May 14, 2016
On Saturday night, the Arena Theatre was looking at country.
Because two evenings ago, Houston welcomed the legendary singer Loretta Lynn, who after 60 years of genre-defining hits like "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Fist City" released her new album Full Circle at the ripe old age of 84.
Alongside her band The Coal Miners (featuring two of her adult children, Ernie and Patsy), Loretta Lynn sparkled — literally; her full-length red sequined gown was raiment befitting her title as country's reigning queen. Lynn rolled through her most famous songs, from proud anthems like "You're Looking at Country" to hell-hath-no-fury denouncements like "You Ain't Woman Enough" all the way to tender, heartbroken ballads like a cover of Patsy Cline's "She's Got You." Lynn sang of scorned lovers with a wry eye towards her history. While these songs rang out with the pith and verve that the star is known for, they also emerged with notes of triumph. Lynn has outlasted all the hard-drinkin' and wildcattin' men from her past and can still sing to tell the tale — her way.
The atmosphere at the Arena was loving and decidedly honky-tonk. Middle-aged women bedecked in rhinestones dodged security to snap photos of the first lady of country music. Cowboy hats covered shiny, bald heads and obscured graying mustaches. Some offered flowers and gifts to the singer, while others passed notes to the stage, detailing loose connections to the Lynn family. Between every other song or so, Lynn obliged the hoots and hollers, letting the audience know "I love you too, honey."
Despite her decades of success, Lynn's heart has never drifted far from her early life of struggle and her abiding love for her family. "Texas fed me and my kids," she told the audience, as she recalled playing small Texas bars for 30 or 40 dollars a week. Those kids, and even grandkids, were onstage testaments to Lynn's tenacious, abiding love. Ernie Lynn took a knee next to his mother when they sang the duet "Feelins," kissing her on the forehead as she tearfully recalled how much she missed her long-time collaborator, Conway Twitty. Granddaughter Tayla Lynn filled in for her "Memaw" on "Out of my Head and Back in my Bed" and "Mrs. Leroy Brown," livening up the Arena's rotating stage with her brassy voice. Loretta kept the young'uns in line with sharp banter all night. "They won't let me do a show by myself; they always butt in. You think by now I'd know how to do a show!" It was the kind of extemporaneous sass that can only come from the heart.
Some of Lynn's most trenchant political commentary from the '60s and '70s still resonates today. The show's medley of "One's on the Way" and "The Pill" drew the link between a woman's ability to control her body and the ability to control the trajectory of her life. "When I recorded that song, you'd a thought I killed somebody," Lynn commented, likely referencing how "The Pill" was banned on country radio stations upon its first release. No one tore up his seat when Lynn sang about birth control in 2016, but the songs are far from sentimental anachronisms. It was too bad so few young Texas women were in attendance; Lynn's unapologetic embrace of the mini-skirt and sex for the sake of pleasure might be musical comfort for those firmly in the cross-hairs of the not-so-new fight for women's liberation.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the show was when Lynn confronted the white elephant in the music hall: her mortality. The song "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" had the spirit in it, filled with burning harmonies that chased away the devil. But the refrain of "nobody wants to die" was a painful reminder that Lynn is getting closer to the end of the line. While her singing didn't miss a note, the show was carefully curated to keep it that way. Lynn sat on a chair for most of the performance, and every few songs, even famous ones like "Uncle Sam," were covered by the band.
The whole show clocked in at just over an hour, fairly short for a night without an opener. Though she rose for the show's closer of "Coal Miner's Daughter" (and the audience got out of their seats with her), afterwards she was gingerly guided offstage by security to an awaiting golf cart. The fans who waited in the rain with guitars and albums to sign did so in the shadows, not of the theater, but in the reality that this might be their last chance.