Loretta Lynn definitely knows how to throw a birthday party. And where to host it. The extraordinary lady and one of the most important figures in country music history celebrated her 85th birthday as she welcomed fans, friends and family to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Friday night (April 14), for the first of two weekend concerts. Loretta, born April 14, 1932, was joined by her sisters Crystal Gayle and Peggy Sue and special guests Martina McBride and Shawn Camp.
Though no cake could be seen onstage, Loretta served up plenty of goodies for the audience nonetheless. Loretta, clad in a floor-length, sparkly teal dress, reprised a number of her classic hits, including “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “The Pill” and her signature tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Ever the entertainer, Loretta spiced her performance with some well-timed humor and warm recollections of her career.
The quips came quickly, not long after opening act Shawn Camp, her frequent writing partner of late, finished his set. As Loretta took her seat on the Ryman stage, backed by a seven-piece band, she kicked off the night with “I Wanna Be Free” and followed with a birthday announcement. “I’m 26 years old,” she exclaimed, drawing laughs from the audience. The always-feisty entertainer also let it be known that she could “outwork any 26-year-old under the table,” which she proceeded to prove with a finely-paced 90-minute set.
First things first, though. Loretta had to tend to her gown, shifting it away from the floor as she sat. “I need a new dress,” she announced. “This one’s about ten miles too long for me.”
Loretta then shared a little nugget after her rendition of “Blue Kentucky Girl,” one of her earliest Top 10 hits. “That is my all-time favorite song,” Loretta declared. “Even over ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ I wish I’d written it.” At another point in the show, Loretta told the audience that “I’m singing in my favorite place,” referring to the historic Ryman in downtown Nashville. She recalled her case of the nerves when she made her debut at the Ryman in the early 1960’s as part of a Grand Ole Opry show. “The only thing I remember is patting my foot to my song,” she smiled.
It would hardly have been a birthday bash, though, without gifts and guests. To the crowd’s surprise and applause, Martina McBride took the stage, bearing flowers and birthday wishes for her musical idol. The two strong-voiced ladies harmonized on the appropriately powerful “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” earning a standing ovation from the packed house.
The hits continued with “She’s Got You,” a No. 1 hit for Loretta, and “The Pill,” a song that stirred plenty of controversy when it debuted in 1975. Loretta also gave fans a sneak peek at her upcoming new album, Wouldn’t It Be Great, out August 18, with her performance of the title track. On that one, though, she needed a bit of assistance from her daughter Patsy, who came to her side to help with the lyrics. “I should learn it before I sing it,” Loretta cracked, seizing the moment.
The celebration turned into a true family affair as Loretta’s younger sister Peggy Sue Wright entered, joining Loretta on “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” Loretta’s first No. 1 single. Sister Crystal Gayle, who became a star in her own right, teamed with Loretta and Peggy Sue for the pop hit “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and Loretta’s 1968 No. 1, “Fist City.”
During another segment, Loretta poignantly asked, “Do you all miss Conway?” speaking, of course, about her popular duet partner, the late Conway Twitty. Loretta and her band leader evoked memories of Conway as they sang “Lead Me On,” one of five chart-toppers recorded by Conway and Loretta.
No Loretta show would be complete without “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the autobiographical tune she wrote about her youth in Kentucky. Peggy Sue and Crystal returned to the stage to sing it with Loretta, bringing the audience to its feet one more time.
It was the perfect way to cap a birthday celebration. And the weekend party will continue with another show Saturday night at the Ryman.
photo by Bob Paxman