April 14 marks what would have been Loretta Lynn’s 91st birthday. From country classics to controversial lyrics, she left her mark on the country world and the artists who followed in her footsteps. Through both the success and the backlash, however, one thing remained certain: Her music was a genuine testament to her upbringing, life experiences, and the opinions she held about the world around her. Here are the stories behind 10 of Loretta Lynn’s career defining, greatest hits.
1. “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” (1960)
As one of her first-ever attempts at songwriting, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” is as good as they come. Loretta Lynn, only a few months into her career as a singer, was working part-time at a bar in Washington. Loretta noticed that a woman she knew from another job picking strawberries showed up regularly during her shifts. “She would sit in the same booth every night,” Loretta recalled in Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics. “She never had drunk before, so after about two or three beers she would start to cry.” Finally, Loretta approached her to find out what the problem was: Her husband had left her for another woman. The young singer duly went home and wrote “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.”
From the outset, her approach was unique. “They told me in Nashville they couldn’t believe it, what you’re writing! All your keys are funny,” she told American Songwriter in 2011. The barre chord rhythms she’d learned playing with her brother, Jay Lee Webb, didn’t suit the country music norm. “I was going out on a limb a little bit, but I didn’t realize that,” she said. Recorded with a group of Los Angeles players including steel pedal guitarist Speedy West, “Honky Tonk Girl” took on the swinging Bakersfield sound that broke sharply with the countrypolitan approach popular in Nashville, Tennessee. “It was a little more exciting, those records on the West Coast,” she said. Despite being the building block of Loretta’s song catalog, it wasn’t available for rerelease until the 1994 box set, Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection.
2. “Dear Uncle Sam” — I Like ‘Em Country (1966)
Before college campuses were rife with demonstrations, and even before anti-war sentiments seeped from folk music into rock and pop, Loretta confronted the horrors of the Vietnam War on “Dear Uncle Sam.” But she never intended it as a protest, nor that it would directly address the war. The inspiration, in this case, was husband Doolittle Lynn himself. He was a World War II veteran who rarely spoke about his own experiences in combat.
“[He] said, ‘This Vietnam War has been such a bad deal. Why don’t you write about the war?’,” she told author Jimmy Guterman in 1994. “I said, ‘I don’t want to write about war. I don’t have nothin’ good to write about war.’ He said, ‘Write about that. If you don’t like it, tell it.’” So in a manner that came to define her songwriting, “Dear Uncle Sam” turned instead to the perspective of the wife left at home to worry over her husband deployed overseas.
Though it doesn’t take a stand on the validity of the war, the song illustrates the immense personal toll taken on soldiers’ loved ones. Particularly affecting is the incorporation of “Taps” — recorded in a bathroom by Boots Randolph — as the narrator receives a letter informing her of her husband’s death. “Dear Uncle Sam” was a pivotal moment, showcasing Loretta’s talents as a writer with deep empathy and a willingness to confront topical issues from a relatable, human standpoint. “They fought then, they fight now, they’ll be fighting from now on. How can it be dated?” she said, decades later. “It just breaks my heart.”
3. “You Ain’t Woman Enough” — You Ain’t Woman Enough (1966)
Doolittle’s philandering was often in the background of Loretta’s no-nonsense cheatin’ songs, but in the case of “You Ain’t Woman Enough” — her first classic original to tackle domestic issues in what was to become her typically sassy style — the inspiration came, once again, from the troubles of another woman. Prior to one of her concerts in the mid-’60s, Loretta was approached by a fan who snuck into her dressing room backstage. The fan told her about her husband’s mistress, who was also in the crowd that night. Peeking out from behind the stage curtain, Loretta spotted the woman in question — a “painted-up girl,” as she put it — then turned to the woman beside her and exclaimed, “Honey, she ain’t woman enough to take your man!”
Inspired by her own turn of phrase, the singer claimed in a 2016 PBS documentary that she penned “You Ain’t Woman Enough” that same night, in only 10 minutes. “I think in every marriage, at one time or the other, a woman worries about the other woman — who may or may not exist,” Loretta wrote in Honky Tonk Girl. In this case, she admitted, “I felt every little bit of pain in these lyrics.” The song was recorded during the same November 1965 session at Columbia Studio in Nashville that produced “Dear Uncle Sam,” and the album that bore its name went on to become her first of six No. 1 albums as a solo artist.
