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Honky Tonk Girl

Loretta Lynn, at 76, still casts a spell.

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By DAWN EDEN
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Loretta Lynn famously sang  “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” But as three urban cowgirls arrive at a Washington, D.C., hipster haven, the 9:30 Club, to see Lynn’s first local show in two years, we’re looking at irony: opening act Southern Culture on the Skids, a longtime favorite in the campy genre known as psychobilly. The crowd cavorts as the band twangs out the final notes of a country-fried surf instrumental buoyed by the staccato stylings of a bass player bedecked in a mammoth red wig—a piled-up parody of Lynn’s sixties hairdos (which even she now calls “hair-don’ts”). As the bouffanted bassist introduces the next tune, one of my friends gasps, “I thought she was a man!”

Photo of Loretta Lynn singing

Lisa L. Tallent

Between acts, gazing at the packed house, we agree that only half the crowd were alive when Lynn published her 1976 autobiography that became the basis for the hit film Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). The success of Lynn’s first-rate 2004 comeback album, Van Lear Rose, produced by alternative-rock guitar hero Jack White of the White Stripes, probably takes part of the credit for the audience’s youthful skew. Moreover, same-sex couples, both male and female, are out in force, attracted (so we’re told by a bespectacled librarian and her girlfriend) by Lynn’s mix of Cinderella glamour and straight-talking, self-made womanhood.

A young woman steps up to the microphone who looks eerily like an earlier version of Loretta Lynn, minus the hairspray. Introducing herself as Patsy Lynn, one of three of the singer’s children in the band, she elicits encouraging cheers as she alerts the audience that her mother had a knee replacement just five weeks ago. After some warm-up tunes by the Lynn progeny and backing band, the Coalminers, the star of the evening takes the stage to wild acclaim, gowned in a stunning powder-blue floor-length number with ladylike puffed shoulders, a lace-fronted bodice, and, of course, sequins everywhere.

“They don’t make ’em like my daddy anymore,” she sings, and the real message is that they don’t make ’em like her anymore. As if to drive the point home, she follows the tune with “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” Against the Dolly Parton aesthetic of “nip it, suck it, and tuck it,” with Loretta Lynn, what you see is what you get: her real body (knee replacement and all), real skin, real voice, even—glory of glories—her real hair.

And that voice. Lynn starts out being less secure of it than the crowd is. Performing “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” and “I Wanna Be Free,” she hits the notes flawlessly but is reluctant to interact with the audience. Finally, pausing between songs, she shyly invites fans to join in the singing—“because I don’t think my voice is worth hearing tonight.” But it is. Yes, it lacks the power of her younger pipes, but it’s got all the pitch, control, and, most important, the feeling. Loretta Lynn doesn’t phone it in. Every song is a story, and she puts it across as though it were written on her heart. After “Here I Am Again,” she’s more relaxed, asking playfully, “Am I the only coal miner’s daughter here tonight?” The only proper response to such a question is cheering, and that’s what
she gets.

Answering a request for her 1960 debut, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” Lynn declares, “This is the first song I ever wrote”—and the band knows what to do. There is something deeply moving about seeing a 76-year-old woman perform a song that she wrote more than a half-century ago—a song that retains the power to cause catharsis in lonely hearts—and realizing that this is her legacy. As she follows up with another self-composed classic, “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” one of my friends squeals, “You just want to
hug her!”

Eager to oblige requests, Lynn gently chides her guitarist when he brings her a chair: “I’m not sitting down on the job.” Only after an hour does she finally seat herself long enough to give various band members a chance to show their singing talents. But she’s soon back on her feet for a gospel medley, including a no-nonsense rendition of her glorious answer to Time magazine, “Who Says God Is Dead!” And having succeeded in getting an Obama-era Washington audience to applaud songs about Jesus, Lynn triumphantly breaks into “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Standing a few feet from the front of the stage, I feel somebody push her way up behind me. I turn to find myself staring up into a tower of auburn Dynel. It’s the bass player of Southern Culture on the Skids, but she is not looking at me. She is staring at the only real coal miner’s daughter in the room, and she looks like she wants to cry. I do, too.

Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste.

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