Emmy Rose, Loretta Lynn’s 23-year-old granddaughter, doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a member of a royal family. But, standing backstage at this week’s live broadcast of the memorial concert and tribute for her grandmother, she establishes exactly what “Mee-maw’s” path and ultimate destination were. “She saw herself as just a coal miners’ daughter, and she was just relaying her story,” Emmy says. “and then she became a queen for being ordinary.”
That’s not just an honorary title family members came up with; a good plurality of those who performed or presented on the CMT telecast of “Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Celebration of the Life & Music of Loretta Lynn” referred to the late singer-songwriter as “the Queen of Country.” That’s quite a shared consensus, in a genre that has seen powerful, culture-shaking women from Dolly Parton going backward to Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline and on forward to Shania Twain. If you accept Lynn owning that title, it means that Sunday night’s memorial service is the second one we’ve had for a true female monarch this fall — and, with no offense to Brittania, the one with the most repeat value.
Which means there will be a lot of interest in catching up with the two commercial-free re-broadcasts that CMT has scheduled for the 90-minute show — one tonight (Nov. 2) at 8 p.m ET/PT and 7 central, and another this coming Sunday morning (Nov. 6) at 11 a.m. ET/PT and 10 CT. (The initial live airing Sunday night brought in a huge amount of viewers for CMT, making it the network’s most-watched original program in four years or more among overall viewers and key demos, producing numbers CMT hasn’t seen since the TV series “Nashville” finished out its run.
Variety was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville Sunday night as stars and family members exchanged hugs, sympathy and laughs. Performers included Wynonna Judd, Jack White, Brandi Carlile, the Highwomen, Tanya Tucker, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Margo Price, Little Big Town and others, with presenters including Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Barbara Mandrell and Sheryl Crow. Taylor Swift was among those adding video testimonials… although the most moving tribute was the one Lynn herself offered her fans, in an opening audio message that the star recorded for them this spring, not that many months before she died on Oct. 4.
The show began and ended with two of its most powerhouse, emotive belters. “I’ve learned from this show to always bookend with Wynonna and Brandi,” laughed Jason Owen, whose Sandbox Productions co-produced the memorial with CMT.
Carlile shared her feelings about Lynn as she was about to take the Opry stage, and the importance of paying it forward for women artists in particular, with a thought by way of her friend and production client Tanya Tucker. “Tanya was talking about this song she wanted to write with Loretta called ‘More Like You.’ She said that Loretta wanted to be more like Patsy, and then she wanted to be more like Loretta. And then I’m never gonna stop wanting to be more like Tanya, you know? There’s this lineage – this family lineage – of women supporting each other that I think Loretta has passed down to my generation. And I see it, because the way that Loretta treated Tanya and Wynonna is the way that Tanya and Wynonna are now treating me, and the way that I want to treat younger women coming up in country music, too. We’re cut from strong fabric, and it’s because of Loretta. She’s always been a girls’ girl.”
For the finale of the show, Carlile’s side group, the Highwomen, sang a collective version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” but just prior to that, she did a solo number. It was the only song of the night that was not originated by or most associated with, Lynn herself, but rather was a smash for one of Loretta’s dearest friends at the outset of her career: “She’s Got You,” as bravura a number for Carlile Sunday as it was six decades ago for Cline. Lynn “just loved Patsy so much, and I like thinking about the two of them back together again,” said Carlile. “And so I’m gonna do that for them… reunited. The reunited Patsy and Loretta.”
When it came time to close the show with “Coal Miner,” though, Carlile for her part went into a dead-on impression of Lynn’s unmistakable vocal inflections. “I can’t not do it. It’s really hard for me not to mimic the way she sang and her accent, because it’s so interwoven into the songwriting. I’m just gonna give into it. If there’s ever a time, today’s a good time.”
Not very many of Lynn’s signature songs were gender-neutral. As Amanda Shires, a fellow member of the Highwomen, put it backstage, “You know that song ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)’? See, that’s a song that women can (primarily) appreciate. But men do, too — as a cautionary tale.”
Darius Rucker performed what might be the feistier song in a catalog that had its lyrically pugnacious moments, “Fist City.” You might have figured he would change the gender pronouns in the lyrics, but Rucker said that would have been sacreligious. “’Fist City’ is one of those songs that showed how empowered she was as an artist,” Rucker said. “To write a song about beating up a woman who’s sleeping with your husband is about as Loretta as it gets. I wanted to do that just because it just shows how really powerful she was. And you know, when you’re singing a Loretta Lynn song, you don’t change the gender because changing the gender, I think, would take away from the song. It’s about her.”
Emmy Rose took a moment to think about how many of her grandmother’s songs accuse her husband, Doolittle, of untoward behavior with other women. Lynn took her revenge, if that was what she even considered it, via lyrical content, and nothing so unspeakable as divorce.
“I like her spice on ‘Fist City’ and ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)’,” said Rose. “Just her honesty and emotion with those — and it’s about my grandfather, you know? It’s funny to hear. I’m like, ‘What kind of grandfather…? Bless his heart.’ But I mean, honestly, it’s his fault! He does it, she writes it.” She feels a kinship to both of them despite the portrait of the relationship that came out in some of Lynn’s material. “I was born two months premature on their anniversary. He passed away a couple years before I was born. So I’ve never met him, but I feel like I have. She loved him. Loves him still, probably, iIn heaven. Now they’re together.”
Rose didn’t go with any of those songs for her performance on the telecast, though. She sang a more spiritual number, “Lay Me Down,” with Lukas Nelson — the son of the man who cut the song with Lynn as a duet, Willie Nelson. To say it was spooky hearing these two familiar-sounding voices recreate their forebears’ duet parts would be an understatement. For Rose, who spent most of her life opening for “Mee-maw” on tour, it marked the first time she had performed in public at all since Lynn had a stroke some years back and quietly retreated from live performances. Nelson’s support wasn’t just for symbolic resonance. “Emmy called me and she said she didn’t want to do it alone, so she asked me to do it with her,” he said. “I imagine being up there could be difficult. it’s your grandma too, so in the middle of the song you might get a little bit choked up. It’s helpful to have somebody like me, or anyone really, but I’m honored she chose me.”
The threat of tears was omnipresent for many of those participating, although it was only Faith Hill, co-presenting with husband Tim McGraw, that actually broke down enough that a partner had to fill in the gap for her.
“At least my tears are dried up,” said the Highwomen’s Shires — who had glamorous fake tears affixed to her face. “Rhinestones to distract from it — so they blend in, like in (the Temptations’) ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ song.”
In her dressing room after the show, Margo Price also said she “got a lot of crying done in the rehearsals and prior to getting out on stage.” Which was a good thing, because her pick of song — “The Pill,” a song that may stand as the sexiest and the most feminist of Lynn’s career, not to mention among the funniest — would have been a poor choice to weep through.
Of her friendship with Lynn — which included a recent recorded duet version of another one of the legend’s pregnancy-themed songs, “One’s on the Way” —Price said, “Oh my goodness. It was absolutely surreal. You know, I don’t have Grammys at home on my shelf and I don’t have a whole bunch of awards or anything, but just being able to call Loretta Lynn a mutual friend means the world to me.”
Noted Price, “I called my first album ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’ and pulled all sorts of writing tricks and mood and attitude from her. And for her to support me and encourage me, as she always did… She was always out there championing other women. I don’t think that my song ‘Pay Gap’ (about differing income between men and women) would’ve existed without songs like ‘The Pill.’ Loretta really made the blueprint and she broke it. She was absolutely one of the bravest, boldest and most brilliant songwriters that I’ve ever had the chance to know and collaborate with.
“I met her for the first time on April Fool’s Day 2016, and got the chance to join her on stage. I was going to sing ‘Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven’ with her, and after that she just had me sit down and and sing the whole rest of her set with her. Just never told me ahead of time, but then when I got up there, she scooted over and I sat on her little chair and we sang (her hits). … She gave me a lot of words of encouragement when I found myself pregnant in 2018 with my daughter and just was wondering how it was gonna work with the career and the kids. She said it can be done because she had done it as well — and she gave me the blessing to use Lynn as a middle name for my daughter.”
Before going on stage, Tanya Tucker talked about her choice of song for the tributre. “I could probably do the whole show, you know, But I chose ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ because it was just a real special song that my dad wanted me to do, and my dad and Loretta, they loved each other. And so I thought it would be kind of honoring both of them tonight.”
No one on stage had a tighter bond with the late honoree than Tucker. “Loretta is part of my DNA. Without her, I don’t know what would’ve happened, because she was really at the nucleus of … not my talent, but my choice of songs and my choice of heroes. She was it for me. And you know, I tried to copy everything she did, until of course I developed my own style, but she’s at the root of that style of mine. Without that, I don’t know what I’d have been.”
Although the format of the tribute didn’t allow for any storytelling by the performers, Tucker had plenty about the professional advice Lynn gave her as a next-generation devotee. “She said, ‘I tell you what, when you hit a high note, don’t stay there long. Just get there and go,’” Tucker laughed, then broke into a sung demonstration that resonated through the Opry House’s hallway. “And when she goes, ‘If you looking at me, you’re looking at country… ‘cause country’s all I am… Does a barnyard shovel fit your hand,’ she said, ‘You just gotta act like you’ve got got a hiccup: ‘Hah-ah-ah-and.’ And so I took that.
“I’ve just got a lot of little memories like that, that I have to really kind of not think about until I get ouy there and sing. Because I can’t sing and cry at the same time — you know, do one or the other. Boy, that’d be awful. OK, let’s don’t jinx it, Tanya!”
Tucker is a fairly tough cookie, but she says she’s no match for Lynn. “She was one of the toughest gals I’ve ever known. She reached up in her bus to get her guitar out of the top of the bus, and it come down on her and she broke three ribs — and she was on stage the next night. Of course the next night, I went up and saw her and laid in bed with her, and she told me about what had happened. Merle Haggard was there, doing his show at her ranch, Hurricane Mills, and we just laid there and talked about writing songs.”
Tucker’s highest praise for Lynn is simple: “She’s a good ’un. And I’m just so thankful she got to live as long as she did. I just recently saw her. Every time I go by, I’d try to stop in and see her, on my way down 40.” (Hurricane Mills is an easy stop for anyone headed to or from Memphis from Nashville on their tour routing.) “So I’ll miss her. I talked to Tim (Cobb, Lynn’s personal assistant) a while ago and he said, ‘You ain’t gonna stop coming, are you?’ I said, ‘Hell, no, I’m gonna keep coming to see you.’ Because her spirit will be there, like it is in my heart.”
Lynn continues to influence some of country’s most nascent likely stars, like Brittney Spencer, who joined the Highwomen for the night in the place of Maren Morris. (“We do miss Maren,” said Natalie Hemby, “but Brittney is like… she’s our girl. She’s amazing.”) Spencer is part of an encouraging wave of young Black artists who have chosen to plant their flag in country, despite the lack of predecessors, and Lynn is just the fearless role model she can look to, despite the vast generation gulf.
“She just told the truth and she wrote specifically for people who wanted to be very honest — you know, she wrote for women,” says Spencer. “ I was so shocked to learn that she knew I existed when she asked me to sing at her flood relief benefit concert right here at the Opry earlier this year. And to get to be able to do this tonight with my sisters, the Highwomen, it’s a dream. I feel like Loretta brought so many people together, and tonight’s no different.”
Shires added that Lynn “showed everybody that there was plenty of room for us all to be out there, and the fact that four of us could get up there and sing together just shows you that we have come a little bit of a distance since the olden days,” when one “girl singer” at a time was the norm. As someone who has been a side woman in bands in the past as a fiddler before making her name as a solo artist, Shires was particularly heartened to see who got included in the house band for the memorial. “Did you see there was a lady drummer and a lady bass player? It’s nice to see more of us up there; coming from when I came up, there was very few. The first (female) side person I ever saw was Bobbie Nelson (Willie’s pianist sister), so now I can see more folks, and it’s a good feeling.”
Among the video testimonials in the show was one from the most popular artist of the moment, Swift, who said: “I’m so grateful to Loretta Lynn for being an example for all songwriters everywhere — most specifically, female songwriters, getting to say things that might make people uncomfortable. She was so ahead of her time and the way that she exercised brutal, truthful, fearless honesty every time she sat down to write a song is something that I think changed music forever and paved the way for every songwriter that is trying to be truthful and honest today.”