4. “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” — Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) (1967)
If “You Ain’t Woman Enough” showed off Loretta’s unique flair for writing about married life and its pitfalls, “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” returned to the subject on more controversial terms. This time, it wasn’t a rival woman who was the object of the narrator’s fury, but her own husband. Though it, too, was torn straight from the pages of her own life with an alcoholic husband, the idea for the song came from Loretta’s younger sister, Peggy Sue, who’s 11 years her junior. “I’ve always had this feeling with Peggy that I am kind of inside her head,” Loretta wrote in Honky Tonk Girl. “Maybe it’s because she means so much to me. We can look at each other and know what the other is thinking.”
Peggy spent part of her childhood in Wabash, Indiana. By the time Loretta was in Nashville, she’d taken to singing and writing herself. One day, she approached her elder sister with the beginnings of what became “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’,” which Loretta later insisted wasn’t meant as an attack on men. “I like to be on the woman’s side, but I like to be on the man’s side, too,” she said in 1994. “I never went out to put a man down in anything I’ve ever done.”
The partnership between the sisters proved an inspired one. It made Loretta only the fifth woman ever to earn a No. 1 country single. The song also served as a springboard to Peggy’s career. She landed her own recording contract with Decca Records in 1969 and went to No. 28 with her debut single, “I’m Dynamite,” her first of six tunes to crack the country Top 40.
5. “Fist City” — Fist City (1968)
Destined to become Loretta’s second No. 1 single, “Fist City” is perhaps her funniest take on marital trouble, a side-splitting retort to yet another woman looking to break up her home life. The singer leans into her comedic skills with a series of threats and barbs embodied by the instant-classic put down, “The man I love when he picks up trash he puts it in a garbage can.” No surprise, then, that it was pulled from real life, in this case a woman Doolittle had an affair with while Loretta was on tour. She caught wind of the tryst shortly after the family moved to Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, when her children told her their bus driver had bragged that she was going to steal their father away.
A disgruntled Loretta wrote a letter to the woman, but when the woman in turn showed it to Doolittle, he accosted his wife to stay out of his business. Though wounded by his response, Loretta channeled that hurt into “Fist City,” which she claimed exhibited some of the darker sides of her own behavior. “I’ve been in a couple fights in my life,” the star acknowledged in her 2002 memoir, Still Woman Enough. “I fight like a woman. I scratch and kick and bite and punch. Women are much meaner than men. So I warned any girl making eyes at Doo then, and I’m still jealous enough to warn ’em today.”
6. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” — Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970)
It was inevitable that the origin story song of one of country music’s great storytellers would be surrounded in lore, but the details of how “Coal Miner’s Daughter” came to be can get a little hazy. Originally, Loretta didn’t intend it to be hers. Still on payroll at Sure-Fire Publishing when she sat down to write it in the fall of 1969, she had bluegrass act, the Osborne Brothers, in mind before the song’s autobiographical imperative became clear to her.
By the time she was through, she had nine verses — or 10, or 12, or even 14, depending on how she tells it. Producer Owen Bradley insisted she trim it, declaring he didn’t want a retread of Marty Robbins’ 1959 epic “El Paso.” Loretta eventually cut it down to four verses. “I cried the whole time,” she said in 2020. “And I have lost those verses, I do not remember them. I wish I did.” What was left remained a masterpiece. It was a humble recollection of her impoverished youth, infused with inimitable turns of phrase and characteristic mispronunciations, like singing “borned” instead of “born.”
The music, too, reflected her past in the Kentucky hillside. Banjo and steel guitar playing stood prominently in the shuffling arrangement. The song’s deep sense of pride has resonated with fans ever since. A year later, Dolly Parton released her own autobiographical hit, “Coat of Many Colors,” to similar fanfare. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” has been commemorated on greatest songs lists by Rolling Stone and Time magazine. It has also been preserved by the Library of Congress. “The song doesn’t tell half of it,” Loretta insisted. “If I told the whole story nobody would believe it now anyway.”
