few artists can immediately establish their image with their debut single, but Lynn was fully formed by the time ‘I’m a Honky Tonk Girl’ was released: 28, married, and taking care of four children. Lynn didn’t have the time or resources to mess around, and ‘I’m a Honky Tonk Girl’ is the embodiment of everything that would come in Lynn’s upcoming 60-year career.
‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’ (1967)
Lynn made history with ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’: when the song hit number one on the Billboard country singles chart, Lynn became the first woman to write and record her own number one single. Even better, she did it while taking care of her family and never changing her own unique style of music. Lynn didn’t move to the charts; the charts moved over to Lynn.
Instead of turning her blunt ultimatums towards someone trying to steal her man like in ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)’, Lynn instead puts her foot down to her own man. Lynn doesn’t care if he sleeps with someone else, because a drunkard’s love isn’t any love she needs. Lynn refuses to sit on the sidelines, and ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’ is the perfect example of Lynn refusing to take fools gladly and riding that message all the way to the top of the charts.
‘Fist City’ (1968)
Feminism and strong women weren’t absent from country music: while some listeners took songs like Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ as a sign of weakness, others keyed into the strength of heart and character that these songs preached. But the difference was that there was no frailty or fragility to Loretta Lynn: she would knock you out where you stood, using just her fists if she had to.
It’s hard to imagine just how thoroughly the image of the “proper woman” was demolished by ‘Fist City’, one of Lynn’s catchiest and most badass singles. If Lynn finds the woman who is messing around with her man, she’s not going to sit and cry about it: she’s going straight for the throat in a knockout fistfight. ‘Fist City’ was banned by a number of radio stations because of its violent content, and while she could be incredibly nuanced in her lyrics, sometimes Lynn is at her best when she’s just threatening to punch someone in the face.
‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1970)
Loretta Lynn is more than just the unshakable badass who populates most of her songs. Lynn also had a more explicitly autobiographical side to her than allowed more vulnerable emotions to slip out from time to time. While certainly not an overly-sentimental track, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ does more to humanise Loretta Lynn than any of her mythical “take no shit” songs.
Recalling her day to day life growing up during the Great Depression, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ puts her parents in the spotlight, recounting the hardships they faced just to make it through everyday life. It’s hard to fathom now, but Lynn is a direct link back to a time that has now been almost erased from modern-day society. ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ keeps that history alive in the most enthralling way.
‘Rated X’ (1973)
By the 1970s, Lynn had garnered a reputation for being unafraid to broach just about any subject. Divorce was still taboo on country radio in the early 1970s, even as married couples were breaking up in record numbers. Lynn saw the stigma that followed many women who had been divorced and wrote a song to try and dispel some of those preconceptions.
‘Rated X’ is one of Lynn’s songs that feels as fresh and relevant today as it did when it was originally released 50 years ago. Lynn refuses to let a newly-single woman be seen as damaged goods or a has-been. Instead, ‘Rated X’ celebrates the joy and freedom that can come with getting out of a bad marriage, and Lynn once again refused to accommodate anyone who had tried to stifle her message.
‘The Pill’ (1975)
The ultimate example of Lynn kicking back at country music’s more conservative side, ‘The Pill’ was nothing short of a shock to the system when it was released in 1975. A seriocomic song about the wonders of birth control, ‘The Pill’ kicked back against yet another social taboo that Lynn was unafraid to discuss in frank detail.
‘The Pill’ also represented Lynn’s biggest crossover on the pop charts. When country stations began refusing to play the song, the subsequent attention that ‘The Pill’ garnered gave Lynn her first, and so far last, Hot 100 placement. Lynn was the ultimate trendsetter, unwilling to let the norms of the time dictate what she could and couldn’t talk about.