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Loretta Lynn – Twenty Essential Songs from the Coal Miner’s Daughter

Loretta Lynn once reflected on her early memories of the music business, “When I first came to Nashville, people hardly gave country music any respect. We lived in old cars and dirty hotels, and we ate when we could.” She later became a living legend. With her passing, I’ve quickly put together these summaries of some of her finest recordings.  

1.  “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; #14 country; 1960.  Loretta Lynn’s bio is well known – born to a coal miner in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and married at the age of 15 (sometimes reported as 13, as her birth date has been adjusted over time). A self-taught guitarist and an instinctive songwriter, Lynn cut her first record after a dozen years of marriage and motherhood. “Honky Tonk Girl” was her first single and first hit, peaking at #14.  A solid debut, although she hadn’t found her natural voice yet and thematically wasn’t well suited for the victim role.  

2.  “Success,” Loretta Lynn.  Songwriter: Johnny Mullins; #6 country; 1962.  It’s not clear how the song “Success,” with lyrics about how one person’s accomplishments can ruin a relationship, came to Loretta Lynn’s attention.  It was written by Springfield, Missouri resident Johnny Mullins, who had penned the 1956 Porter Wagoner hit “Company’s Comin’.”  Mullins only had an eighth-grade education and his regular job from 1957 to 1982 was working as a high school janitor.  “Success” was Loretta’s first Top Ten hit.  Loretta asked Mullins to write a song specifically for her, which resulted in the 1966 Top Ten hit “Blue Kentucky Girl.”  Despite his lack of formal education, Mullins noted late in his life that he “learned to read, write, and figure my royalties.”  

“Wine, Women, and Song,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Betty Sue Perry; #3 country; 1964. Betty Sue Perry was a staff songwriter for the Sure-Fire Music Company and wrote several of Loretta Lynn’s early hits including “The Other Woman,” “Before I’m Over You,” “The Home You’re Tearing Down,” and this entry. Loretta sings about a misbehavin’ man and a woman who is ready to retaliate on “Wine, Women and Song.” It has often been reported that Betty Sue Perry was Loretta Lynn’s daughter, but ace musical sleuth/Rock NYC reader Blair Krieger has found that information to be untrue. Loretta did have a daughter named Betty Sue Lynn, but perhaps every Southerner was required to name a child “Betty Sue” or “Bobby Joe” at one point in American history.  

4.  “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be,” Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. Songwriter: Billy Joe Deaton; #11 country; 1964.  During the mid-1960s, Ernest Tubb was an aging legend and Loretta Lynn was a rising star who hadn’t yet reached country royalty. Although the dynamic between the two looked more father/daughter, their songs were performed from the perspective of a romantically linked couple. Thematically, this 1964 #11 hit/1965 album title track is Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” with a Texas and Kentucky drawl. The duo had four charting singles, the last being 1969’s argument number “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out.”  Both “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be” and “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out” were lovingly covered by John Prine and Iris Dement in 2016.  

5.  “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; #2 country; 1966.  After six years of recording, you could say that Loretta Lynn found her true voice – that no nonsense, give no quarter, colloquial/home truth attitude – with “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Loretta was inspired to write the song after a woman came to see her backstage, crying because her husband was with another woman. Lynn, “I looked at that other girl and I thought, ‘My God, don’t tell me you’re going to let somebody like that take your husband away from you!’ Cause, to me, she was twice the woman that the other gal was. So I looked back at her and said, ‘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.”  

6.  “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriters: Loretta Lynn, Peggy Sue Wright; #1 country; 1966.  While some sources state that Loretta was inspired to write “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” after a fight with her spouse, her first #1 country hit originated with Peggy Sue Wright, a younger sister. Lynn, “She was married and had a little girl and was starting to find out that no matter how good life is, it does have its ups and downs.” Still, it’s one of the numbers that admirers cite as an example of Lynn’s proto-feminism.  Peggy Sue, as she was billed, had a string of minor country singles from 1969 to 1980 with her biggest hit being the temptation number “I’m Dynamite” (so, please, don’t light the fuse), which peaked at #28.  She later became a background singer for younger sister Crystal Gayle.  

7.  “Sweet Thang,” Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Nat Stuckey; #45; 1967. “Sweet Thang” was the breakthrough and biggest hit for disc jockey turned songwriter turned singer Nat Stuckey, peaking at #4 in 1966. This tomcatting number was structured like a duet, although Stuckey recorded it as a solo number. The Ernest Tubb/Loretta Lynn cover wasn’t nearly as successful.  However, it did give Loretta a chance to threaten a cheating woman, her natural sweet spot when it came to attitude.  

