Loretta Lynn’s life and career are well documented. Hailing from the small town of Butcher Holler, Ky., Lynn became one of the most influential musical pioneers of her generation. She married Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn at a tender 15 and moved to the small logging community of Custer, Wash. one year later. By the time she was 20, she was already a mother of four. However, music wouldn’t become her muse for another 11 years.
Over the course of 41 solo albums and 11 joint projects with Conway Twitty, Lynn’s music seems to embody the American spirit. Her songbook traces the drudgery of routine, punctuated with tragedy and miseries of the heart. Her penmanship is always rooted in her own personal truths, and that often comes with daring, insightful takedowns of taboo topics—from themes of a woman’s right to govern her own body to alcoholism and betrayal. Still, the thread of plucky wholesomeness runs throughout her entire career.
Although originally scheduled for a release this month (but delayed due to her health), Lynn is expected to share a new record called Wouldn’t It Be Nice in 2018. Over the course of such landmark releases as 1966’s You Ain’t Woman Enough and 1970’s Coal Miner’s Daughter to 2016’s Grammy-nominated Full Circle she never compromised her integrity for the sake of commercial success. While we wait for her newest offering, then, let’s take a look back at the 10 best songs by country legend, Loretta Lynn.
A more modern version of this sentiment is “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” and right out of the gate, Lynn didn’t shy away from calling it like she saw it. Lifted from her second album, 1964’s Before I’m Over You, the swing-style tune is heavy on the honky-tonk piano, glossy pop harmonies and tumbling drums. “Well one of these nights you gonna come home you find it’s comin’ home to you / You see what you’ve done and what’s good for one it’s also good for two” rings the hook. The song unwinds smoothly and tenderly until she bites hard with some of her most honest lyrics. “When you in the doghouse with the mingy ole pup, you may start to thinkin’ and a givin’ up your wine women and song,” she smirks on the final stanza.
Once again inspired by real-life events, the title song to her 1966 record calls out the other woman in Lynn’s own unapologetic and humorous way. “Women like you they’re a dime a dozen you can buy ‘em anywhere / For you to get to him I’d have to move over and I’m gonna stand right here / It’ll be over my dead body so get out while you can,” the singer advises on the chorus, decorated with jangly piano and the tear of steel guitar. In 2016, Lynn explained the background of the song, which is based on a backstage encounter with a fan who confided that a rival was trying to steal her husband. When Lynn returned to her dressing room following the show, she wrote the hit single in 10 minutes.
“Who’s gonna wanna follow in my footsteps, maybe?” Lynn slyly sings, seemingly a nod to George Jones’ 1985 hit “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” There is a raw simplicity in the lyrics that makes the song among her finest moments from 2016’s Grammy-nominated Full Circle. The echoing, lonesome fiddle drives home the song’s darker, emotional edge. Lynn opines on her impact on the world, not even as a musical icon but as a human being. The sorrow is somehow as uplifting as it is devastating, thanks in part to the shimmering melody and production style, as she admits, “Don’t want to move an ocean. Just trying to do my pushing.”
From 1971 to 1981, Lynn and Conway Twitty teamed up for nearly a dozen studio records. The opening track to 1974’s Country Partners remains one of their most aching collaborations, paired with Twitty’s spoken interjections as Lynn delivers the slow-building melody. It’s a visceral concept to display the final moments of their relationship, and as they reflect on the rumors, their love crumbles underneath the insurmountable weight. “I knew you’d tell me they were wrong as soon as I picked up the phone,” Lynn sings, longing for the hearsay to be false. But it’s not. “I can’t believe that we’re through,” she later weeps through the static of a landline phone call. Twitty replies, “I really thought that I loved you, and you know that….I never meant to hurt you.”
From the steady gallop of percussion to Lynn’s syncopated vocals, the Shel Silverstein-written ode (from Lynn’s 1972 album of the same name) frames the exasperation of motherhood and marriage with cunning. While “The Pill” really did “change the world tomorrow,” as she unwittingly predicted of her later hit, this down-home story is just as important. She reflects facetiously on the evolution of a woman’s role in modern society—moving between the matriarch of the household to a working independent. The dissimilarities of rearing many children and keeping a marriage intact and the flashy fantasies of Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor are compounded greatly by Lynn’s sheepish portrayal of the South. Even so, she made sure to express her gratitude for the workingwoman. Musing on pivotal women of the time, she sings, “I’m glad Raquel Welch just signed a million dollar pact / And Debbie’s out in Vegas workin’ up a brand new act.”
Taking a page out of the scorned lover playbook for this song, Lynn sings about killing a man in cold blood and getting sentenced to death row. She chronicles her final moments, which closes with a hushed rendition of “Amazing Grace” and a biting guitar solo thanks to producer Jack White who plays throughout the entirety of 2004’s Van Lear Rose. The song carries a gutting array of emotions, flitting between anguish, hope, firmness and brazen contentment. In many ways, “Women’s Prison” is a redemption song, too: She lived for love, and she died for love. Lynn might never have served time herself (although the folks in this list did!), but she inhabits the torment with ease and conviction. The song is detailed but not grisly, down to being strapped into the electric chair and hearing her momma’s throaty cry.
While out on tour, Lynn caught wind Doolittle was catting “around with a kitty.” In the title track to her 1968 album, the singer doesn’t mince her words. “I’ll show you what a real woman is since you think you’re hot stuff,” she affirms, dolling up the mistress trope with a charming, gutsy wit. Later, she maintains, “I’ll grab you by the hair of the head and lift you off of the ground.” Lynn, though, is first to admit she knows her man ain’t a saint, but she warns the other woman better “lay off of my man if you don’t want to go to fist city.” The best part about this feisty ditty, however, is that it was inspired by a real letter Doolittle’s lover. Doolittle later confronted Lynn, and that’s when she had the last laugh and penned this campy, yet scrappy tune.
Lynn’s own rags-to-riches story is best exemplified by the titular track from her defining 1970 record. Despite her meteoric rise to fame, she never lost sight of or stopped paying tribute to her roots. Ripped straight from the American heartland, the heartfelt tune strengthens the ties of the working class—bloodshed, resilience and family. Actress Sissy Spacek would later portray Lynn in the 1980 feature film Coal Miner’s Daughter (which also starred Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn’s husband and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline) and earn the Academy Award for Best Actress the next year.
“Liquor and love that just don’t mix,” Lynn avows in the honky-tonk number, from 1967’s Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’. She gives her unruly, cavalier husband an ultimatum to either “leave a bottle or me behind.” It is her high-strung brashness that pulls the story along in a boozy haze, and the sharpness of her pen is both destructively real and empowering. As she attempts to save the marriage, her free-wheeling beau is “always gone,” out slinging drinks with the guys until the wee hours of the morning. Meanwhile, she soaks her pillow in tears; there is an edge of sorrow glistening across the unshakable resolve of her signature vocal. Lynn remains steadfast, though, and while the story never fully plays out, we’d like to think she dumped all his belongings on the front lawn, as she sings, “Just stay out there on the town, and see what you can find.”
Initially banned from numerous radio stations, the ode to birth control broke down major barriers for women—enabling them to stand up for their reproductive rights in ways never before imagined. The first oral contraception had been formerly introduced in 1960, and it assisted heartily in the women’s rights movement. Lynn hints at her own personal life in the song, and she has had enough of getting pregnant every year. From her 1975 album Back to the Country, she’s now ready and able to make “up for all those years.” It’s quirky, clever and uplifting, as she marvels in her newfound sense of freedom. “Mini-skirts. Hot pants. And a few little fancy frills,” she lists off, antsy for all the trendy fashions she’ll now be able to wear. Later, she smirks, “And you can’t afford to turn it down ‘cause you know I’ve got the pill.”