It has been almost half a century since Loretta Lynn clinched her first #1 on the country charts, but that was hardly the first chapter of her story. The sprightly country singer — who would climb the charts in ’67 with “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” — had already been a mother and a housewife for 19 years before she added “performer” to her title, and her songs soared for their fearless jabs at the realities of domestic life.
Married at 15 to Oliver “Doolittle” (or “Doo”) Lynn, a 21-year-old Army veteran, Loretta Lynn gave birth to four children before her 20th birthday. The couple lived in Loretta Lynn’s home in Kentucky, but left for the logging community of Custer, Washington within a year of their wedding, and Lynn’s work at home — cooking on a coal stove, growing and canning her own food, rubbing her hands raw with laundry on a washboard — was its own never-ending job. Lynn had always been a singer, though; she grew up in Butcher Holler, a coal town in Kentucky where her father Ted Webb supported eight kids on a miner’s salary. She said she didn’t know anyone didn’t sing until she left her hometown, but by the time she was spending her days whiling away in the country with her own children, Doolittle reckoned that his wife’s singing was as good as anyone on the radio, and he bought her a guitar. Penning the tunes in relative isolation gave way to a frankness that would come to define Lynn throughout her long career.
“I just wrote about things that happened,” Lynn once said. “I was writing about things that nobody talked about in public, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t. I was having babies and staying at home. I was writing about life. That’s why I had songs banned.”
Doo had encouraged Loretta to sing in the bars and clubs, and after Zero Records executives found her in a Vancouver dive, the couple promoted Lynn’s tunes on the road via Doolittle’s Mercury sedan. The first time Lynn played the Grand Ole Opry, she and her husband were so poor that they slept in the car parked in front of the iconic venue. It was 1960, and Lynn’s performance of her single “Honky-Tonk Girl” would soon give way to regular appearances on the revered country stage. Soon enough, producer Owen Bradley, who was already a well-known name around Nashville, caught a recording of Lynn performing her song “Fool #1.” He started out chasing down the song itself (“Fool #1” would later hit #1 on the Country Charts for another of Bradley’s artists, Brenda Lee), but wound up embarking on a long professional relationship with its singer, quickly signing her with Decca Records.
With Bradley in her corner, Lynn nabbed her first chart spot with “Success,” and she was on the way up from there. After hitting #1 with “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’,” Lynn would go on to claim 15 more chart-topping singles and garner a windfall of awards and honors, including four Grammy Awards, the first female win for CMA Entertainer Of The Year, the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award For Songwriting, and many more. These honors were hard-won not just for her notable sales or high visibility as a songwriter and performer, but rather for her unflinching willingness to tackle topics deemed too risqué for mainstream music; from contraception and alcoholism to divorce, crap marriages, and jealous tendencies. Lynn’s origin story was so novel that it inspired her to publish an autobiography in 1976 which was later made into the Academy Award-winning film Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Now 83, Lynn continues to deliver with deft songwriting and astute musicianship on Full Circle, a full-length that includes re-workings of familiar material as well as entirely new compositions. Produced by John Carter Cash and Lynn’s daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, Full Circle is an exhibition of Lynn’s musical strengths and a testament to the idea that those strong points can remain consistent through decades, downfalls, trends and tragedy. Now that Lynn’s latest offering is out, it’s time we revisit her career-spanning catalogue.
10. “The Pill” (from Back To The Country, 1975)
It’s easy to understand why a woman with a non-stop career and six mouths to feed might be in favor of contraception, but when “The Pill” was released in 1975, it was banned on more than 60 radio stations across the country for its blunt attitude toward a then-taboo topic. “If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ‘em like popcorn,” Lynn told People that year. Radio programmers as well as her record label were hesitant to get behind the single — she recorded the tune in 1972 and MCA held it for three years before releasing it — and it topped out at #5 on the country charts despite Lynn’s domination of the genre at the time. Still, “The Pill” was her highest charting single in the pop landscape, peaking at #70 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spreading Lynn’s name far beyond the audiences who had already come to love her. Since “The Pill,” Lynn has stated that physicians have thanked her for the tune, citing its popularity as more influential in informing women in rural areas of their reproductive options than any literature had been before.
