Before she went on stage at the Grand Ole Opry Tuesday night, someone asked Loretta Lynn a stock question about the secret to her career longevity. Her answer wasn't so stock.
"I'm good!" she blurted out. Moments later, she changed her answer to "hard work," but we think she had it right the first time.
Lynn might even be the greatest still-living figure in country music. Which made Tuesday's celebration of her 50th anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry feel like not just any old Opry 50th anniversary celebration. (And there have been a few; "Whisperin' Bill" Anderson noted on-stage that he'd had the honor a couple of years earlier.)
Even if you aren't willing to accede her that ultimate top honor, she doesn't have many peers among country's pioneer women. "The founder of women in country music is sitting right there on the front row tonight," said Miranda Lambert. And while the late Kitty Wells might be surprised to learn that Lynn came first, Lambert's point was still well taken.
Her influence on country's "girl power" was evident in the lineup of stars who were brought onto the Opry Tuesday night perform Lynn's material—Miranda Lambert, Pistol Annies, Lee Ann Womack, her sister Crystal Gayle… and the odd man out, lone dude Trace Adkins, who stood in for Conway Twitty on a duet of "Lead Me On."
On-stage with her fellow Annies, Lambert invoked the F-word in praising Lynn's influence, thanking her for making it all right to be "feisty." To prove the point, they played a Lynn single they regularly cover in their set: "Fist City."
As a solo artist, Lambert did a separate cover, interpreting "Honky Tonk Girl," which had some historic Opry significance for Lynn.
"The first time I was ever on the Grand Old Opry" in 1960, Lynn said, "I sang 'Honky Tonk Girl.' That was my first record, on Zero. And that was exactly what it made me!"
At that first Opry performance at the Ryman Auditorium 52 years ago, she recalled backstage, "Me and my husband go into town, it was the night before, and we spent the night in the car out in front of the Grand Ole Opry—the old Grand Ole Opry. And of course, we didn't have any money, so the next morning we divided a donut. And took pictures of the Opry. Naturally, I got my picture made in front of it. They wasn't gonna let me in (for a photo session), you know that!"
"I'm doing 'Honky Tonk Girl,'" Lambert told Lynn. "I didn't know it was your first one you ever did on the Opry till just now. I've covered a lot of Loretta songs and I've never covered that one before and I thought it would be unique to do that one. And I am a honky tonk girl anyway."
Said Womack, "I'm gonna do a song called 'I Know How.' I've done a lot of things with Loretta and for Loretta, and I wanted to do something different, and one I hadn't heard a whole lot, so that's why I chose that." Gayle did "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)," "her first No. 1, and that's a big thing. It was written by Loretta and Peggy, our sister, who also sings" (and was also in the audience).
Recalled Lambert, "I was asked to do 'Coal Miner's Daughter' with Sheryl Crow and her (on a tribute album), and it was the best day probably of my life. Besides my wedding day," she quickly added. "Don't tell my husband I said that. It was just overwhelming. I got to sit in the kitchen at her house and talk to her, and I had to keep reminding myself, 'Oh my gosh, I'm talking to Loretta Lynn.' I felt I was talking to a friend, just like somebody I'd known my whole life. She takes you in and gives you a hug and you feel so warm in her presence. I remember at the end of the day breaking down bawling. Every time I'm around her I realize what she's done for women in country music, and the reason I feel I get to stand up here is because of what she laid the groundwork for. I'm just grateful that she likes me and she calls me country."
Lambert and the other Pistol Annies said they'd been inspired to write their original song "Takin' Pills" by the bracing honesty of Lynn's controversial hit "The Pill"—even if Loretta's song had been referring to birth control pills, as opposed to the Annies' antidepressants.
Recalled Womack, "The first time I ever met Loretta, I was brand new, and I had one single, and it was really, really country. She said to me, 'Just don't let 'em push you pop.' I said, 'What's my pop?' No, I never did--thanks to Loretta. But I would sit in my bedroom in east Texas and didn't have any way to go anywhere, and I had a lot of her cassette tapes at the time and would listen to her. And it was like she was a friend even then. I felt like I knew her. So it's great to be with her."
Added Lambert, with her fellow Annies at her side, "Everybody says that she's their number 1 inspiration. She really and truly is for us three girls. We call her the Alpha/ Omega Annie. We introduced ourselves to her today, as a band, and said 'We're the Pistol Annies.' And she said 'Well, that sounds like something I woulda made up!'"
Another point of connection for Lambert: "I was at her house and we went into the museum, and she had this huge glass shelf. And my husband always calls me a maw-maw because I collect salt and pepper shakers. I have like 30 sets. I'm really proud of 'em. And she had a whole collection, hundreds of 'em, and I was like 'You collect salt and pepper shakers too? Oh my God!' One day I'm gonna get the nerve up and ask her if we can trade a set."
Asked for words of wisdom, Lynn had just a few to impart on the occasion. "I think you have to live a life before you're a great songwriter. I think every great songwriter—or every songwriter—has to kind of live a life before they can write."