7. “You’re Lookin’ at Country” — You’re Lookin’ at Country (1971)
Having struck a chord with her listeners on “Coal Miner’s Daughter” despite exploring subject matter so different from what they were used to hearing her do, Loretta continued with the pastoral imagery on “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” The inspiration for the song came from a day spent roaming her Hurricane Mills property with husband Doolittle. He often made a point of showing her the new livestock he’d purchased while she was away on the road. Mesmerized by the natural beauty she saw looking out over the hillside, Loretta turned to Doo and said, “You’re lookin’ at country, real country.” A week or so later, she had a new song that was destined to be another hit.
She admitted to having to make some compromises in writing it. “I had to write ‘You’re Lookin’ at Country’ as a love song or it wouldn’t sell,” she lamented to author Jimmy Guterman. “But it wasn’t a love song. I got the idea from looking at my land. I wanted to write what I saw.” Nevertheless, the double entendre paid dividends, as the romantic insinuations only spoke to Loretta’s authenticity as a true-blue country gal, long before such rustic Southern pride became a familiar country music trope. “You’re Lookin’ at Country” proved so ubiquitous that she sang it on an episode of The Muppet Show in 1978.
8. “One’s on the Way” — One’s on the Way (1971)
Shel Silverstein was best known as a cartoonist for Playboy and the author of children’s books like The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends. However, he also wrote several hit songs for some of the biggest names in country music. None was more famous than “A Boy Named Sue,” which Johnny Cash propelled into pop culture immortality — and to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart — in 1969. Two years later, Silverstein delivered another No. 1 for Loretta with his cheeky critique of the nascent feminist movement, “One’s on the Way.”
Its subtle digs at the jet-setting lifestyles of celebrities like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Debbie Reynolds get contrasted with the everyday chaos facing full-time mothers. She later changed the reference to Onassis in concert to other glamorous first ladies like Nancy Reagan or Michelle Obama. The last line of the song was a playful allusion to the unexpected arrival of her twin daughters, Peggy and Patsy, with whom the joke apparently didn’t go over well. “Peggy and Patsy don’t like the song,” she claimed in Coal Miner’s Daughter. “I guess that’s why Dolly Parton is their favorite singer.”
9. “Rated ‘X'” — Entertainer of the Year (1972)
The controversy that followed so many of Loretta’s biggest hits over the years got taken up another notch when she dropped “Rated ‘X’.” This was a song that wound up bringing her heaps of criticism from women as well as men. Released shortly after her historic Entertainer of the Year win at the Country Music Awards in 1972, the song appeared on her first album with MCA Records since its name change from Decca. Disc jockeys across the country refused to play it, put off by its racy title and controversial subject matter. The song spoke frankly about the sexual advances of married men toward divorced women. “Another old, dirty record from Loretta Lynn,” she joked of their response in a 2010 interview with NPR.
“Rated ‘X’” was perhaps her most direct critique of the double standards faced by women. “I was taking up for divorced women,” she argued in Honky Tonk Girl. “Once you have been married, if you got divorced or become widowed, every man takes it for granted that you’re available, that you’re easy…. I was talking to the men, trying to set them straight.” But many women didn’t like it, either. After an early performance of it on the Hee Haw TV show, Loretta received letters from women who criticized her for trying to tear down others — a fact she said was a misunderstanding. “We women have got to stick together,” she insisted.
10. “The Pill” — Back to the Country (1975)
“Rated ‘X’ ” may have caused a furor, but it paled in comparison to “The Pill,” Loretta’s most notorious — and influential — song. Written sometime after leaving the Wilburn Brothers to form her own songwriting house, Coal Miners Music, “The Pill” was penned in 1972 with the help of Lorene Allen, Don McHan, and T. D. Bayless. Though the titular birth control pill was approved in 1960, it remained a hot-button issue, especially in light of the still-fresh decision in Roe v. Wade regarding a woman’s right to have an abortion. Loretta, who suffered three miscarriages in addition to the six children she and Doolittle had together, was an unapologetic proponent of birth control.
“If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ’em like popcorn,” she told People. Once again, the outcry was fierce upon the song’s 1975 release. This time — despite the publicity — the many radio bans meant “The Pill” stalled at No. 5 on the country chart. Only three more No. 1 singles would come her way afterward. “They were scared to death of it. I couldn’t understand why everybody got so upset by ‘The Pill.’ Everybody took the pill!” she said. Still, in a Playgirl interview, she claimed to have heard from one doctor that the song “has reached more people out in the country and done more than all the government programs put together” in permitting contraception.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Loretta Lynn.
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