9. “Everything It Takes” (Feat. Elvis Costello) (from Full Circle, 2016)
This Elvis Costello duet from Lynn’s first full-length in 12 years has all the lyrical hallmarks of her early hits, with know-it-all digs at The Other Woman and a lyrical eyeroll at a lover looking to stray. “She turned you on, and then you turned on me/ I’m more of a woman than she’ll ever be” highlights the same puffed-up confidence of “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” but precedes that confidence with a dejectedness that humanizes it. The slow tempo of “Everything It Takes” adds a level of despair to a song that might take a sassy tone with a different approach. “The only way she can get a man is steal,” or, “To me, she ain’t nothin’, but to her that’s a lot” are certainly fightin’ words, and the song’s succinct message is a sure indicator that Lynn, at 83, is as on her game now as she ever was.
8. “One’s On The Way” (from One’s On The Way, 1971)
Written by Shel Silverstein, the poet and cartoonist behind classics like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” this number brings humor to the chaos of motherhood by comparing the daily nags faced by the everywoman to the kinds of things they might read in glossy magazines about Elizabeth Taylor or Jackie Kennedy. From dripping faucets to crying kids and grocery lists, the tune’s relatable subject matter falls in line with the down-to-earth mentality Lynn called upon throughout her career. “The women buy the records, and you’d better let ‘em know you’re just like they are. You can’t start singin’ over their heads like you’re somethin’ better,” she said in her aforementioned People interview about “The Pill,” a track that was foreshadowed by this ’71 jingle. “And the pill may change the world tomorrow, but meanwhile today… One needs a spankin’ and one needs a huggin’, Lord one’s on the way.”
7. “Portland, Oregon” (Feat. Jack White) (from Van Lear Rose, 2004)
Van Lear Rose was an accomplishment for producer Jack White, who told Lynn that when he was 9 years old he spent a whole day in the theater watching Coal Miner’s Daughter over and over again. The White Stripes dedicated White Blood Cells to Lynn, and their “Rated X” cover would grace the tracklist of Lynn’s 2010 tribute album, too. But Van Lear Rose was an accomplishment for Lynn as well, who for the first time was releasing a full-length made up entirely of songs she’d written. This duet between a 72-year-old Lynn and a 28-year-old White boasts both musicians at their most versatile, and “Portland, Oregon” shines for its sultry vocals and subtle rock ‘n’ roll edge. “I didn’t know [Jack] was gonna sing with me on ‘Portland, Oregon,’” Lynn told American Songwriter in 2011. “I walked in the studio and I said, ‘Who is that man singing it with me, Jack?’ And he said, ‘That’s me.’ I like Jack. Anything he did I thought was cool.”
6. “She’s Got You” (from I Remember Patsy, 1977)
Lynn’s rendition of “She’s Got You” gave the song, written by Hank Cochran, its second #1 spot on the charts in 1977, following its original clinch of the spot in 1962 when performed by Patsy Cline. Cline was new to the business, too, but Lynn considered her a friend and a mentor until her sudden death in 1963. “She taught me a lot about how to dress,” Lynn told NPR in 2010. “She told me to get out of the jeans. ‘Course, I’d wear them till we got to the radio station and then I’d get in the backseat and put on my dress. And I’d take the dress off and go back into my jeans and go to the next radio station.” On the contrary, though, Lynn said Cline had less influence on her performance style, an aspect of her career that she says each artist has to figure out on their own, and her tribute record to Cline (dubbed near-perfect by Rolling Stone upon release) was a fitting ode to the woman who had been Lynn’s predecessor as a pioneer in the genre, and “She’s Got You” is an enduring example of the reverence she holds for the genre’s most traditional fare.
