In 1960, Loretta Lynn was 28 years old, a mother of four, and about to debut her first song “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” on the famous Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, staged at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Lynn and her husband were so poor they slept outside the building in their rundown Pontiac the night before, and split a celebratory doughnut for breakfast.
“I was so nervous, all I can remember was tapping my foot,” Lynn, now 82, told her sold-out audience at the Ryman Friday night. Fans young and old sat elbow-to-elbow in the wooden pews of the Mother Church of Country Music to see the icon performing a headlining show there for the first time in 54 years.
A standing ovation greeted Lynn, the picture of elegance in a shimmering turquoise gown. Encircled by her seven-piece band, the Coal Miners — one member being her son, Ernest Ray — Lynn kicked the show off with her 1974 hit, “The Don’t Make ‘Em Like Daddy Anymore.” There was plenty of mother-son mockery throughout the evening, with Mom always getting the last word: “Why don’t you tell a joke people actually understand?” she deadpanned. It felt like a long running joke after Ray’s lighthearted rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” which he sang earlier with the band.
Lynn played several of her 16 Number One hits, including “She’s Got You,” “Fist City” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” along with other classics “The Pill” (“I wasn’t on the pill and I’ve got the kids to prove it!” she said), “Blue Kentucky Girl” and the evocative “When a Tingle Becomes a Chill.” During almost every pause, there was an “I love you, Loretta!” shouted from the pews, to which she would respond, “I love you, too.”
The show was a chance to see one of country’s true legends in her musical backyard. But Lynn’s wry sensibility and candor are so vivid that it’s hard to keep her historic stature in mind when she sounds just like your mother or your best friend. She took a seat after admitting her back “hurt a little” from a recent surgery. (“I saw y’all sitting down, so I thought I’d join you,” she said.) The chair became a prop for one of the Coal Miners to serenade Lynn with “Lead Me On,” a lilting duet from her prolific partnership with Conway Twitty. Even more poignant was “Dear Uncle Sam,” a song she wrote after her late husband encouraged her to write about her distress over the Vietnam War.
Lynn performed a pair of original gospel songs, “Everybody Wants to Get to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die” and “Where No One Stands Alone,” and predictably ended the night with her landmark hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a song about carrying her humble beginnings through life. However, on this unique occasion, as the country treasure took in the Ryman’s vast congregation, there was no doubt what place she was referring to when she sang, “It’s so good to be back home again.”
Lynn’s artistic descendent, Brandy Clark, was the opening act and captured the mood with the first line of the night: “Who’d-a guessed that Aquanette/Could start a fire with a single cigarette,” she sang in “Crazy Women.” The bold singer-songwriter has writing credits on some of country’s fiercest songs of late: Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” both of which she played along with songs from her acclaimed debut album, 12 Stories. Clark’s set felt like a living tribute to Lynn’s style of working class realism.
With a rich, honeyed voice and unapologetic lyrics, Clark’s set was both confessional and confident. She showcased her range on heartfelt songs like “Big Day in a Small Town” and “Hold My Hand,” and she drew laughs — and earned herself a few extra Hail Marys — with “Get High,” her song about a weed-loving housewife. If Lynn flung open the doors of possibility for country songwriting in the 20th century, Clark is continuing to push those horizons today.