MANCHESTER, Tenn. — Loretta Lynn earned a rapturous reception Saturday afternoon (June 11) at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, proving you don’t have to be the Next Big Thing to draw an adoring crowd at the eclectic, four-day event southeast of Nashville.
The 76-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member and her band performed just as the sun was starting to set, with hundreds of fans huddled under an awning known as That Tent. For the first time on a dusty, scorching day, the sun dipped low enough to offer some relief, so music fans could give their undivided attention to one of America’s true musical treasures.
After a Buck Owens tune by bandleader Bart Hanson and two songs by her twin daughters, Lynn stepped out with “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy Anymore.” If anybody didn’t know what they were going to get, she told them in a lively version of “You’re Looking at Country.”
When you give Lynn a microphone, you never know what she’ll say. A few songs in, she wanted to hear more of the band in the monitors, then added, “I might be doing a strip show up here and wouldn’t know it!”
Later, after the punchy “Fist City,” she observed that a lot of people were drinking soft drinks. Turning to Hanson, she smartly added, “If they want to mix that Coke with something else, that’s their business.” The audience, of course, was lapping it up.
Lynn invited the audience to holler up their requests, which prompted performances of “I Wanna Be Free,” “Here I Am Again,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Blue Kentucky Girl” and more. Her band plays every song at pretty much the same tempo — and often faster than the originals — so it’s kind of like a whirlwind primer of her music.
That approach might have actually worked in her favor. Lynn enjoyed her biggest success in the 1970s, before the typical Bonnaroo fan was even born. Amid the mature folks, you could spot the uninitiated fans by their eye-opening expressions when Lynn sang about grabbing a cheating woman by the hair of the head and lifting her off the ground. They especially enjoyed the frankness of “One’s on the Way” and “The Pill,” meshed into one song.
Lynn also took a moment to sing a medley of Patsy Cline songs, including “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You” and “Crazy.” On the latter track, she must’ve been inspired by Willie Nelson, who wrote it, because her delivery was just enough off the beat that singing along was pretty tricky.
At the mere mention of Conway Twitty’s name, the crowd screamed like crazy — not exactly what you’d expect at Bonnaroo. Lynn and Hanson sang a sped-up version of “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” then got part of the way into “Lead Me On” until Lynn sang the last line where the chorus should have been. When the band got temporarily flummoxed, she shrugged it off and told them, “That’s it. I’m tired of this song.”
Then, Lynn sang the first song she wrote, “Honky Tonk Girl,” which was released as her first single in 1960. After the applause, Lynn remarked that she had invited Jack White, who produced her 2004 album, Van Lear Rose, to come onstage with her. This was met with the kind of response you’d get by telling a kindergarten class that Santa Claus was standing in the hallway. However, Lynn added that White stood her up, and if he had been there, he would’ve already been onstage.
“He can’t stand not to sing,” she teased, saying that he doesn’t even know when to leave the stage so she can play her own show.
Lynn’s feisty nature is well-suited to cheatin’ and revenge songs like “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath.” After she sang that one, she told the audience, “I wrote that about my husband. He never did listen to it, either.” As a songwriter, she continued to exhibit her range with the heartbreaking “Dear Uncle Sam” and the defiant “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” If you’ve ever argued that modern audiences don’t care for the legends, the adoration in this show would have proved you completely wrong.
It’s hard to know whether or not she meant to, but Lynn suddenly repeated “You Ain’t Woman Enough” in her set list, this time giving the audience a chance to shout the lyrics back to her. And they did — with fervor.
Lynn took a short break while her harmony singers delivered a few tunes. Then she joined them on a gospel segment, offering “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” (the one about Hezekiah, not the one recorded by Kenny Chesney), “Who Said God Is Dead” and “Where No One Stands Alone.”
For her benediction, she rendered her signature hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and while they probably weren’t too many coal miners’ daughters’ in the audience that day, you’d never know it by the way they sang along. As the show concluded, one young man walked past me, back into the masses. To no one in particular, he exclaimed, “That was awesome!”
Earlier in the day, Alison Krauss & Union Station performed on the large Which Stage, leading with songs from their exceptional new album, Paper Airplane. And when Dan Tyminski sang “Dust Bowl Children,” it fit the sweltering surroundings perfectly. Krauss and her ensemble also relied on tried-and-true favorites, like “Let Me Touch You for a While,” “Now That I Found You,” “Ghost in This House” and “Every Time You Say Goodbye.” She chatted with the crowd in between songs, but her soft speaking voice was drowned out by the rock music from a faraway stage.
At Bonnaroo, you can wander around the festival and hear bands you can’t even see. The bold melodies of Mumford & Sons, for example, could be identified from clear across the field. Part of the fun of Bonnaroo is people-watching. As I was watching Old Crow Medicine Show, I saw a lot of phones held stiffly in the air for “Wagon Wheel,” but nobody was really singing along. I thought the lack of participation was unusual until the line about “a nice long toke,” when pretty much everybody joined in.
For the campers who braved the afternoon sessions, highlights included the blues-rock of Alberta Cross, the rambunctious female duo Miss Willie Brown and the soulful singer-songwriter Amos Lee, along with aspiring musicians of every persuasion, from hip-hop and to reggae and funk.
But if your eyes were on Loretta Lynn, you were lookin’ at country.