How does one even open a feature like this? It’s certainly not the one I expected to write right now, but Loretta Lynn’s passing has left one of the biggest voids I think we’ll ever experience in country music – one that will likely never be filled or replaced. Call her a legend, an influence, or, better yet, country music singer, there’s no hyperbole in play when describing Lynn’s impact on country music history. Her rise out of Butcher Holler, Kentucky, is one of the most well-known stories in country music, and throughout her career she faced challenging topics head-on in her lyrics, be they drunken husbands, the women with which they flirted with, faded love, or birth control (you know, among other things). Her chart success lasted for decades, yet go back to nearly any of her recordings and they don’t feel beholden to the eras in which they found success; they’re simple, straightforward, and honest, as they should be. And even after said chart success faded, she took a page out of Johnny Cash’s playbook and collaborated with a rock legend, and found a career rejuvenation, all without sacrificing what made Loretta Lynn “Loretta Lynn.”
I’m lucky enough to say I saw her once in concert, in 2013. at a theater. Intimate, sparse, and just all around more pleasant than your typical concert performance, it was the sort of venue where everything (and everyone) came through clearly. Even a drunk heckler came through very loud and clear, who kept demanding Lynn sing “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’…,” to which Lynn eventually replied, “I don’t like that song.” It shut him up and got a roar of laughter out of the audience. And, of course, it was one of the final songs she played. It’s one of my favorite concert memories, and one I cherish even more now.
Now, since I’ve already written about Lynn’s storied career from a more objective standpoint before, I’m simply here today to count down my fifteen favorite songs of hers. Funny enough, despite, of course, running through her entire discography prior to assembling this list, my favorites didn’t really change from the ones I was already comfortable with and knew. Lynn is just one of those few artists where I think her biggest hits are arguably her best ones. So I’m sorry there’s a lack of hidden gems here, but we do have plenty of classics to discuss. Let’s get started.
No. 15, “One’s On the Way” (written by Shel Silverstein)
In essence, this was just the latest in a string of songs where Lynn spoke for housewives who perhaps got married too early and felt trapped by conventional life. And while it’s not one of the ones to come directly from her pen, when you have Shel Silverstein’s sardonic writing poking fun at not only the glamorous lives of celebrities but also a confusing, changing world, it’s performed like it easily could have. Not quite the iconic statement that similar-themed songs we’ll inevitably get to were, but it’s certainly a depressingly frank riot, all the same.
No. 14, “Dear Uncle Sam” (written by Loretta Lynn)
Country music’s history with Vietnam War-themed songs is a complex, messy can of worms to untangle, but both perspectives did find success on the charts. Even then, this particular song digs deeper, focusing not on the war itself but rather the lives inevitably taken from it and the stories finished too soon. It’s the simple song of a woman losing the love of her life with far more complex implications of the messiness of war itself in the subtext – a pre-”Travelin’ Soldier,” if you will. And though I am, admittedly, not much of a fan of spoken word passages, it is the ending that really clinches its spot as a favorite of mine, where Lynn captures the genuine shock and awe of the moment perfectly.
No. 13, “This Haunted House” (written by Loretta Lynn)
I’ll admit there are two factors that keep this tribute to Patsy Cline a bit lower on my list – those being that it’s played just a tad too upbeat for a song about loss with those echoed backing vocals, and that it’s presented more as a breakup song above anything else – but it might also be those two factors that, paradoxically, sell it for me, too. After all, if you’re familiar with Lynn’s friendship with Cline, you’ll know that her presenting it as a blow akin to losing a family member isn’t too far off from the truth. And when that friendship was a symbol of two women carving out their own places in country music in the same kind of different ways, it makes sense for there to be that weird mix of joy for what was and melancholy for what never will be again.
No. 12, “Table For Two” (written by Max D. Barnes and Vince Gill)
Van Lear Rose is the comeback record everyone points to first as a favorite modern Lynn work – and indeed, for me it’s a 10/10 classic – but 2000’s Still Country is worth the love, too. “Table For Two” is another cut Lynn didn’t write but sings like she could have, especially considering how this is a song about clinging on to a past partner’s memory and was recorded not long after husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn’s passing. But there’s also a deeper sadness there, where despite reserving that table for two for a party of one, she’s not in denial about what it really means. It’s just a coping mechanism used to make the hard nights a little less worse, all while keeping a loved one’s memory alive.
