“Live by Request” Finds Loretta Lynn Unchanged

Listening to Loretta Lynn’s Live by Request on A&E Thursday (March 15), one was reminded that country music is the only profession in which arrested development is counted as a virtue. Although she has been a musical trailblazer, Lynn boasted repeatedly in her songs and stories of how little life has changed her. It’s enough to make one wonder why the ability to adapt works well for every living organism except country singers.

Songs like “You’re Lookin’ at Country” and Lynn’s more recent “Country in my Genes” sounded almost pathological in their zeal for a lifestyle in which isolation and deprivation were apparently the bright spots.

Strictly as a performer, though, the 66-year-old Lynn was magnificent. Her voice has lost some of its original desperate energy, but her personality is as engaging and her wit as quick as ever. The stop-and-go format of the two-hour call-and-request show served Lynn’s fans better than it did her music, but that’s what it was designed to do.

The banter between Lynn and her fans was uniformly smooth and natural. When one requested “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take my Man),” Lynn quipped, “She wasn’t neither, honey.” When another asked if she would be touring in his area, she immediately offered to send him her itinerary.

Amid all the gratuitous backpatting from host Joan Lunden and the touching declarations of love from fans calling in, Lynn managed to wedge in 21 songs, beginning with “Hey, Loretta” and ending with “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” A rebroadcast of the documentary on Lynn from A&E’s Biography series led into the live show.

Lynn handled the call-ins from her celebrity friends with regal aplomb. When Garth Brooks phoned to request “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” Lynn greeted him with, “Let me tell you something, baby. When I walked in my dressing room I knew that you’d been here. He’s got my dressing room full of flowers. They’re beautiful. I said, `Nobody but Garth Brooks had ever done this for me.’ Thank you, baby.”

She brushed past the praise from Dixie Chicks’ Emily Robison to ask if fellow Chick, Natalie Maines, had had her baby yet. When told that Maines son had arrived just that morning, Lynn first asked the baby’s name [Jackson Slade] and then, with all the weary recollections of a six-time mother, intoned, “I’m so happy it’s over for her.”

Robison wanted to hear Lynn sing her truculent “Fist City.” She not only got that but the story behind it. The inspiration began, Lynn said, when she returned home from a tour and couldn’t find her husband, Doolittle, a man famous for his roving eye and other appendages. “So I got in the car and drove around,” Lynn recalled. “While I was driving around, I seen my horse in another person’s pasture. … So that was the end of that story. She ain’t around no more. The last time I heard of her, she was on her way to Florida. Somebody probably drownded her down there. She ain’t got much hair left either.”

Lynn was affectionately brusque when new father Vince Gill called. “Hey, Vince,” she asked, “Why ain’t you here?” Said Gill, “Me and my new baby, Corrina, are watching you on the big tube tonight.” Lynn was not impressed: “The baby? You didn’t have it. I bet you don’t have one stretch mark nowhere. Poor little Amy.” (Gill’s wife is singer Amy Grant.) Gill’s request was for his own song, “Table for Two,” which Lynn recorded on her new album, Still Country.

Earl Scruggs and his son Randy, who produced Lynn’s new album, joined her on stage to play “Country in my Genes.” The younger Scruggs, who has known the singer since he was 13, told the audience that she was a delight to work with in the studio. Although Still Country was Lynn’s first solo album since 1988, it obviously held no nostalgic importance for her. “This one wasn’t any different,” she told Lunden. “I just walked in and done it.” She was properly solicitous of 77-year-old Earl Scruggs, her fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member, when he rose to step off the stage. “Honey,” she said, “don’t you fall down when you start down there.”

Mighty-voiced Martina McBride dropped by to sing two “mother” songs with Lynn: “One’s on the Way” and the still-notorious “The Pill.” And Lynn’s twin daughters, Peggy and Patsy, accompanied her on “Hello, Mr. Lonesome.” One of the twins mentioned that it was a song she and her sister used to play at a local honky tonk. “That’s where their daddy played too,” smirked Loretta.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.