As has been often quoted since her death Oct. 4 at the age of 90, Loretta Lynn said that to make it, “You have to be different, great or first. I think I was just a little different.”
Time and time again during Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Loretta Lynn, which took place Sunday night at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and aired live on CMT, viewers were reminded that Lynn sold herself short: she was all three.
Wynonna, The Gaither Trio and Larry Strickland opened the service with an elegiac “How Great Thou Art” and Alan Jackson sang “Where Her Heart Has Always Been,” a moving tribute originally written about his own mother’s death, but otherwise, the performers sang songs made famous by Lynn. The selections repeatedly showcased what a trailblazer she was in taking topics that were heretofore whispered about behind closed doors and turning them into country chart-toppers that rang out from radio stations across the country in the ’60s and ’70s.
As a very emotional Faith Hill said, “she didn’t just push boundaries, she shredded them.” Via video, Taylor Swift, whose ability to write songs with great universal appeal drawn from the most personal details of her own life takes a page from Lynn, praised Lynn for “saying things that might make people uncomfortable” with her brutal honesty. Also, via video, Kacey Musgraves laughed about being a 9-year old performing such feisty, grown-up tunes as “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” (A number of other artists, including Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire also weighed in via video.)
In a bit of gender bending that worked very well (and showed the strength of her songs), Darius Rucker delivered a strident “Fist City” and George Strait drew a rave reaction for his take on Lynn’s first No. 1, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).”
Margo Price performed a spirited rendition of Lynn’s controversial 1975 liberation anthem, “The Pill,” after host Today’s Jenna Bush Hager noted the song had been banned by dozens of radio stations and Lynn supposedly threatened to quit the Grand Ole Opry if the august body did not. ‘t let her sing it on stage.
Although Lynn was country through and through, she was “so much bigger than any genre,” noted Sheryl Crow, who recorded with Lynn. No more was that more evident than in 2004, when Lynn released Van Lear Rose, produced by the White Stripes’ Jack White. As Price recounted, Lynn and White endearingly met after the White Stripes dedicated their 2001 album White Blood Cells to the legend and she invited White and former bandmate Meg White over for chicken and biscuits, which led to Jack White and Lynn working together. She also introduced a video, recorded during the making of Van Lear Rose, of Lynn singing “Whispering Sea,” a song she said she wrote while “up in a tree fishing.” As White encouraged her to sing it in the small room, Lynn, still in top vocal form, simply said, “if I sang out, you couldn’t stand it in here.” Following the video, White played a spirited version of the Grammy-winning album’s title track.
The service’s emotional highpoint came toward the end when Lynn’s granddaughter, Emmy Russell (noting this was the first time she has performed on stage without Lynn here “to look at me with her proud eyes”) and Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, sang “ Lay Me Down,” a gorgeous song about death and rebirth that Lynn and Nelson recorded in 2016 — the only duet by the two icons.
The daunting task of taking on Lynn’s anthem, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” fell to The Highwomen — Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, Brandi Carlile and Brittney Spencer (filling in for Maren Morris) — who delivered a resonant version to close the service.
For as much focus was on the music, almost as much attention was devoted to Lynn as a true friend to fellow artists, especially the women who followed in her wake. Martina McBride, whom Lynn inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1995, told of the tremendous support Lynn had shown her and how she ended each phone conversation with “I love you, honey. Come see me anytime.” Now, McBride said, the responsibility is on today’s country female artists to carry on Lynn’s generous tradition. “She made us feel like she was in our corner,” she said. “Part of her legacy is for us to mentor and to make sure we have each other’s backs. And for those coming up the ladder, make sure we’re available and can say, ‘I love you honey. Come see me anytime.’”
The celebration, produced by CMT and Sandbox Productions in partnership with the late legend’s family, will re-air on CMT on Nov. 2 at 8 pm ET and Nov. 6 at 11 am ET. The special will also be made available on Paramount+ in early 2023.
Set list for Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Loretta Lynn:
Keith Urban, “You’re Lookin’ At Country”
Tanya Tucker, “Blue Kentucky Girl”
Darius Rucker, “Fist City”
Alan Jackson, “Where Her Heart Has Always Been”
George Strait, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind”
Jack White, “Van Lear Rose”
Little Big Town, “Let Her Fly”
Emmy Russell and Lukas Nelson, “Lay Me Down”
Margo Price, “The Pill”
Brandi Carlile, “She’s Got You”
The Highwomen, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.