Loretta Lynn may just be as iconic an artist as country music has ever seen, having spent over 60 years combining an earnestly backwoods twang – and up-by-her-bootstraps backstory – with potent, economical songwriting. Her distinctive, hearty voice, bound to cut through whatever barroom clamor or male-dominated radio playlists and record store shelves it might have faced, doesn’t hurt either.
She also never “sold out,” as a purist might put it, remaining more or less country even when that meant her sales took a hit – and ultimately, that singular focus helped revitalize her career in the 2000s and 2010s, when a new generation of fans across genres got to know her impossible-to-replicate sound via even more timeless records featuring artists from Willie Nelson to Jack White.
Here are 20 of Loretta Lynn’s best songs, including hits from across the many decades of Lynn’s career as well as some of her most heartfelt compositions.
20. Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight) (1976)
Loretta Lynn’s tenth Billboard country no. 1, penned by Lola Jean Dillon, was the unusual country song without a villain – it was simply about a lonely woman sipping a drink, imagining the man she just hadn’t met yet. “I just thought that if that wasn’t a great jukebox song, somebody somewhere wasn’t listenin’ too good,” as Lynn put it later.
19. Blue Kentucky Girl (1965)
On this early hit, Loretta Lynn’s voice is at its earthy, rich best as she laments a love lost to the charms of the big city. “Blue Kentucky Girl” was written specifically for the Kentucky native by Johnny Mullins, and ultimately peaked at no. 7 on Billboard’s country chart. It also later inspired Emmylou Harris’ country breakthrough album of the same name.
18. Happy Birthday (1964)
A pitch-perfect kiss-off, this Loretta Lynn hit epitomized the kind of brash wit that she was already becoming known for – “Guess who doesn’t care?” could hardly be sung with more spirit. It became a surprise smash, staying in the Billboard country top 10 for 15 weeks – crystallizing Lynn’s status as a commercial force to be reckoned with.
17. I’m a Honky Tonk Girl (1960)
Loretta Lynn’s first hit is essentially an extension of Kitty Wells’ pioneering single “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”: the story of a woman whose tough luck has made honky tonkin’ the best available option. It served as both an effective mission statement – here’s a woman who plans to sing frankly about what it’s like to be a woman – and an explosive showcase of Lynn’s vocal talent.
16. I Wanna Be Free (1971)
As Loretta Lynn explains it in her memoir/lyrics collection, Honky Tonk Girl: My Life In Lyrics, she wrote this song – which is ostensibly about seeking liberation from a stifling marriage – in a moment when she felt isolated after being on the road for a long stretch. Regardless, it perfectly suited the simmering women’s movement of the early ‘70s, anticipating the more explicit provocations of later hits.
15. When the Tingle Becomes a Chill (1975)
Even if she’s hardly mincing words when she sings, “Though I try to pretend, you just don’t turn me on,” Loretta Lynn’s trademark no-nonsense tack is tempered slightly in this mournful waltz, as she tries to explain how she’s just not feeling it anymore via lyrics written by frequent collaborator Lola Jean Dillon. At first glance it may not seem like one of Lynn’s more political songs, but in the 70s (and now) women frankly discussing desire and sexuality was hardly commonplace – especially in a conservative genre like country.
14. Dear Uncle Sam (1966)
Just the second song written by Loretta Lynn to enter Billboard’s country chart, the patriotic title “Dear Uncle Sam” belies the heartbreaking conflict Lynn depicts within its lyrics: that of a woman who, despite loving her country, wishes that her husband hadn’t had to go fight in Vietnam. You can guess how it ends (“Taps” is featured prominently). A chart success, the song was one of the earliest examples of Lynn’s ability to convey her own distinctive but relatable political perspective via a few plain-spoken lyrics.
13. Whispering Sea (2016)
According to Loretta Lynn, “Whispering Sea” is the first song she ever wrote; at a minimum, it’s the first song she ever released, dating back to 1960 when she and her husband were living in the back of their Buick, sending singles to radio stations. The song – which Jack White asked her to revisit during their recent collaborations – has more in common with the wistful, authorless English ballads that formed so much American folk music than the Nashville sound, showing Lynn’s rootedness in the very heart of Appalachia.
12. Hey Loretta (1973)
Loretta Lynn begrudgingly recorded this song that Shel Silverstein (yes, that one) wrote for her, but on record it sounds just as convincing as if she’d written every word herself – especially the immortal line, “This woman’s liberation’s gonna start right now!” It was one of the most commercially-successful examples of the kind of sharp, unexpected songs Lynn frequently recorded from esteemed writers like Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall.
11. Portland, Oregon (2004)
It was hard to imagine an odder couple than Jack White and Loretta Lynn when they began collaborating in the early aughts – but the resulting album, Van Lear Rose, was not only a commercial blockbuster and critically acclaimed, it marked a stripped-down, hard-edged, and uncompromising artistic renaissance for the then-72-year-old Lynn. The pair duet on this grungy track, Lynn sounding as vibrant and forceful as she had 40 years prior.
10. One’s on the Way (1971)
This mostly upbeat ode to the trials of being an (in this case perpetually pregnant) housewife hints at some of the same struggles Loretta Lynn would paint a darker picture of on 1980’s “Pregnant Again” – what the American Dream looks like when you’re most woman, basically. The catchy, Shel Silverstein-penned tune spent two weeks atop Billboard’s country chart, a feat Lynn’s producer Owen Bradley believed was only possible because she was the best-known woman country star with kids, making it more convincing.
9. Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man (1973)
Conway Twitty was still better known as an R&B and rock singer than a country star when he began what would become a decades-long duetting partnership with Loretta Lynn, but a series of five consecutive Billboard country no. 1 songs together helped cement both Twitty and Lynn’s status at the top of the country heap. “Louisiana Woman” was the third of those. It has an impossibly catchy chorus, blending a 70s funk-rock groove with hoe-down ready fiddle.
8. Rated “X” (1972)
The third of Loretta Lynn’s four most controversial songs, “Rated “X”” takes its theme (and groove) from Jeannie C. Riley’s massive “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (of which Lynn had already done her own version). It was released a few weeks after Lynn became the first woman ever to win Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs, almost seeming like an open rebuke to the country establishment despite the fact Lynn had simply penned it to describe the challenges facing any woman who had been divorced. “Every time I had a song banned, it went number one,” she said later. “So I didn’t worry about it anymore.” “Rated ‘X’” was no exception.
7. You’re Lookin’ at Country (1971)
“Well I like my lovin’ done country-style,” might seem like the most cliché country lyric of all time to contemporary listeners, but at the time it was an unexpected rallying cry from Loretta Lynn, who had mostly made her name telling off no-good men and lamenting lost love. The song, which Lynn wrote looking at rolling country hills, remains one of her most beloved hits – and a perfect sing-along for anyone who feels that their country cred might be in question.
6. Wouldn’t It Be Great (1985)
Loretta Lynn liked “Wouldn’t It Be Great” so much she recorded it thrice: First on her own, for her 37th solo album, then alongside Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette for their Honky Tonk Angels album and finally for Lynn’s 2018 album of the same name. In spite of the optimistic tone Lynn uses, the song is a tragic one – especially when one considers that she wrote it to her husband just before he died. “My husband liked to drink a lot,” she said simply by way of explanation when the most recent version was released – the rest is clear from the song itself.
5. Fist City (1968)
With a truly spectacular title befitting the vivid imagery that lies within, the battle cry “Fist City” marked Loretta Lynn’s second Billboard country no. 1 (and probably the first time the threat of hair-pulling made the radio). The song was allegedly inspired by a real-life woman who would attempt to charm Lynn’s husband while she was onstage, giving “I’m Gonna Hurt Her On The Radio” a whole new meaning.
4. Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) (1966)
Loretta Lynn’s first Billboard country no. 1 was both a milestone for her and for country music more broadly – it marked the first time a woman had written (Lynn co-wrote it with her sister Peggy Sue Wells) and performed a no. 1 country song, and only the seventh time a solo woman artist had topped the chart at all. She claimed those trophies with typical panache: the song was controversial for its sordid implication that women might sometimes have sex.
3. You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man) (1966)
It’s hard to beat the wordplay of this Loretta Lynn classic, and its hook certainly endures as one of country (and pop) music’s best. It showed how efficient and sharp Lynn’s songwriting had already become, just a few years into her storied career, as well as just how powerful her voice was – powerful enough to cut through the still male-dominated airwaves and reach no. 2 on Billboard’s country chart.
2. The Pill (1975)
“You’ll have to hear this one to believe the lyrics,” Billboard wrote in its initial review of “The Pill” – a tribute to the power of birth control pills for married (as Lynn always emphasized) women who don’t want to give birth annually, and thus a crucially important spin on medical technology that had, to that point, most often been associated with free love and women’s liberation movements. Lynn herself had four children by the time she was 20 years old, and thus, as she explained in interviews, felt more than qualified to sing what would become her biggest crossover hit to that point, reaching no. 70 on Billboard’s Hot 100. “Those so-called ‘dirty’ songs make money,” she told Variety at the time.
1. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970)
Undoubtedly Loretta Lynn’s best-known and best-loved song, the composition stands as a hallmark of plain-spoken, beautiful country storytelling. As Lynn wove her own mythic origin story, she introduced America to Butcher Holler and a million other hard-scrabble small towns like it. The personal story – originally nine verses long – eventually bred a book and blockbuster movie by the same title, but it’s Lynn’s sung recollection of her hard-won success (and nostalgia for the simple life that’d long since passed her by) that remains most powerful.