No. 11, “Rated ‘X’” (written by Loretta Lynn)
I think it’s easy to take for granted how Lynn somehow managed to tackle once taboo topics and not only find success with her discussions, but also provide different perspectives to those conversations. Maybe it’s because she always managed to strike the right balance between lighthearted quips and critiques and frank truths about society. At any rate, “Rated X” is the perfect whirlwind, an observation about the snap judgments and remarks made toward divorced women – and, of course, only divorced women – where it’s a losing game trying to blend back in with society. And, as Lynn notes, they’ll be judged either way for their choices made afterward, and for even getting divorced in the first place, despite potentially finding freedom and happiness from it. It’s a punk statement that acts like Neko Case and the White Stripes would later revive and make feel just as timely. But there’s nothing quite like that original incendiary firestorm.
No. 10, “You Ain’t Woman Enough” (written by Loretta Lynn)
You know it, you know who Lynn wrote it for, and you can sing it from memory, all the way through to that lively hook. It’s the sort of song that came to characterize Lynn’s writing style, and while I think this list shows it wasn’t all that defined her, it’s hard to deny a jaw-dropping classic like this. It’s another song no other artist would have dared touch during its time – as while the other woman is the target here, you just know the cheating husband isn’t getting off easy, either – but Lynn’s trademark humor and direct framing makes it easy to root for her.
No. 9, “Lay Me Down” (w/ Willie Nelson) (written by Mark Marchetti)
I felt the weight of this song when I first heard it in 2016, so it was nearly impossible to revisit for this feature. Simply put, it’s a sobering look at death through the eyes of two legends, both of whom have seen too many friends go before them and know the cruel nature of time will eventually claim them. Yet against the restrained production anchored mostly in that beautiful fiddle work, you get the feeling that for them it’s OK, and that for us those goodbyes will be much harder to say – such is the weird duality that comes with loving an artist’s work and at least feeling like we know and understand them personally. And hell, even if we really don’t, they’re absolutely right about that.
No. 8, “After the Fire is Gone” (w/ Conway Twitty) (written by L.E. White)
It won’t be the only Conway Twitty duet here, but despite it being a classic, I still think there’s some subtle elements here that have always gone underrated. I mean, of course both Lynn and Twitty are recognizable talents from the first word sung and that huge hook is enough to steal the show. But it’s also worth mentioning how Lynn plays against expectations with her own work by being the cheater this time around, and how, because of bad home situations where they’re married alone (thanks for that easy descriptor, Sunny Sweeney), both she and Twitty can mine sympathy – perhaps even empathy – for these characters. Intensely emotional, but in a sadder sense where you get the impression that even this hookup can’t quite ease the pain or fill that empty void.
No. 7, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” (With Lovin’ On Your Mind) (written by Loretta Lynn and Peggy Sue Wright)
Like with “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” I don’t have a lot to say about this that hasn’t been said already. It’s another huge hook supporting an autobiographical look at Lynn’s marriage, where she’ll always stand by her man … provided he sober up first. It’s just the sort of confident, bashful statement that forwarded what country songs of this era could say – especially by women, and especially in a genre where drunken, heartbroken fools are typically expected to be forgiven. And hey, it’s got some solid kick in that groove as well.
No. 6, “The Pill” (written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan, T.D. Bayless, and Loretta Lynn)
I find it funny that this was considered Lynn’s most controversial release, if only because her other hits really did pave the way for this sort of message and shouldn’t have caught anyone off guard. I don’t know, too direct or something? Not surprising, given that country radio still holds women in contempt for some reason. But even regardless of its historical context, it’s still a riot hearing Lynn revel in her newfound freedom and at least do her best to try and reclaim lost years, all framed through the same sense of mischievous fun and wry eye for detail with which her best messages were delivered.
