October 7—Some phone calls remain in the memory, like the one John England received 20 years ago.
He was visiting family in his hometown of Terre Haute when his phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line said, “John, would you like to go on tour with Loretta?”
“Loretta Lynn?” England asked, incredulous. “Yes,” was the reply from Lynn’s gang leader.
England, a longtime Nashville musician and bandleader, was known to Lynn’s pianist, Gene Dunlap. The band wanted England to replace Lynn’s son, Ernie Lynn. England gladly agreed to the offer, arranged for the care of his wife and child in Nashville, and left on a tour bus the next day.
That was in August 2002. The Terre Haute native spent the next year and a half on tour with Lynn, playing acoustic guitar and singing duets with a legend.
At each show, England would lead the band for two or three opening songs. “And then he would say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the queen of country music, Loretta Lynn,'” England recalled by phone Wednesday from Nashville, where he lives and performs with his popular band John England and the Western Swingers.
Lynn died in her sleep Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. She was 90.
Lynn called the 6-foot-3 England “Big John”. He and other members of the band would sing duets with Lynn, playing the roles of her famous duet partners such as Conway Twitty and Ernest Tubb. “Usually he would do ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,'” England said. “And she always laughed when she crossed my eyes, looking at her.”
As Lynn approached her 70th birthday, she developed a musical connection with an unlikely admirer, alternative rocker Jack White of the White Stripes. White ended up producing Lynn’s 2004 album “Van Lear Rose.” In 2003, he persuaded Lynn to do a show with him in New York. England rehearsed songs with White and Lynn on their tour bus before the Big Apple show. Once on stage, the three were captured in a photo that was published in People magazine.
“It seemed like we were a trio,” England said, laughing.
Although England was unfamiliar with White’s music at the time, the former Terre Hautean is adept at interpreting various musical genres. The 1981 graduate of Terre Haute South High School studied music at Indiana University while majoring in history. He played in a punk band in New York after college, but also played ‘society music’ with orchestras in New York dance halls. His ability to read sheet music opened the doors to jobs in New York, before moving with his family to Nashville.
Lynn’s band did not use set lists. They played her memory music.
“The Loretta thing was pretty casual, old-school, ‘la hillbilly-est hillbilly,'” England said.
She wore ballroom dresses, went onstage and opened with “Thank God, I’m a country.” [Girl]”, giving a twist to the famous John Denver song. “So she would stand there and take off her shoes and be barefoot in front of her people and say, ‘So what do you want to hear?'” She recalled her England.
He came to like Lynn’s “Table for Two” among all the classics of his six-decade career, but his favorite was “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” a crushing ballad of faded love. “If that doesn’t give you goosebumps, nothing will,” England said.
He kept his privacy, as much as possible, on those tours, traveling in a separate bus. That purple-decorated vehicle would draw onlookers when it stopped in a city or at a Walmart to pick up supplies. Cars of curious people surrounded him as Lynn sat inside. “I thought, ‘This has been happening to Loretta since 1965.’ How that would change your world,” England said.
His best performances revealed the reason for the audience’s fascination, his soaring voice. “When he felt it, he would throw his head back, hold the microphone and sing, and you would feel it down to your toes,” England said. “That was the thing, when she felt it, you felt it.”
Lynn’s visual persona remains close to Jasonville singer and Elvis Presley impersonator Bruce Borders, literally. As a collector of music memorabilia, Borders owns several of the dresses Lynn wore on stage and around her Hurricane Mills Ranch. Those hang in his collection along with Elvis’ stage-worn outfits stored at his insurance business in Jasonville, where he once served as mayor and now as a state representative from the 45th House District. Indiana.
“I always had a crush on her, because I thought she was a great cheerleader and an even better person,” Borders said Tuesday afternoon.
He saw the proof firsthand in the early 1980s. Borders and his City Council Band performed as an opening act for Lynn at the Illinois State Fair in DuQuion. The dressing rooms for the artists were below the stage. That’s where Borders met up with Lynn and her guitarist, and the three ended up talking about their shared Christian faith, before playing to thousands of people.
“We had a wonderful time and a wonderful discussion just before she came onstage,” Borders said. “What a sweet, sweet lady she really was. And I don’t say that all the time, because some artists are not good people.”
Lynn’s tours also took her through Terre Haute. She and Twitty headlined three fall shows at the Hulman Center in 1975, 1976, and 1977, the facility’s concert heyday. Her show on November 15, 1975 drew 8,408 fans, the second-highest attendance at the Hulman Center concert up to that point, second only to Elvis Presley’s 10,244 just four months earlier.
Several years before that, Lynn sang on the Harry Weger Show in Terre Haute, according to Tribune-Star archives.
Over time, her 1976 memoir “Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the subsequent 1980 film spread her fame beyond country music radio and record sales. Her eastern Kentucky mountain accent and her homemade storytelling connected with the audience. And, as England said, “People forget, Loretta Lynn was so beautiful, and that helps a lot.”
That said, his main gift to his fans was that sound. “The thing about her is the music,” England said, “those great songs.”
You can contact Mark Bennett at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]