Lush, rolling hills. Crisp mountain air. Banjos, fiddles and mandolins. … Chicken Alfredo?
Very little has changed about Merlefest over the years, but backstage at the Watson Theater, organizers are branching out with some not-so-Southern cuisine for artists and press. Fortunately, country queen Loretta Lynn is onstage, providing enough downhome nostalgia for the thousands braving sprinkling rain. Dressed in a rhinestone-studded, hot pink, western-styled jacket with black slacks, the petite Lynn struggles through the opening song—the appropriately campy “Hey Loretta.” Unfortunately, pesky allergies have compromised Lynn’s voice. “I can’t hit a high note [tonight] for nothin,’” she says, “but I’m tryin’ and that’s the best I can do.’”
Even with her voice not belting full-throttle, “hillbilly feminist” Lynn is still remarkably sharp and relevant, running through hits like “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “I Wanna Be Free” and “Fist City” with plenty of trademark spunk. Disappointingly, though, she only plays two songs from her Grammy-winning album, Van Lear Rose—“Family Tree” and a rushed-through version “Portland Oregon.”
Still, with Lynn’s homey stage presence, you don’t feel like you’re at a soggy, mountain concert, but in Loretta’s own living room. Seated for most of the show, she repeatedly chats with the audience, fielding questions, song requests and warmly receiving shouts of “I love you!” to which Lynn always responds with a sweet “I love you too, honey.”
Her twin daughters, Patsy and Peggy, who now regularly sing backup at Lynn’s shows, are extremely protective of their under-the-weather mother, continually keeping her on track—which is no easy task since Lynn has wonderfully impulsive tendencies, following personal whims or fan’s requests. After telling their momma to take a swig of water and move on to the next song, the ever-feisty Lynn responds, “If I was gonna’ drink somethin’ it’d be moonshine.”
In defiance of her throat’s condition, The Coal Miner’s Daughter closes with her namesake, casting aside her chair and pushing her stressed vocal chords for a powerful finale. As she reaches deep within her soul for the strength to pull off a show-stopper, it becomes suddenly clear—a hoarse, occasionally off-pitch Loretta Lynn is better than most artists at 100 percent.
Even for the hardened rock press, it’s tough not to be slightly giddy around such a legend. After the show, we saunter over to the famous pink- and-purple tour bus with Lynn’s name airbrushed on the side. A few fans have gathered, but there’s no sign of Loretta, (we’re all informed she’s already in bed). But after a few minutes the bus door opens, and out comes one of Lynn’s special envoys, handing out the next best thing on this first night of Merlefest—autographed brochures advertising her Hurricane Mills, Tennessee ranch. Only Lynn could turn self-promotion into something special.
Feel better Loretta.