No. 5, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” (written by Loretta Lynn)
Even despite framing these features as personal observations of what I love about the songs chosen, this is one song I can’t help but love for what it represents above all else – Lynn’s first hit and one she self-promoted with her husband, all on a wing and a prayer. And even despite coming from a small label, it’s still one of my favorite-sounding songs of hers: crisp and anchored mainly in those liquid touches of pedal steel. And even before she introduced the world to the bigger picture of herself, she still had the guts to debut with a song about her sordid spiral from losing out on love. I love the song, and I love it as a perfect introduction to it all.
No. 4, “Wouldn’t It Be Great” (written by Loretta Lynn)
Before it became the title track to Lynn’s 2018 album, I think this gem got lost in the shuffle. It’s a mid-career cut that’s just as cutting and real as her other songs directed toward her husband, but anchored less in direct sass and more in simple heartbreak for his heavy reliance on alcohol and how it affects their relationship … and also anchored in mere fantasies and possibilities, knowing how quitting those demons is much easier said than done. It’s still got the huge flair for drama with which she always nailed, but it feels like the stakes are higher this time and pushed to the edge of exhaustion, right up until that big, cathartic chorus.
No. 3, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (w/ Conway Twitty) (written by Becki Bluefield and Jim Owen)
You know, I can probably readily point to more elements of “After the Fire is Gone” I like better, and prior to assembling this list I would have probably said I liked it better in general. But you always forget how infectious that fiddle stomp is until you go back to revisit it. It’s silly, it’s stupid – hell, Twitty’s character is willing to wrestle an alligator to see Lynn’s character – but it’s so infectious and fun, right down to the damn thing being a tongue-twister to sing along with; it’s not as deep as the Mississippi River, but it doesn’t need to be. Even then, it’s not quite the wackiest duet involving Lynn I love most.
No. 2, “Portland, Oregon” (w/ Jack White) (written by Loretta Lynn)
That, of course, would be this song, which really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Lynn has never been one to avoid potentially awkward situations, though – not even a twofold hookup between her and Jack White or their respective characters here. Yet even through the hazy, atmospheric reverb and psychedelic guitar work, it sounds just as in-line with country music’s broken barroom heroes, likely even capturing their messy sagas and stumbles in a more accurately sounding way (especially the sadsacks in Portland, Oregon). And I remember my first time hearing this and not knowing where exactly that extended introduction was taking us but being intrigued by it all the same. And that’s kind of perfect for the song, where neither character knows exactly where the night is headed (“next day we knew, last night got drunk” is maybe my favorite nonsensical line ever), but are going to lean into it, come what may. Maybe it’s a toast to love, or maybe it’s just a toast to unlikely friendships. Either way, I’m comfortable calling it a favorite.
As always, before I get to my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
“Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be” (w/ Ernest Tubb) (written by Billy Joe Deaton)
“Success” (written by Johnny Mullins)
“Happy Birthday” (written by Ron Kitson)
“Fist City” (written by Loretta Lynn)
“Another Man Loved Me Last Night” (written by Lorene Allen and Peggy Sue Wells)
“Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight” (written by Lola Jean Dillon)
“On My Own Again” (written by Randy Scruggs)
And finally, “Wings Upon Your Horns” (written by Loretta Lynn)
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (written by Loretta Lynn)
It’s funny – no matter what or who she stood for or with (or against) in her many, many trials and tribulations, my favorite Loretta Lynn song comes down to one centered squarely around … well, her. Well, maybe not quite her so much as her upbringing and her family. But it’s the sort of rags to riches story one normally associates with country music. I don’t want to use the term “authentic” – it opens the door for plenty of uglier, more complex conversations that can detract from equally great art.
But still, no line or note is exaggerated; it’s just Lynn’s story, plain and simple. And like with “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” I guess I do love it more for what it represents above all else, though I do like the simple restraint employed here that lets the writing shine. And I love that even though she paints a picture most of us likely think requires sympathy on our parts for what she and her family experienced – in part not shying away from the darker reality of a harsh upbringing – it’s still her story, framed through a younger perspective where everything is magical. And that’s a relatable feeling that can affect someone’s view of the world regardless of time, setting, or personal situations or circumstances. It’s the classic “rich in love” trope with the actual storytelling detail to stand proudly on its own, and though plenty of other artists have offered their own views of the same narrative time and time again, hearing Lynn sing about Butcher Holler will always make for my favorite version of it.