There were many inspired moments at Saturday's salute to country music pioneer Loretta Lynn by the Americana Music Assn. One particular highlight came courtesy of Oakland-based African American roots musician Fantastic Negrito, who served up a thoroughly haunting version of Lead Belly's folk-blues classic, "In the Pines."
The connection is that the song appears both on Negrito's "Last Days of Oakland" album, Grammy nominated for contemporary blues album, and Lynn's latest, "Full Circle," which has the 84-year-old country trailblazer in the running for a Grammy Award for country album.
Fantastic Negrito, whose given name is Xavier Amin Dhrepaulezz, channeled this murder ballad's sense of desperation for people whose life circumstances push them beyond the limits of their endurance.
That's undoubtedly what also drew Lynn to the song, given the long history of exploring her own hardscrabble upbringing in the coal mining country of eastern Kentucky during the Depression.
Although some of her signature hits can sound quaint a half century after they frequently topped the country music charts in the 1960s and '70s, songs such as "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)," "Fist City" and "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)," their convention-defying power remains.
Those and about two dozen others were part of the two-hour salute by featured performers including Brandy Clark, Joe Henry, ZZ Ward, Jack Ingram, Kesha, Shannon McNally, Robbie Fulks, Lynn's granddaughter Emmy Rose and the two co-producers of "Full Circle," John Carter Cash and Lynn's Daughter Patsy Lynn Russell.
Lynn's feisty lyrics often evoked smiles from those singing them, not just because the male singers who took them on felt no need to switch gender references in them.
"She kicked [butt] in every key," said singer-songwriter Fulks, whose latest album "Upland Stories" garnered him two Grammy nominations--folk album and American roots song for "Alabama At Night."
"This song really took a lot of guts to do," he said by way of introduction to singing "The Pill," her ode to the contraceptive that gave women unprecedented control over their bodies when it was introduced in the 1960s.
Fulks brought all the defiance that Lynn poured into her lyrics--a rebel's attitude that got the song banned from country radio nearly 50 years ago.
Henry also delivered a show-stopping moment with a solo acoustic performance of the song Lynn has cited as the first she ever wrote, "The Whispering Sea."
Henry noted, "It's impressive to see how much of her voice was already evident" in a song she wrote long before she became a country music powerhouse and one of the few women to write her own material.
Lynn opted not to make the nearly 2,000-mile bus trip from her home in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.--she doesn't like to fly, and typically tours in a bus--but she sent a letter that Clark read, thanking the other participants and the audience for the tribute.
Clark was given the tall order of handling Lynn's career-defining hit, "Coal Miner's Daughter," which she sang with the unfussy power of Lynn's own version.
The only way to follow that pinnacle moment came courtesy of Cash and Russell, who led an all-star finale of the Carter Family country-gospel standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
The fourth Americana Music Assn. pre-Grammy concert demonstrated again why it has quickly become an annual highlight of the densely packed Grammy Week schedule.
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