ST. PETERSBURG — It's safe to say no one's ever been tougher in tulle and taffeta than Loretta Lynn. Floating into our orbit like Glinda the Good Witch with a grudge, the 81-year-old country queen twanged out sass and sage advice Saturday all while dressed in a cotton-candy explosion.
A few weeks back, the Coal Miner's Daughter broke some ribs pulling a guitar case from a shelf. But hey, who has time for the pain? Not this hall-of-fame warhorse. "It's got to be one way or the other," Lynn told the near-capacity crowd at the Mahaffey Theater. "You either sing or you worry about your ribs."
The charm of her short, sweet set — slightly Branson-ripe in parts, but an honor to be in her presence nonetheless — was found in her homespun eccentricities and sly incongruities:
The former 15-year-old bride from Butcher Hollow, Ky., dresses like a fairy godmother but throws down like a hair-pullin' divorcee on Jerry Springer. When this grandma asked for requests, the throngs shouted out "Fist City!" with fervor.
As in: "You better close your face and stay out of my way / If you don't wanna go to fist city."
And for every request made — despite the fact that she asked for them — Lynn would roll her eyes, turn to her band and say: "Oh, just play one. It don't matter. You're bound to get the song you're shouting out." She doled out that guff with a coy smile and that adorable, if subtly edgy, voice.
Backed by a nine-piece crew that featured daughter Peggy and son Ernie — both of whom are steadfastly loyal to their mama, if not nearly as talented — Lynn chugged through some 80 minutes of classics, many of which were inspired, for better or worse, by longtime husband "Doo" Lynn, who should be thanked, and spanked, for being such a fount of heartbreak.
She still unleashes that cold-shower cannonball, Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind), with purpose and a simmering resentment.
But don't go feeling bad for Lynn. She won't have any of that. At 81, she swallows a few notes and words here and there, and she needed a chair to catch her breath. But when she yelped out You Ain't Woman Enough ("to take my man"), she wasn't kidding — and she wasn't wrong.
That 1966 dare made her the first female country singer to pen a No. 1 hit. And she'll still let you know about that fact, too.
Lynn retains the ability to slide social commentary into seemingly safe packages, including the puckish The Pill, a shocker in its day, and the still sadly relevant Dear Uncle Sam, which gave the show its poignant centerpiece. They were also reminders that this one-of-a-kind woman — who is slated to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year — still matters as a beacon for working-class women.
More than a few men could learn a thing or two from Miss Loretta, as well. If they know what's good for them, that is.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.