One of the key forces bringing the memorial together was Lynn’s daughter, Patsy Lynn, who had hits back in the ‘90s as a member of the duo the Lynns and more recently has been in charge of her mother’s affairs. (She is also the mother of Emmy Rose, who is working on an album.) Her mother “wanted a public memorial, but she also knew that she had a family that really wanted that private moment with her. And so all of us got together and talked with our mom, and we all came up with: You can do both. We can have our moment saying goodbye to our mom, and we can have a public memorial and be there and celebrate her life. …. Tanya and I keep talking and I’m like, she may not be here, but she always be here. She just laid down a legacy that will continue, and that is comforting. This is heartbreaking,” she allowed.
“I’ve been taking care of mom’s business for a long time, and the outpouring from all the artists and the messages that we’ve been getting from fans truly has been comforting, because you’re not sad alone. You’re sad with millions of people that have lost someone who is very important to them, who may not be their mother, but is still very important to them in their life. My mom wrote this song that we haven’t released yet (that will be on an upcoming record), about having a friend, and she said ‘a friend is someone who makes a friend that will remember them when,’ and it’s just the truth. And mom made millions of them.”
The line of people hoping to get into the Opry House, extending across a couple of nearby parking lots, was testament to that, as were the tears from minute one inside the house.
Other than Faith Hill, maybe no one was more emotional, on-stage or off, than Wynonna, who opened the show with the Gaither Vocal Band singing “How Great Thou Art.” It has only been five months since Judd went through this herself when her mother died, and it was largely the same team that worked on Naomi’s memorial (also broadcast by CMT) as worked on Lynn’s.
“Any time Wynonna opens her mouth, it’s gonna blow the roof off a building,” said Owen, who is also producing the ongoing Judds tribute tour Wynonna is leading. But as for the idea that Wy might have been able to approach this memorial more objectively than her mother’s, Owen said it wasn’t that simple. “Loretta was like another mother to her. They were really, really, really close. And to have the passing of both Naomi and Loretta basically within six months of each other was really hard for her. And I think Wynonna is very connected spiritually and I think that she probably felt all of it in that moment” kicking off the memorial.
“She was emotional. She was emotional,” repeated CMT’s Leslie Fram, who co-executive-produced the show with Owen, Margaret Comeaux, Patrizia DiMaria and Ebie McFarland. “I’m hoping she can find some healing through all of this.” Fram talked about the perforance Judd had just given at Bridgestone Arena prior to the memorial. “She dropped the mic — on purpose — at that show, because she had given it everything she got, and it was like a mic drop moment. She’s giving it everything she has every single night of this tour. So I’m glad she was able to sit (after her performance) and enjoy tonight, but I can’t even imagine the emotions she was going through.”
Said Rucker, “This was like being in church tonight, when they opened up with ‘How Great Thou Art.’” And maybe like being in the middle of an intersex bar brawl, too, given that his choice of song was “Fist City”? “And that, too,” he laughed.
Added Rucker, “Ever since I came to Nashville” — looking for a country solo career to supplement or even supplant his role with Hootie and the Blowfish — “she was one of my biggest supporters, and once we met each other, it was just like, you know, she always called me her boyfriend and that was awesome.”
Wait… didn’t Keith Urban also talk during the show about how she invited him to the CMT Awards some years back to be her “date”? “She had a few boyfriends,” Rucker said. “I love it. And that was Loretta. She just loved people. … Long live the Queen of country.”
As evidence of the two-way street with fans, Owen pointed to how last spring, Lynn had worked with Patsy to record the audio letter that was played at the top of the telecast against a moving visual montage. “That’s something that was really important, that being played in the service, according to Patsy,” Owen said.
The message Lynn left with her fans, as read in her own voice: “To my friends, thank you for giving me such a great life. I have never taken it or you for granted. Because of you, my kids didn’t have to grow up poor the way I did. As a mother, I didn’t have to go to bed heartbroken. What you gave me allowed me to give them a better life. I hope you know what a gift that is. I have shared my story so many times through my songs, through my books, through my movie. I have tried to give back to you as much as I could, even though I know I can’t. I could never repay you for the life and the love that you’ve given to me. Thank you. I’ve traveled all over the world, but I never got to see much, that is, except for you – my fans, my friends. I want you to know that I saw and remember every one of you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
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