Remember When: Loretta Lynn Wrote Her First Single from a Story Inspired by a Drunken Woman

Author of some of the most important and impactful country songs known to human kind, the Butcher Hollow, Kentucky-born songwriter Loretta Lynn remains an icon in the genre. Her tracks like “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “The Pill,” and “Portland Oregon” will live on for generations. But it’s the story of her very first song that we wanted to highlight here today.

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[RELATED: 3 of the Best Loretta Lynn Covers]

The Pacific Northwest Beginnings

It was in the Pacific Northwest where Lynn wrote what would become her debut single while living as a young homemaker in Washington. That song, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” was recorded and released in the spring of 1960. Afterwards, driving from radio station to radio station, Lynn and her then-husband Oliver promoted the tune, which would go on to hit No. 14 on the Billboard country chart.

The tune, which is ultimately about personal loss, was inspired by a woman Lynn met during her travels in Washington who drunkenly told her one night about losing all she had, crying uncontrollably all the while. Shortly after, an inspired Lynn wrote “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in 20 minutes in her bathroom, using a $17 guitar that her beau had bought her to pursue her dream. In that same session, Lynn also wrote the song “Whispering Sea,” which was the B-side for the single.

Said Lynn in 2010, “I just sat down with my guitar. … I was outside and leaning up against the toilet in Washington State. And I sat there and wrote ‘Honkey Tonk Girl’ and ‘Whispering Sea.'”

On the song, Lynn sings,

Ever since you left me, I’ve done nothing but wrong
Many nights I’ve laid awake and cried
We was so happy, my heart was in a whirl
But now I’m a honky tonk girl

So turn that jukebox way up high
And fill my glass up while cry
I’ve lost everything in this world
And now I’m a honky tonk girl

Getting It Out There

With “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” fresh in hand, Lynn took the track to a fella who helped pay for the Los Angeles recording. He also had a connection to the recently founded Zero Records, which became the country icon’s first-ever label. Lynn, after all, wasn’t much for vetting people. She’d married Oliver in 1948 after only knowing him for a month. Together, they moved from the Bluegrass State to Custer, Washington, a logging town, when Lynn was seven months pregnant.

In 1953, Lynn started to teach herself to play on the $17 guitar, fitting her lyrics to music. Shortly after, she started her first band, Loretta & the Trailblazers, playing various Washington venues. She even won a talent contest in Tacoma hosted by country icon Buck Owens, originator of the Bakersfield (California) country sound, who was also living in the Pacific Northwest at the time.

The Song’s Resonance

Lynn cut “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in February 1960 at the Western Recorders Studio with the help of musician Speedy West, who played slide guitar. The song was produced by Don Grashey. It was released the next month and all the promotion was done by Lynn and her husband. She said, “We were pitiful. … Because we were too poor to stay in hotels, we slept in the car and ate baloney and cheese sandwiches in the parks. … Then we’d go into the radio station and pester the DJ to play my record. We didn’t care if it was a 500-watt local station or a 50,000-watt clear-channel station. We’d hit them all. We were on the road three months.”

But in the end, it worked. It got her on Billboard and portended a groundbreaking, essential career. Check out the song here below.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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