NEW YORK — Once a year, New York City hosts a grand celebration of the art of songwriting. Each time around, the Songwriters Hall of Fame — founded in 1969 by songwriter Johnny Mercer and currently chaired by Burt Bacharach’s famed writing partner, lyricist Hal David — leaves the flashy sets and gaudy glitz to the Grammys and honors another batch of esteemed songwriters at a classy, but cool, induction ceremony.
Thursday night (June 19), in a posh but understated banquet room at the Marriott Marquis hotel in the heart of Times Square, upwards of a thousand guests — mostly music-biz invitees — gathered to witness the honors. Those being feted came from wildly disparate ends of the musical spectrum, from Broadway to alt-rock, but the little lady who brought the house down was, in the words of Hal David, “the pride of Butcher Holler, Kentucky” — Loretta Lynn.
After the crowd had spent over two hours taking in bravura performances from one musical legend after another, it seemed like nothing could take them by surprise, but they hadn’t yet been introduced to the Coal Miner’s Daughter. Lee Ann Womack started off the segment, stepping onto the stage with her flowing white dress and platinum locks like a honky-tonk angel whose mission of the moment was to spread the gospel according to Loretta. She delivered the message in a note-perfect rendition of Lynn’s 1966 smash, “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Womack’s voice rang out sweet and clear on the classic tough-gal anthem, but there was no way it could prepare the audience for what was to come.
After her performance, Womack stepped to the dais to deliver an introduction extolling Lynn as a feminist force in country music and an artist who wrote about the realities women faced across the nation in such songs as “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “The Pill.” She went on to underscore Lynn’s continued relevance today, pointing to her successful 2004 collaboration with the White Stripes’ Jack White on the Van Lear Rose album. In case anyone needed further convincing, Womack tallied up the honky-tonk heroine’s string of hit songs and No. 1 singles and albums. At this point, the lady in question appeared on the stage, resplendent in a long, light-blue, spangle-bedecked dress with puffed shoulders, looking like the proverbial cat that ate the canary. She admitted that she’d had her fill of awards shows, but when she heard this one was centered around songwriting, she was eager to attend, observing that the honor meant “more to me than any award I’ve ever gotten for singing.”
An anticipatory roar from the audience filled the room as Lynn headed toward the center-stage microphone. Within a few seconds, the jaws of nearly every member of the seen-it-all crowd plunged downward in joyous disbelief, for the voice that emanated from this 74-year-old country music veteran was virtually indistinguishable from that heard on her epochal ’60s hits, other than the fact that it was charged at that moment with perhaps even more verve and emotion as she launched into the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” With no prodding from the stage, the audience spontaneously began clapping along, turning the august event into a down-home hoedown as Lynn sang of her modest upbringing and country-girl pride. The enraptured attendees immediately jumped to their feet the instant she finished, their enthusiasm ringing out clearly.
The beaming singer turned to leave, but the crowd, which hadn’t responded so vigorously to anything else during the long evening, proved unstoppable in its effort to return her to the stage. She amiably agreed to an off-the-cuff encore, and it quickly became evident that this happenstance had not been on anyone’s agenda. After a quick consultation with the house band about the proper key, she kicked off “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin'” as the musicians nervously looked at each other, frantically trying to pick up the chord changes as they went along. Ultimately, the seasoned pros got just enough of a handle on the tune to offer a sparse, tentative accompaniment, but they might just as easily have been pumping it out at full power as Lynn, undaunted as ever, belted out the tune with the same spirit and vocal agility she’d brought to the previous song. Any dynamic gap between her assertive delivery and the band’s uneasy backup was quickly filled in as the crowd began clapping happily along once again, reluctantly letting Lynn exit the stage after she reached the end of the tune.
She may have run away with the evening, but Lynn wasn’t the only memorable country artist on the bill. Blake Shelton was on hand for a tribute to songwriter Albert Hammond, who is responsible for such songs as “It Never Rains in Southern California” and the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” The towering Shelton ambled out onto the stage to grace the crowd with his rendition of the Hammond-penned “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” a hit for Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias in 1984. Shelton’s performance de-emphasized the pop production aspects of the ubiquitous tune and wound up quite a bit more country-sounding than the original. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Shelton brought his own distinctive twangy croon to bear, imparting the song with genuine emotion.
Speaking of country-pop crossovers, Anne Murray, the original queen of that particular kingdom, was in attendance to receive the Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award, an honor named after one of the co-founders of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In introducing the Canadian-born singer, songwriter Randy Goodrum smilingly confessed that his favorite Murray recording was his own “You Needed Me.” He also shared an anecdote about John Lennon telling the singer that her version of the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” was his favorite. Unlike Lynn, Murray was unable to totally reproduce the vocal majesty of her glory days, but her performance of Goodrum’s aforementioned composition made up in feeling for anything it lacked in technical perfection.
Country admirers would likely be conversant with the work of an honoree from the pop-rock end of the spectrum, too. John Sebastian, famed for the ’60s folk-rock gems he crafted with the Lovin’ Spoonful, penned an unintentional country standard with “Nashville Cats,” and his “Darlin’ Companion” was once covered by none other than Johnny Cash and June Carter. A Spoonful classic, “Do You Believe in Magic,” was delivered by adolescent pop sensations the Naked Brothers Band, with Sebastian adding autoharp, before the songwriter was joined by original Spoonful bassist Steve Boone for “Lovin’ You” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.”
During the course of the nearly three-hour-long festivities, a wealth of singers, songwriters and styles were represented onstage. Hit doctor Desmond Child delivered a medley of tunes he has penned for everyone from Ricky Martin to presenter Joan Jett. Paul Anka unabashedly undertook a “duet” with the recorded voice of Frank Sinatra on Anka’s “My Way” (admittedly the night’s nadir). Show tune shaman Alan Menken sat at a piano and picked out his Disney hits from the likes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But for all the diversity on display, it seems unlikely that anyone in attendance could have left the event holding anything closer to their heart than the memory of the irrepressible force of nature that is Loretta Lynn.