GREEN BAY – Loretta Lynn shard the stage with fellow country music legend Conway Twitty when she performed in 1977 at the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena for a $5 ticket, but it were her frequent visits to the Carlton Celebrity Room that most connected her to Green Bay.
Lynn, who died Tuesday at age 90, counted the former star-studded venue on the city’s west side as one of her favorite places to play. She came through there during her tours in the early ’80s, often playing two shows in one night or doing multiple-night stands.
Dressed in fancy gowns and backed by her sizable band, she performed such classics as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “They Don’t Make ’Em Like My Daddy Anymore” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” Ventriloquist Alex Houston and his sidekick, Elmer, were often her opening act.
When she felt like a Green Bay Press-Gazette review of one of her performances at the Carlton wasn’t fair, well, the plain-spoken Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, native picked up the phone and called to say as much.
Retired entertainment writer Warren Gerds got a call from Lynn on a Friday afternoon in 1982 after she read his review in that day’s paper of what was the first of her three nights at the Carlton. The concert had gotten off to a slow start due to piano tuning issues, and once onstage, Gerds noted Lynn had troubles staying in tune — something Lynn said so herself to the crowd, admitting she was worried because her jewelry in her motel room had gone missing. Gerds also observed she appeared to forget lyrics a couple of times.
“It was kind of embarrassing to get a writeup like that,” a polite Lynn said when she called Gerds. “I try very hard not to do anything wrong, and it bothers me if I see a writeup like that. I try so hard to please the people, and that’s all that matters, because people are in there and they paid their way, and I do my best.”
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Then she did something extraordinary, even for back then but particularly by today’s standards. She agreed to stay on the line for an interview.
She cleared up the mystery of the missing jewelry.
“I’m ashamed. You know where my jewelry was? I ain’t believin’ this — in a little leather train case where I carry the songs I’m writin’,” she told Gerds.
She also offered insight into why she didn’t sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in full. Her mama had died four months earlier and Lynn, who had taken three months off from performing, was still reeling.
“When I started the song, my voice started to leave,” Lynn said. “It affects me like this. Sometimes I just don’t finish ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ anymore. I guess it will take a while since Mommy has passed away.”
When Lynn had played the Carlton in January 1980, she spoke to the Press-Gazette during an interview between shows about how excited she was for her mother to attend the premiere that March of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the movie based on Lynn’s life beginning as a bride as a young teen.
She was so overcome when she saw the film for the first time she was sick for four days, she said. She also predicted it would be nominated for an Academy Award.
“Not because it’s my life, because it’s a good movie. I don’t care whose life it is,” she said.
The film received seven Oscar nominations, and Sissy Spacek won Best Actress for her portrayal of Lynn.
Lynn’s performance at Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena in Ashwaubenon in 1977 (a month before Elvis Presley) came during a decade in which the building welcomed many of country music’s biggest names, including Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Buck Owens.
She and Twitty had originally been scheduled to play there in 1976 but the date was postponed when Lynn became ill. The duo had 12 Top 10 hits together, including No. 1 single “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” They each performed their own sets at BCVMA, he with the Tweety Birds and she with the Coal Miners Band, and then they dueted near show’s end, including “The Letter” and “God Bless America Again.”
Lynn’s last appearance in Green Bay was a sold-out show in 2004 at Oneida Casino in Ashwaubenon in support of “Van Lear Rose,” the critically acclaimed album produced by Jack White of The White Stripes. She was 69 and suffering from back problems that forced her to sit during a shortened 50-minute performance of 14 songs. Her feisty spirit and Kentucky charm, however, were undeterred.
She told the crowd she would be back after she had back surgery at the end of the tour.
“Next time I’ll stand through the whole show — even if I’m on crutches.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism