By 1965, with three consecutive Top 5 hits under her belt, Loretta Lynn was on a hot streak and well on her way towards becoming country music’s next big female star. “Blue Kentucky Girl”, which was written by Johnny Mullins, who had also penned her breakthrough hit “Success”, didn’t fare quite as well on the charts but still finished at a very respectable #7. It’s one of my favorites of Loretta’s early recordings and is interesting today for a couple of reasons, aside from just being a very good song: the use of the banjo was quite unusual for the era, when the lush Nashville Sound was at its peak. It’s also notable because we are still seeing Loretta in the role of the downtrodden woman, who is pining for her man who has been lured away — at least temporarily — by the bright lights of the city. She would continue in this vein for just a little while longer, but soon the public would get to see a more assertive side of Loretta, beginning with 1966’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and continuing on with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and the following year’s “Fist City”.
She asserts herself just a little bit on “Night Girl”, a co-write with Teddy Wilburn, which is one of the album’s four Loretta-penned songs. This one casts her as girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has fallen for rich man, but not enough to sacrifice her pride. She knows he’s ashamed to be seen with her publicly and tells him on no uncertain terms that she’s not willing to partake in a clandestine relationship with him. The pair also wrote “Love’s Been Here and Gone”, a filler song about a dying relationship. Her solo composition “Farther to Go” is similarly unmemorable, although it contains some nice Hank Williams-ish steel guitar licks. The uptempo “Two Steps Forward”, another Loretta original, is quite good. This one finds her trying to work up the nerve — and not quite succeeding — in walking away from a bad relationship.
Like most country albums of the era, Blue Kentucky Girl relies heavily on remakes of other artists’ hits. Though some have been critical of this practice, it is important to remember why it was done. First and foremost, most major stars were releasing at least three albums a year. It would have been difficult to come up enough good original material to fill out that many albums. Covers had the advantage of being already familiar to record buyers, as well as the studio musicians, which meant that they had to spend little or no time learning the songs, which made them relatively inexpensive to record. Loretta does a beautiful job on Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, both of which showcase her voice nicely. Harlan Howard’s “I Won’t Forget You” had been a monster hit for Jim Reeves the previous year, and shows that Loretta was more than capable of handling more polished material. She does an adequate job on George Jones’ “The Race Is On”, but doesn’t really leave her stamp on the song.
Barbara Mandrell once said in an interview that early in her career before she had enough of her own hits to fill out a show, she was advised only to perform hits sung by men, because audiences were bound to make too many comparisons of a woman singing another female artist’s song. Loretta’s cover of “Then and Only Then” illustrates this point nicely. Written by Bill Anderson, it was Connie Smith’s Top 5 follow-up to “Once a Day”. It’s not that Loretta’s version isn’t good – it is and if I’d never heard Connie Smith’s version it might actually be my favorite song on the album. But there is no escaping the fact that it doesn’t really sound much like a Loretta Lynn song and that it still sounds very much like a Connie Smith song, no matter who is singing it.
That being said, I’m not as opposed to covering other artists’ hits as many people are. I consider Blue Kentucky Girl to be Loretta’s strongest album up to that point and I highly recommend it.