8.  “A Man I Hardly Know,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; #72 country 1967. “A Man I Hardly Know” is an atypical effort for Loretta in that she plays the victim – after losing a love she runs into the arms of a stranger. The public, or the disc jockey community, rejected sinful Loretta. Amber Digby released a faithful cover of this honky tonk heartbreak number in 2006.  

9.  “Fist City,”  Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; #1 country; 1968.  “You better move your feet/If you don’t want to eat/A meal that’s called fist city.” A wrestling promo set to music, Loretta has said that this #1 country song was inspired by a female bus driver that had eyes for her husband. Lynn, “She was spreading the news around town that she was in love with my husband. I knew he was no saint, but after seeing her I knew he had more class than that.” Not one to worry about decorum, Lynn promises to lift her rival off of the ground by pulling her hair. Lynn, “”I’ve been in a couple of fights in my life. I fight like a woman. I scratch and kick and bite and punch. Women are much meaner than men.” Loretta’s other major self-penned hit of 1968 was titled “Your Squaw is on the Warpath.”  

10.  “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn: #1 country/#83 pop; 1970.  Loretta Lynn on her signature song, one that inspired the title of her autobiography and a motion picture about her life, “Every word is true. My daddy would work all night in the coal mine. During the day he would work in the cornfields. There were ten of us. He had to make a living for us. Eight kids. I was second, so I would take care of the kids while Mommy did the sewing and the cleaning and everything else. I think that’s why I sing. I’d rock the babies to sleep and sing to them.” She had to cut the original lyrics down from ten verses and developed the arrangement with assistance from her husband, Oliver “Doo” Lynn, who recommended using a banjo. The moving tale about her family’s hardships and love gave Loretta a depth as a writer and performer that she had never exhibited during her cartoon woman fighting phase.  

11.  “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; #5 country; 1971.  The online music site Stereogum once stated that “You’re Lookin’ at Country” was Loretta Lynn’s best song as it “arguably evolved into an anthem for artists who continue to carry the torch for traditional country music.” Not sure how strong that case is, but “You’re Lookin’ at Country” is another defining moment in terms of Loretta’s persona and her relationship with her audience.  The lyrics probably took on more meaning during the next few years as performers such as John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Gordon Lightfoot started crossing over to the country charts.   

12.  “One’s on the Way,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Shel Silverstein; #1 country; 1971.  “One’s on the Way,” a tale of a harried, often pregnant Kansas housewife who compares her dreary life to those of jet setting movie stars, highlights songwriter Shel Silverstein’s colloquial gifts (“The faucet is a drippin’ and the kids are a bawlin’/One of ’em a toddlin’ and one is a crawlin’/And one’s on the way”). It was also an apt fit for Loretta Lynn, who was no stranger to the rigors of child rearing. Country music historian Bill Malone, Loretta became “”the spokeswoman for every woman who had gotten married too early, pregnant too often and felt trapped by the tedium and drudgery of her life.”  

13.  “Rated X,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; #1 country; 1972. Loretta cheered for divorces and attacked societal double standards in the battle of the sexes on “Rated X.” Or, as Rolling Stone magazine, perspicaciously put it, the song is” a stunning example of Lynn’s fearlessness in speaking plainly but poignantly about the perils of perception.”  

14.  “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Songwriters: Becki Bluefield, Jim Owen; #1 country; 1973.  Just a notch below George Jones and Tammy Wynette on the country royalty scale, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn released eleven studio albums, with all but 1988’ s “Makin’ Believe” including a Top Ten hit. The Cajun themed interstate love song “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a peppy look at lust and infatuation. It’s one thing to avoid alligators while swimming to a woman, but you know it’s serious when a man drops his fishing line. This single was the third of five successive #1 hits that Conway and Loretta had between 1971 and 1976.  The song was the only major writing credit for Becki Bluefield, who had been an unsuccessful solo artist in the late 1960s/early 1970s and was co-written with Hank Williams historian/impersonator Jim Owen.  

15.  “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriters: Lorene Allen, Don McHan, T. D. Bayless, Loretta Lynn; #5 country/#70 pop; 1975.  The oral contraceptive birth control pill was approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960, but its introduction into the marketplace wasn’t without controversy. It took two U.S. Supreme Court decisions to broaden the availability of “the pill” – first to all married women in 1965 and to unmarried women in 1972. Loretta Lynn recorded this celebration of being free from serial pregnancies in 1972, but MCA withheld its release for three years, fearing the subject matter was too controversial. Loretta’s well known large family added an element of reality to the song and while it didn’t make the pop Top 40, it was her best solo outing on the pop charts, peaking at #70.  

16.  “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” Loretta Lynn. Songwriter: Lola Jean Dillon;  #2 country; 1975.  There isn’t a plethora of information on songwriter/singer Lola Jean Dillon whose first writing credit seems to be a 1967 Dolly Parton album track and whose biggest hits were Loretta’s singles “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” “Somebody, Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight)” (a 1976 #1 hit), and “You’re the Reason Are Kids Are Ugly.”  “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” is a country version of “It’s Too Late,” a realization that a love affair has inexorably faded. A rather unusual lyric for the genre, “The body performs but the soul has no will.”   

17.  “I Can’t Love You Enough,” Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Songwriters: Max D. Barnes, Troy Seals; #2 country; 1977.  After starting their duo career with five successive #1 singles, Conway and Loretta never went back to #1 after 1975’s “Feelins’” (not a cover of the godawful Morris Albert pop hit), but all their singles from 1976 to 1981 went Top Ten. “I Can’t Love You Enough” was penned by Nashville Hall of Fame Songwriters Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals (the brother of Jim Seals of Seals and Croft and Dan Seals of England Dan & John Ford Coley). This is a Music City meets Las Vegas country funk number about Conway and Loretta’s burning love and lust for each other. Best self-referential lyric, Loretta’s sexual “bum bum bum” nod to Conway’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.”  

18.  “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Songwriters: L.E. White, Lola Jean Dixon; #6 country; 1978.  “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” was originally released by songwriters L.E. White and Lola Jean Dixon in 1977 (Loretta sounds absolutely cosmopolitan in comparison to Lola Jean) and became part of a double sided hit for Loretta and Conway in 1978.  The original is rather mean spirited, including the line “It kinda hurt my feelings when that man offered you a banana at the zoo” and Lola’s hyena laughs.  In Loretta and Conway’s version, you know the couple love each other, despite their aesthetic limitations.  So, here’s a key reason why some country artists are superstars – they understand their audience.  

19.  “Portland, Oregon,” Loretta Lynn featuring Jack White. Songwriter: Loretta Lynn; Did Not Chart; 2004.  Loretta Lynn’s last major hit as a songwriter was the 1973 #1 single “Rated X” and her airplay significantly decreased in the 1980s. Loretta didn’t release an album during the 1990s and a 2000 release was instantly forgotten. Jack White of the White Stripes produced the 2004 “Van Lear Rose” album and, more importantly, inspired or prodded Loretta to write again.  Like many of Loretta’s compositions, “Portland, Oregon” resulted from her turbulent relationship with her husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. Feeling ignored while her husband was having a golf vacation, Loretta and a bandmate decided to fake an affair to inspire jealousy and attention. Loretta’s scheme didn’t work in the short run, but did result in her most recognizable song in decades. Also, check out another “Doo” inspired “Van Lear Rose” track, the lonely “Miss Being Mrs.”  

20.  “Lay Me Down,” Loretta Lynn featuring Willie Nelson. Songwriter: Mark Marchetti; Did Not Chart; 2016.  Vietnam vet Mark Marchetti has been described by Todd Snider as “a poet, a songwriter, and last of the drunken high wire acts.”  Marchetti has a writing credit on the 2015 #1 country hit “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” by Craig Wayne Boyd, but has generally existed outside of the mainstream in country music.  “Lay Me Down” is the closing track from Loretta Lynn’s 2016 album “Full Circle,” her first album since 2004’s “Van Lear Rose.” With the softness of a lullaby, Loretta and Willie sing about leaving this world in peace, being comforted in their religious faith. This ranks up there with Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” as one of the best songs ever written about Christianity, mainly because neither song beats you over the head with its message.  

2 Comments

  1. M. Llewellyn Chapman on October 5, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    Troy Seals is a cousin of brothers Jim and Dan Seals.
    Nice piece, thanks.

  2. Mark Llewellyn Chapman on October 6, 2022 at 2:12 am

    Please correct: Troy Seals is Jim and Dan’s cousin, not brother. Thank you.

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