Drury Lane Theatre - Oakbrook Terrace, IL - June 24, 2012
One of the issues with modern music is a lack of authenticity within it. Too many enter the world of music seeking fame and fortune. This mindset is detrimental to most careers. They spend their time trying to make a hit rather than simply trying to be themselves. After the money and hits run out, they're not left with a tangible career. On a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame this past February, I was taken by a piece on controversial songs where they discussed "The Pill" by Loretta Lynn. Musicians have never shied away from steering their art towards nonconformity, but Lynn's song thrust behind-closed-door conversations to town hall. Despite the advances we've made as a society, if an act were to tackle a controversial topic head-on, there would be blowback, so imagine what Lynn went through nearly four decades ago. It's this fearlessness that led to Jack White asking her to open for the White Stripes in New York and who later produced a comeback album (Van Lear Rose) for her which led to a Grammy award and a new level of awareness to a generation of music fans, including myself. She recently performed three sold-out shows at the Drury Lane Theatre and I was there to catch the final one which found Lynn every bit as adoring and socially contemptuous as ever.
"Love's Gonna Live Here Again" opened the show without Loretta. The backing band, consisting of eight musicians, performed a few warm up numbers along with Lynn's twin daughters, Patsy and Peggy who sounded quite good. After a handful of tunes which warmed up the sold-out crowd, Lynn took to the stage in a full body purple ball gown dress looking like country music royalty. She looks exactly as you would imagine. Opening with "They Don't Make 'Em Like My Daddy Anymore" and "You're Lookin' At Country", Lynn held her microphone and sang with a big gleaming smile on her face. Her brand of country music may not be the same we hear on country music radio today, but it's so musically chaste and endearing, much of the great modern songwriters owe her a debt of gratitude for laying the groundwork. "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill" was our first step at the show into the waters of candor and disclosure. What strikes at the heart of Lynn's music was her ability to not just be fearless or candid, but to find her way inside the brooding psyche of the listener. Life is not all wine and roses and yet hearing these songs in concert feel more honest than a pop song that is admirable but misleading. "I Wanna Be Free" is one of the stories that cuts through the red tape of lies and goes instantly for the gut. Even though she is approaching the age of eighty, she is still years ahead of everyone in terms of artistic integrity.
When Loretta Lynn writes, she isn't concerned with being everything to everyone-she simply wants to be heard and to throw a piece of herself into the world. Judging by the attendance numbers alone over three nights, she's succeeded wildly. Listening to "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man" you become acutely aware there is a fight in not just her songs, but her voice as well. Despite being gifted with a set of pipes that could send shivers down one's spine, her music penetrates deep not because of her actual pipes, but because of the emotion she fills each song with. "Blue Kentucky Girl" and "Fist City" were highlighted by a banjo while "Love is the Foundation" was a shout out from a fan in the crowd. Without even batting an eye, Lynn turned to her band and they without delay went into the song and performed it flawlessly. A pair of songs she originally performed with Conway Twitty, "Lead Me On" and "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" was unfussy in their arrangements focusing squarely on the bitter and biting lyrics. The images that leap into your mind are vivid and visceral. "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl", the first song she ever performed, even had a bite to it as she sung it with every bit of her being. Even when she's not pushing social boundaries, her portraits of southern life were performed with tough-as-nails intensity. Towards the end of the set, she took a seat as her band whipped up two current songs recorded by the Eagles, "Hole in the World/ How Long". They nailed each song and dare I say there was more joy in their performance than when I saw the Eagles a few years back. They also performed a forceful "Man on Constant Sorrow". Lynn's band performed each song slow and steady like a tortoise never rushing the songs and caressing Lynn's hard-fought stories with great care and attention. Watching the band do faultless renditions of these songs reminds one of all the immense talents in this world that often goes unnoticed. Not only are they great musicians, but they have become a great band.
The arrangements of Lynn's songs are not musically scorching, but are intellectually searing lyrically. Her lyrics jump out at you, shaking you to your core. "Dear Uncle Sam" spoke to a large part of the crowd who not only fought in wars, but have now had children and grandchildren who have served. Her lyrics, begging her country not to take her man, can be interpreted as showing women as weak, but the truth is that anyone who truly experiences love is weak in some manner. I was more floored by the candor of the lyrics, which no radio station would touch today for fear of angering its listeners. Lynn just released a new book in April, Honky Tonk Girl: My Life In Lyrics showcasing her lyrics and the stories behind the inspirations. The 240-page book takes you into her writing process and inspiration. After the show, I listened to her Gold 2 disc collection and you can't help but be in awe of her talent as she spoke brutal truths and was never afraid to share her experiences with the world.
Lynn was every bit as charming in between songs as she was when she was singing them. She spoke of eating too much before the performance (it was a rare matinee show for her), the struggle to sleep over the previous night and lastly, about her husband, Oliver aka Doolittle, who passed away more than fifteen years ago. Prior to performing "She's Got You", you could see the emotions stir inside her heart which boiled up to her face as she mentioned him. She gasped for breath and signaled the band to start "She's Got You". For the next three minutes, the sold-out crowd watched something extraordinary; an artist truly working through their emotions. I often write about how acts are working through something when they perform. I can never be sure and often take a leap of faith based on what I saw, but this time, without question, Lynn channeled the pain of her husband's loss into a song.
One could write about Lynn's art in the past tense, but I won't. Watching her on the Drury Lane stage, these songs are as alive as they were when she first wrote and recorded them. She sung about things once considered taboo and in some essence they still are, look no further than "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" which is as empowering to women as it was when it was written a few decades back. She laid each and every troubling circumstance out there for all to see and hear. There was a time when music was more than distraction but spoke bitter and hard truths forcing us out of our comfort zone. Were people alienated? You bet, but it transformed the world. For the better part of her life, Loretta Lynn has made a habit of thrusting topics of intimate nature from the indoors to the wider public stirring discussion and based on what I saw on the Drury Lane stage, she isn't going to relent any time soon.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter