Red-blooded country

Loretta Lynn and family provide old-fashioned entertainment for a sold-out crowd

photo by Tom Angel

Citizens lined sidewalks waving American flags along Oroville Dam Boulevard as a slow line of traffic meandered into the hills toward Oroville’s Gold Country Casino. What better way to jack up the patriotic fervor than by attending a country music concert?

Entertainment was just starting to resume across the nation. Tonight’s main event featured legendary country singer Loretta Lynn, the “coal miner’s daughter” from Butcher Hollow, Ken., accompanied by her brother Ernie and twin daughters, Peggi and Patsy.

Inside, the showroom was packed with over a thousand seated fans eagerly awaiting some 100-percent, red-blooded American country music to take their minds off the tragic events of the week. Before the band came on, representatives of the Tyme-Maidu tribal council, owners of the casino, convened onstage for a moment of silence in remembrance of the terrorist victims in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Alongside promoter and host George Engasser, the group presented the Red Cross with a check for $25,000 to a warm, standing ovation from the crowd.

Beginning the show with two throwaway country standards, son Ernie Lynn quickly introduced his rhinestone-studded, make-up-caked “Mama,” as he called her, who came onstage belting out “Thank God I’m a Country Girl.” As evident as her loud voice was the charming personality of Loretta Lynn: willful, direct, and honest with a touch of hillbilly kookiness, perhaps from hairspray poisoning or too much fried food.

Taking his place behind her, guitarist Ernie engaged “Mama” in loose, comedic banter all evening while the band—featuring enjoyable pedal steel, piano and a trio of male harmony vocalists—kept standard country pace.

“You just call out whatever you wanna hear,” Lynn told the crowd early on. “This is your show.” Unfortunately, nearly every audience request was met with confusion from Lynn, who claimed to have forgotten much of her repertoire, not to mention what state she was currently in.

But who can blame her? She’s hardcore country. Married by the age of 13, she had four children and several miscarriages by the time she was 18 years old (becoming a grandmother at 29). Despite this disadvantage, and inspired by friend and mentor Patsy Cline, Lynn conquered the country music world like no other before her—becoming the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award, in 1972, and scoring 16 No. 1 singles, 15 No. 1 albums, 60 other hits and numerous awards.

Most people still associate her with the acclaimed 1980 film, Coal Miner’s Daughter, which won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her performance of a simple, backwoods woman pushed to her emotional brink by fame and constant touring. (A more humorous portrayal of Lynn, as whacked-out prima donna, is found in Robert Altman’s classic satire, Nashville.) Tonight’s performance provided glimpses of both caricatures.

Speaking of cinematic references, anyone who believes Billy Bob Thornton’s twisted hillbilly parlance in Sling Blade is exaggerated for dramatic emphasis need only hear the uncanny resemblance in the voice of Ernie Lynn—yessim, I reckon (mngh).

Ernie regaled the crowd throughout the show with illuminating stories about himself as: deadbeat dad ("I’m on every milk carton in Tennessee"), alcoholic ("I got my bus out back"), inbred redneck ("you’re strange in Butcher Holler if you marry past your third cousin") and gay basher ("did you hear the one about the alcoholic, the smoker and a gay guy?"). No Ernie, but something tells me you’re going to tell us.

Meanwhile, light-headed Mama—who took time to promote her new book, Still Woman Enough—cackled a lot and shrugged off her boy’s comments, telling the crowd “now you know why they got the pill.” What a crack-up, that Lynn family.

Lynn’s daughters, two attractive and spirited blondes, gave Mama a break in the middle of the set, delivering three of their own upbeat originals. These were similar-themed songs of standard Americana—family life and the strength of women and the Lord Almighty.

Another memorable moment of the 70-minute set included a gospel duet between Ernie and Mama, “Message from Jesus"—an addict’s plea for redemption that Lynn explained was recorded because her son needed alimony money. But the defining moment of the night was a poignant a cappella gospel number from Lynn ("Thus sings my soul to Thee/ how great Thou art") dedicated to the victims of the terrorism of Sept. 11—an event she described beforehand as “the worst thing to ever happen to this country.”

Mercifully, the show ended with a rousing version of the song everyone knew, the legendary country classic, "Coal Miner’s Daughter," which Lynn delivered with vigor and a proud woman’s love for her small hometown. And that was precisely what people wanted to hear tonight.