In the past the Americana Music Association has used its annual Grammy eve gathering at the Troubadour in Los Angeles to salute a recently departed star with a roots-rock connection, like last year’s tribute to Glenn Frey. This time around, they found it fitting to fete the living, using Loretta Lynn being up for a best country album Grammy as a hook to honor her 57 years of public service.
The bill included current and recent Grammy nominees like Brandy Clark (up last year for best new artist), Robbie Fulks (nominated this year for best folk album), Sierra Hull (ditto), Lori McKenna (up once again for best country song), and the O’Connor Band (nominated for best bluegrass album). Family was well represented, too, in Lynn’s absence; besides a letter of appreciation, the 84-year-old sent along daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and her 16-year-old granddaughter, Emmy Rose.
And then there was… Kesha?
The pop star keeps making surprise appearances on an intermittent pop-up tour of cred flashpoints, doing everything but the Dr. Luke-produced style of music that made her famous. Although Kesha hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of previous interest in going country, she is well in touch with the community in her native Nashville, including the instrumental group that flew out from Nashville to serve as house band, Steelism. And she’d sung Loretta in concert at least once before, having done a duet of “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” with Wayne Coynes and Ben Folds years ago.
At Saturday night’s (Feb. 11) show, she didn’t reprise that song but instead turned to “Hello Darlin’,” “which was written by Conway Twitty. but the first time I ever heard it Loretta was singing it. That’s the way I fell in love with this song.” (Twitty had a No. 1 hit with it in 1970 and frequently sang it to Lynn in their public appearances together; Lynn cut the song as an album track on her Coal Miner’s Daughter album the following year.) “And,” Kesha added, “I’ve only practiced it about half a time, so if I f–k up: whatever!” She didn’t, nailing a tune that goes from speak-singing to an upper octave in the space of the first four bars.
Since Kesha abdicated on “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” this time, that venerable Twitty/Lynn oldie was left to the roots-all-star teaming of Robbie Fulks and Lori McKenna. “The only part of the song we didn’t memorize is the improv at the end about how ugly we are to each other,” McKenna warned the crowd. “But I’ve been married for 28 years so I can handle this dialogue.” But McKenna (who’s currently nominated for writing Tim McGraw’s humanist anthem “Humble and Kind”) may not have been prepared for Fulks’ level of improvisation, as he closed the song in character by quipping, “You’ve just gotta take care of your general appearance more and maybe I could get an erection once in a while.” “Too far!” protested McKenna.
Fulks upped the libido quotient of the evening by subsequently doing a solo reading of Lynn’s marital-sex-positive “The Pill,” which he noted was banned in some quarters upon its release in 1972. His vigorous performance included miming throwing a bottle’s worth of birth control pills down his throat as if he were chugging female Viagra. This and other Lynn originals performed throughout the night reinforced that, among the many gifts of hers that are well regarded in popular culture, she may still be underrated as one of the great comedy writers of the 20th century.
Singer/producer Joe Henry did a 180 immediately following Fulks’ riotous performance, emphasizing her poetic side and asking the audience to “kind of lean into me” as he quietly sang Lynn’s very first A-side, “Whispering Sea,” which she recently revived as the opening track on her Grammy-nominated Full Circle album. “There’s a beautiful innocence to this song, but there’s also an intuitive understanding” of love and nature, Henry said, introducing a song in which a forlorn and abandoned woman shares her heartbreak with her only confidante, the ocean. “It’s like a painter’s sketch for all the great paintings that would soon follow,” Henry said.
Henry introduced John Carter Cash, who co-produced Lynn’s latest album, as “a man I just met moments ago, but I spent my entire life imagining I was a member of his tribe.” Cash was joined by Lynn’s daughter, Patsy Lynn — who had some country hits of her own in the ‘80s as half of the twin act, the Lynns — for a country royal family duet of “Everything It Takes,” a recent Lynn song that carries on in the wordplay-filled, warning-hewn tradition of some of her biggest vintage hits.
Patsy then went into the family history that produced that kind of songwriting. “One of the things my mom has always told me is ‘I’m a songwriter, then a singer’… She didn’t even have to hire a psychiatrist, because her story was told through her songs. It didn’t matter what my dad was doing, because that was her biggest inspiration. And the cool thing about my dad is he let my mom write songs like ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)’ and ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’ and ‘Fist City.’ I think he kind of liked it!”
The show ended on notes of both innocence and experience. Lynn’s angel-faced granddaughter, Emmy Rose, told the crowd that “this is my first time walking in heels” before playing a song about the guitar her grandmother gave her. Then Brandy Clark, the reigning current heroine of alt-country, proved woman enough to close out the show with “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” That spoke to Lynn’s gift: a song so detailed only a handful of people in America could literally relate to the specifics, but also a tune that anyone in America might be quick to identify as the quintessential post-Patsy country song.
Here’s the setlist:
“Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” — the O’Connor Band
“You Wanna Give Me a Lift” — Sierra Hull
“Silver Threads and Golden Needles” — Leslie Stevens
“Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” — Shannon McNally
“The Home You’re Tearing Down” — ZZ Ward
“In the Pines” — Fantastic Negrito
“Fist City” — Wheeler Walker Jr.
“Hello Darlin’” — Kesha
“I Wanna Be Free” — Jack Ingram
“After the Fire is Gone” — Ingram and McNally
“Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)” — Lori McKenna with McNally
“You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” — McKenna and Robbie Fulks
“The Pill” — Fulks
“Whispering Sea” — Joe Henry
“Everything It Takes” — Patsy Lynn Russell with John Carter Cash
“Memaw’s Guitar” — Emmy Rose
“Lay Me Down” — Emmy Rose and Hank Compton
“You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” — Brandy Clark
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” — Clark
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — cast