She boasts the kind of stats that have garnered induction into multiple Halls of Fame — both the Country Music and the Songwriters — plus a Kennedy Center Honor and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her story arc is the stuff of which Oscar-winning Hollywood movies (Coal Miner’s Daughter) are made. But at the intersection of those numbers and that narrative is a woman who, as she has often said, wrote songs to make herself feel better.
That Loretta Lynn’s songs went on to provide solace and joy to millions around the globe and inspired countless other musicians to try and do the same was the reason that more than two dozen of country music’s best and brightest gathered Monday night at the Bridgestone arena in Nashville to celebrate the upcoming 87th birthday of the American icon in song.
The show, which clocked in at a relatively compact two and a half hours — a similar all-star lovefest for Willie Nelson in January ran closer to four due to recording for broadcast‚ was both reverent and risqué, solemn and side-splitting as the parade of artists highlighted the plainspoken but wise storytelling at the core of Lynn’s music.
The night also served as a reminder of the historical power of women in the genre and those who have taken Lynn’s lessons and applied them to their own music. From the ecstatically harmonious debut of the new supergroup the Highwomen to Kacey Musgraves’ sassy take on “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” to Brandy Clark’s jaunty version of “You’re Lookin’ at Country” to Alison Krauss transforming the arena into a church for an absolutely stunning rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul,” women were a force throughout the night. (It felt like an unintended but timely rebuke to the current war of omission happening at country radio for female artists.)
Between acts both classic and contemporary, backed by a dynamite house band led by producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), video interludes detailed Lynn’s rise from coal miner’s daughter in Butcher Hollow, Ky., to the toast of country music. Recorded tributes also came in from those who couldn’t attend, including Luke Bryan, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and Dolly Parton.
The night concluded with an all-star singalong of Lynn’s signature song “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Sister Crystal Gayle urged a frail Lynn to sing as the night’s stars — including an excitable Dennis Quaid — began the song and, after some initial hesitation, she bit into the number with heartening fire.
Plus: Keith Urban popped out of a cake! (This had been Lynn’s birthday wish and, sitting side stage all night receiving well wishes, she seemed to enjoy it.)
Here are just a few of the other highlights from the show.
Brandi Carlile soars, and the Highwomen make a stunning debut
Grammy winner Carlile has been making something of a cottage industry of performing at tributes, including those for Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Chris Cornell, Aretha Franklin, and now Lynn in the span of six months. (She even was playing a tribute — to Roy Orbison — when she appeared as herself in A Star Is Born.) In each instance, the roof was definitely in danger. Monday night it was her take on the aching “She’s Got You,” a Patsy Cline number recorded by Lynn in tribute to her friend, that had the crowd standing up and cheering as she imbued the song with power and vulnerability.
Carlile also joined Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires, and Maren Morris for the live debut of their supergroup Highwomen, who are working on a record with Cobb. The quartet slayed Kitty Wells’ deliciously tart track “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” weaving their voices into a stunning tapestry. It was a thrilling sight to behold Hemby, a well-known songwriter who’s collaborated with everyone from Lady Gaga to Miranda Lambert, in particular taking center stage lifting her big voice to the rafters. (Shires’ husband, Jason Isbell, also unassumingly joined in on guitar.)
Another supergroup, the Pistol Annies — featuring Miranda Lambert, Ashely Monroe, and Angaleena Presley — also seized their moment, adding their considerable spark and charm to the classic warning anthem “Fist City.” Lambert also offered her spirited take on “Don’t Come Home a Drinking (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).”
Tanya Tucker, who is releasing a new album produced by Carlile and Shooter Jennings, made a powerful and poignant comeback previewing the title track of that album, “While I’m Living,” a wearied and knowing piano ballad about appreciating what and who you have while you are still able to do so. Carlile backed Tucker with tender key flourishes and vocals.
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood channel Conway and Loretta
In a segment devoted to Lynn’s famed duets with Conway Twitty, that also included inspired pairings of Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack and George Strait and Martina McBride, Brooks and Yearwood brought palpable chemistry to bear on “After the Fire Is Gone.”
Jack White and Margo Price rock the country
Price had already garnered huge cheers for performing, appropriately enough, “One’s on the Way,” but she returned to help rattle the cage with White — who produced Lynn’s stellar 2004 comeback album, Van Lear Rose — on a raucous version of “Portland, Oregon.”
Keith Urban does double duty
While popping out of Lynn’s birthday cake was a sweet treat, Urban’s best moment onstage came early in the evening with his wistful, stripped down piano and voice version of “Blue Kentucky Girl.”