A couple of years ago I saw Grace Potter at the 9:30 Club. Loretta Lynn had played the early show that night, and Grace played the late one. During her set she thanked Loretta, who was no doubt already fast asleep somewhere. Grace spoke about what an amazing woman Loretta is, how she had always looked up to her, what a fantastic show she put on, etc. etc. She said, “She is a class act and an icon. I mean, who else in show business has purple gaffer’s tape to match her gown?!” Then she covered the Rolling Stones with a killer version of “Paint it Black.”
Loretta was back at the 9:30 this past Saturday. The evening’s opener was a band called Southern Culture on the Skids. We arrived about halfway through their set, and I used my time to figure out my camera settings.
You could tell they were almost as excited as I was for them to get off the stage so we could hear Miss Loretta.
During the changeover, I surveyed the audience and found this woman whom I absolutely adored, waiting patiently in the balcony with her dress and her hair.
And then out came the band, like the Trapp Family Singers or something from the Grand Ole Opry. It was a Lynn Family Reunion. They poured onto the stage, one by one, but no Loretta. I began to panic, fearing that the head of the family herself might not be attending. It all started with Ernie Lynn. Good Lord. He is a caricature of a country music song, the kind of guy who sounds like he has had a hard hard life or, one suspects, has made it hard. I don’t know anything about him, but just by looking at his skin and hearing his voice, you can tell. “The last time I was here I was on the tuh-quill-yah,” he announced. “Tequila! They had to carry me out to the bus.” There was some polite laughter, but all I could think was, “What’s wrong? Where is Loretta? We’ve already had an opening act, what is this fool doing?” “Tonight I’m gonna be good, though,” he continued. “Some people drink to forget. But I drink to remember.” Then he sang Conway Twitty’s “Slow Hand,” off the album Southern Comfort, and it was fabulous. Suddenly I was sandwiched in between my brothers in the back seat of my parents’ powder blue Suburban, heading down an old country road listening to mom and dad up front, singing along to every word. (And who knew Twitty’s version was a remake? “Slow Hand” was originally recorded by the Pointer Sisters!)
Anyway, after Ernie sang I could feel the audience tingling. We knew she was coming. I found myself cutting eyes across to both wings, searching for the flash of a colorful sleeve, or the whip of big, dry hair — wondering what gown she would be wearing, what jewels. Then suddenly onto the stage popped two younger looking Lorettas, who turned out to be her twin daughters. “Mama had a knee replacement five months ago,” one of them told us before they fired up a song of their own. And I knew something was very wrong. They were covering. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t well. She couldn’t stand or walk. She wasn’t coming after all. The cancellation of her March show was just the beginning, as I’d been predicting for months. Maybe she was dead out in the bus, mere feet from the stage! They’re letting us down easy, I thought. They’re going to sing a few songs, some of her classics maybe, and then tell us their sad, sad news. We would be like those poor movie goers in Evita when they first learn that Eva Peron has passed away. What we would do? How would I react?
There were so many disjointed, frightening thoughts flying through my head, like wasn’t Poison missing its lead guitarist?
Then finally, almost suddenly, she appeared, looking beautiful and sounding even better, no wheelchair in sight! She sashayed onto the stage like Betty White accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, floating almost. Perhaps purple is her 9:30 color? I don’t know. But her gown was a delicate lilac, and perfectly asparkle.
She played to the audience, let us sing and shout. She took requests. “Whadda y’all wunna hear?” she’d ask after each number. She smiled and waved. And she sang her heart out (an actual concern).
She sounded wonderful, her voice as crystal clear and sharp and twangy as ever (that’s Ernie behind her). She was as full of ain’ts and cain’ts and hollers and yonders as you would wish her to be.
Though while she sang I feared several things: that she would forget the lyrics or, worse, where she was and what she was doing; that her new knee would give out and she would collapse on the stage; or that she would, in some Kirk Douglas being trotted out like an awards show pony sort of way, look old. She did look old, of course. But it wasn’t sad old. It was easy to forget just how old Loretta is (76, so really not that old) when she was singing songs like “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” “The Pill” and “Who Says God is Dead!” And, of course, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Late in the show, after protesting throughout the set that she wasn’t tired, she sat down while the band performed “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and a few other covers. For a brief moment I thought she might nod off, or expire right in front of us.
But she kept coming back. And we kept loving her for it.
The country girl who got married at twelve and rose up the country music charts shimmered beneath the stage lights. No beaded gown or fancy pearl-white touring bus could outshine this rough hewn diamond, this bigger than life personality and legendary musical talent. She was a consummate professional. She knew when and what to sing, she knew when to rest, and she knew when to call it a night.