Monday, July 25, 2005 Page R5

At the peak of her stardom in the 1960s and 1970s, Loretta Lynn set new standards for female-sexual frankness, not just in country but in pop music generally, with hits such as Rated X and The Pill. But she always made it damn clear she wasn’t easy, either.

She kept a room packed full of Lynn lovers waiting till she was good and ready at Massey Hall in Toronto on Friday night.

First, there was the opening set by a solo Martha Wainwright, who was well aware that the free-form, folk-rock songs of her excellent recent debut album were a little incongruous here.

She said she was honoured to be invited, but later admitted, “I’m not sure what I have in common with Loretta Lynn, except I like to think of myself as a progressive woman in country — and I’m on the pill.”

The salty young songwriter from the storied Wainwright-McGarrigle clan was wise enough to do “the clean version” of her show (including a twanged-up cover of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song) and her presence and powerful voice seemed to be received by Lynn’s fans with curiosity and respect.

Lynn’s daughter Peggy took the stage at intermission to promote her mom’s new cookbook, followed by a warm-up by Lynn’s backup band the Coal Miners (six instrumentalists plus three backup singers who looked like Hells Angels, but sang like heavenly ones).

Then, Peggy returned with twin sister Patsy to perform as new country duo the Lynns.

Their three songs had the slick sass that marks most Nashville women today. In a song about Patsy’s daughter’s rebellious streak, Where Does She Get It From?, you couldn’t help but think the answer was the same place this whole tough-chick country style started — her grandma. And their radio hit Woman to Woman is the sort of back-off-my-man tune Lynn made her own with Fist City and You Ain’t Woman Enough, just with an added spoonful of Oprah.

Then finally the foreplay ended, and Lynn took the stage in a sparkling white ensemble, her hair cut surprisingly short (a privilege of widowhood, she later explained) and all the possession and magnetism of a queen regnant. The house was on its feet and the cheers rattled the woodwork.

While Lynn’s voice has lost some punch, it’s hard to believe she just turned 70 in April. Unlike other older country stars, she didn’t do perfunctory medleys but offered a full-length tour through 44 years of music, from I’m a Honky-Tonk Girl to When the Tingle Becomes a Chill to One’s on the Way to Portland, Oregon, the single from last year’s Grammy-winning hit album Van Lear Rose, which was produced by rocker Jack White of the White Stripes.

Unlike that rough-housing disc, this show had all the polish Nashville demands, but it was refreshingly off-the-cuff too, with the plain-spoken four-squareness of her songwriting.

She took requests and plenty of tales got told between numbers. When someone shouted for the title track of the new album, Lynn advised that she didn’t know the words, but gamely plunged in, replacing the forgotten verses with “dum-dee-dums.”

There was a running joke about Lynn’s favourite Toronto Chinese-food restaurant — she threatened to stop playing unless her band leader assured her they were headed there after the show.

And she made sure to pay tribute to the Canadians who helped get her recording career going, though she wasn’t sentimental about playing four sets a night at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street. “I remember those days,” she said archly, “and that’s why I like today.”

Knowing where you came from is Lynn’s credo, and she ended the evening on that note with Blue Kentucky Girl and the classic Coal Miner’s Daughter. (She’d said earlier that she wasn’t planning to do it, but that was teasing.)

And then with a few blown kisses — and no such game-playing nonsense as an encore — this Jeanne d’Arc of country womanhood strode off stage and back into legend, give or take a spring roll and a hot-and-sour soup.