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One of Loretta Lynn’s last public appearances captures her iconic legacy

The 2019 CMAs kicked off with 16 female singers on stage, and the message was clear — they wouldn’t be there if not for Loretta Lynn

Hosts Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton kick off the 2019 CMA Awards in Nashville with an all-female medley. (Image Group LA/ABC/Getty Images)

It was a profoundly rare sight — 16 female country artists spanning multiple generations, all together onstage at the 2019 Country Music Association Awards, kicking off the genre’s biggest night in the national spotlight with a nine-minute medley of iconic hits. Throughout the performance, there was only one break from the music.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is for a living legend we’re so honored to sing for tonight,” said Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, accompanied by singers ranging from Tanya Tucker to Gretchen Wilson to Maren Morris, along with show co-hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire. “Sitting right there, the first woman to win CMA entertainer of the year: Miss Loretta Lynn!”

The audience at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville roared as Lynn, wearing a sparkling green ensemble, beamed and waved to the crowd from her front-row seat. Though no one knew it yet, this would be one of her last public appearances, and the subtext was clear: Without Lynn — one of the most influential and groundbreaking country artists of all time, who shattered preconceived notions about female singer-songwriters — many of the singers in front of her might have never made it to the stage.

If country music is about the truth, Loretta Lynn told the whole of it

When news broke Tuesday morning that Lynn died at the age of 90, there was an outpouring of grief from the country music community, and many of the tributes had a similar theme. “None of us women in country music could be where we are without her and the paths Loretta Lynn paved,” Tenille Arts tweeted, while McEntire, in her very Reba way, summed it up: “I sure appreciate her paving the rough and rocky road for all us girl singers.”

“Rough and rocky” is one way to put it: In a 2003 profile of Lynn, historian Robert Oermann told The Washington Post that when Lynn was trying to launch her career in the 1960s, the Music Row myth persisted that female listeners didn’t want to buy music from female singers. Country record label executives also referred to the “female slot” in the genre — singular because it was considered standard to have only one woman on their roster.

Lynn proved that thinking wrong with a string of instant classic hits — “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind), “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “The Pill” — with shockingly candid lyrics about marriage, infidelity and birth control, proving that, actually, there was an enormous appetite from female audiences to hear someone sing about experiences they were going through.

“It was what I wanted to hear and what I knew other women wanted to hear, too,” Lynn told the Associated Press in a 2016 interview. “I didn’t write for the men; I wrote for us women. And the men loved it, too.”

Incidentally, by the time those 16 singers took the stage at the 2019 CMA Awards, some progress had been made — but some things were still exactly the same. Despite all the evidence that there is a massive audience out there, female country singers still face an uphill battle. In recent years, studies show that only about 10 percent of songs played on country radio are by women. At a concert several years ago, Morris told the audience that a programmer advised her against releasing a ballad as a single because “no one wants to hear a bunch of sad women on the radio.”

The issue has gained consistent mainstream attention in recent years, with prominent singers speaking out, particularly when one country radio station tweeted — and then quickly deleted and backtracked — that it followed the so-called unwritten rule that stations should never play two female artists back to back. Two months before joining her fellow singers on the CMAs stage, Martina McBride publicly called out Spotify for the fact that, while building a country playlist, she hit the refresh button 14 times before the streaming service suggested a song by a woman.

Depressing statistics aside, the CMAs moment reminded everyone of Lynn’s critical influence with the breadth of talent who fought hard to get there: Nettles joined Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild in paying tribute to Lynn with “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” Underwood, Parton and McEntire sang “Those Memories of You,” recorded in 1987 by Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. The Highwomen, the supergroup made up of Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, took on Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” Tucker, Wilson and Sara Evans sang some of their own hits, and everyone joined at the end with Martina McBride for “Independence Day,” a song that is frequently mistaken for a patriotic anthem but is actually about a woman seeking freedom from an abusive husband.

Singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn, best known for "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Pill" and "Dear Uncle Sam," died on Oct. 4 at the age of 90. (Video: Reuters)

The camera frequently panned to Lynn in the audience, along with artists including Trisha Yearwood, Kelsea Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves, Carly Pearce, Ashley McBryde and Hillary Scott of Lady A. The theme of that year’s show was celebrating the female singers of country music, which executive producer Robert Deaton said in an interview on Tuesday was “overdue” at the time.

“The statement I wanted to make was, throw out any type of research. Who cares about the research of ‘how many women can we play in an hour?’ Let’s not look at that, let’s celebrate these great women so people can see all these female artists on one stage together and go, ‘This is our history,’ ” Deaton said. “Let’s make sure all these voices are heard — that’s what was most important to me. And who started that was Loretta.”

Deaton, who was friends with and worked with Lynn for years, said her presence in the front row that night was “incredibly important” and meaningful to the artists she inspired. Lynn walked into an industry dominated by men and executives who said things like, “Here’s a pretty little girl singer to come out and sing her little song,” and didn’t care what people told her — she wanted to sing about the things that mattered to her.

“She broke those doors down,” Deaton said. “She paved the way for all these strong women we have today.”

It was also a full-circle moment for Lynn, who made history by becoming the first female artist to win CMA entertainer of the year (the night’s most coveted prize) in 1972. As the country music industry mourned the icon on Tuesday, tributes continued to pour in, reminding everyone of one of the most important parts of her legacy.

“She blazed the trail for the rest of us to try and follow,” said Jamie O’Neal. “This one really hurts. RIP to country music’s Queen.”