5. “After The Fire Is Gone” (With Conway Twitty) (from We Only Make Believe, 1971)
Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn could easily populate their own 10 Best Songs list, with duet records released every year from ’71 to ’81, and five consecutive #1 hits together — not including such classics as “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” “After The Fire Is Gone” was their first single together, and the song’s somber lyrics about a loveless romance at home took a different tone than many of Lynn’s tracks drawing from the same topics. Written by L.E. White, a frequent songwriter for Twitty, “After The Fire Is Gone” sparked rumors about Conway and Loretta’s relationship, thanks to lyrics like, “We know it’s wrong for us to meet/ But the fire’s gone out at home.” But Lynn has stated countless times that the two were “friends, we wasn’t lovers,” and their success as a duo sprung from dressing-room performances on overseas tours rather than a real-life romance. Still, their musical chemistry on “After The Fire Is Gone” ushered in a long and fruitful partnership for the two country legends, and the song would go on to be reimagined by Willie Nelson (feat. Tracy Nelson) in 1974 and revisited by Lynn herself for a duet with Jeff Bates on his 2014 release Me And Conway.
4. “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” (from Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’, 1967)
In this spry 1966 classic — Lynn’s first #1 — the Coal Miner’s Daughter weaves bits of her personal life into a sweetly sung ultimatum in protest of a husband’s booze-fueled advances. “Well you thought I’d be waitin’ up when you came home last night,” she leads in. “But liquor and love, that just don’t mix — leave a bottle or me behind.” Co-written with her sister Peggy Sue, Lynn’s frank takedown in the lyrics had its roots in issues with her husband’s drinking, a struggle that Lynn wouldn’t describe in detail until her 2002 memoir Still Woman Enough. The song’s smash success signaled that strong female voices certainly had a rapt audience, and the relatable track is often seen as a driving force in Lynn’s win at the first annual CMA Awards in 1967 for Female Vocalist Of The Year. The tune wasn’t without its detractors — Jay Lee Webb fired back in 1967 with “I Come Home A Drinkin’ (To A Worn-Out Wife Like You)” — but it was the first of a long line of controversial singles from Lynn, predating releases like “Rated X,” and its resonance set the tone for many bold tracks to come.
3. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (from Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1970)
Lynn’s first single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” showed a softer side of the back-talking persona that had risen to notoriety with her previous hits. The song chronicles Lynn’s upbringing in Butcher Holler, and while it touched on hardships — “Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day/ Well, I seen her fingers bleed” — the takeaway was that the warmth of a close-knit, caring family was enough to get through it. The single was the beginning of a career-long fascination with Lynn’s rural beginnings, and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” would go on to title Lynn’s autobiography as well as the 1980 biographical film. In her everyday dealings as well as her lyrics, Lynn has never wavered from the pride in her familial history that she displays on “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and for that, its legacy endures.
2. “Fist City” (from Fist City, 1968)
Re-recorded for Lynn’s latest, Full Circle, the feisty taunt of “Fist City” remains one of her signature tunes for its quick-witted roots in the truth: Lynn really did write a letter to a would-be flame of Doolittle’s after hearing he’d been stepping out while she was on tour, telling the woman to back off in words that weren’t quite so catchy. “There was a gal in Tennessee who was after my man,” she said of the song in her 2010 autobiography, Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter. The song’s take-no-shit approach to the tired tale of the Other Woman was as entertaining and lyrically wry as it was fierce. “If you don’t wanna go to Fist City you’d better detour ’round my town/ ‘Cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head and I’ll lift you off of the ground,” she sings. She doesn’t paint Doo’s character as wholly innocent — “I’m not saying my baby’s a saint, cause he ain’t, and that he won’t cat around with a kitty,” she sings — but the confident terms of this jealous anthem have inspired generations to follow far beyond the confines of country. (Just take a listen to Best Coast’s 2011 cover.)
1. “You’re Lookin’ At Country” (from You’re Lookin’ At Country, 1971)
“You’re Lookin’ At Country” may have topped out at #5 on the country charts, but the single, penned by Lynn, emerged as one of the defining tracks of her career. Inspired by the idyllic views she encountered touring the U.S., the song’s chorus (“If you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at country”) has arguably evolved into an anthem for artists who continue to carry the torch for traditional country music (including Kacey Musgraves, who performed the song with Lynn at the 2014 CMA Awards). The power struggle between traditional country sounds and more ephemeral pop leanings is hardly a new one in the down-home genre, and the song’s confident ownership of its old-world sound — “I’m about as old fashioned as I can be, and I hope you’re likin’ what you see” — is as relevant a declaration today as it was in 1971.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.