Fifty Years of “Fist City”

A look back at Loretta Lynn’s enduring lyrical legacy

Loretta Lynn knows how to pen one heck of a “love” song. “Fist City,” written in 1967 and released in February 1968, was a bold challenge to the woman making “brags around town that you’ve been a-lovin’ my man.” Stay far away from my guy and me, Lynn warned, “if you don’t wanna eat a meal that’s called fist city.” Among Lynn’s biggest hits, the song climbed to number one on Billboard’s country singles chart and has influenced a whole new generation of female singer-songwriters.

“‘Fist City’ was about not allowing your man to run around on you—and if he did, there would be consequences,” says country rocker Margo Price, who notes the song inspired her tune, “About to Find Out.” “My favorite line is, ‘But the man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can.’”

Brandy Clark, whose 2016 album Big Day In A Small Town was nominated for the Best Country Album Grammy alongside Lynn’s latest, Full Circle, agrees: “I mean what woman wronged wouldn’t wanna call the other woman trash?” Clark says. “Loretta did this way before it was even a mile away from being politically correct. She tells it like it is.”

In the 1960s, Loretta and her husband, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, purchased a house and farm in a community called Hurricane Mills in western Tennessee. Loretta spent weeks at a time on the road, performing and recording. On a trip home, she learned that a woman had moved nearby to be with Doolittle.

The music historian Marc Myers shared the backstory to the song in an interview with Lynn for his regular Wall Street Journal column. Myers’ research and writings were collected in Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop, a fascinating book that should be on all American music fans’ shelves.

Loretta told Myers more about what happened after she discovered details of her husband’s tomcatting: “The last straw was hearing rumors about [Doolittle and the other woman] while I was in Nashville recording for Decca,” Loretta said. “Driving home to Hurricane Mills that afternoon in my Cadillac, I was real mad and wrote ‘Fist City’ in my head during the seventy-five-mile trip. All I could think about was what she was doing to my family and what I wanted to say to her.”

When she stormed through the front door, Loretta walked straight to her home office, sat down, and wrote out the lyrics. “Then I let the words sit overnight, so I could look at them fresh,” she said. “The next day, I changed a few things so they’d be able to play the record on the radio.”

When Decca released the record, radio stations at first refused to play it. “Apparently, a woman singing about fighting another woman was too much for ’em,” Loretta recalled to Myers.

That devil-may-care attitude still inspires artists. “Her songs may have gotten banned from the radio a few times, but her words resonated with women everywhere and she was well aware that women were indeed listening,” says Nashville-based songstress Lindi Ortega. “There’s no denying that she is as much talented as she is a badass.”

And what did Doolittle think? “We never did talk about the song and the meaning of all the words, but I sensed he knew exactly what it was about,” Lynn told Myers, adding that her music had the final word. “My old man was sleeping out on me, and he wound up making me a lot of songwriting and recording money doing it.”

As for the next generation of empowered songstresses? Perhaps the Texas-born country vocalist and guitarist Sunny Sweeney lays it out best: “Loretta Lynn is the main reason I wanted to write songs,” she says. “I wanted to branch off of a deeply rooted Loretta tree, and say for our generation the things she said for hers. Her music, even if written today, would still be ahead of its time.”