Inside the CMA Awards Tribute to Loretta Lynn

The 56th annual CMA Awards, slated to air on ABC on Wednesday (Nov. 9), will include a celebration of the life and career of the indomitable singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn, who died Oct. 4 at age 90.

A trio of powerhouse vocalists — Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood — will be among those taking the stage to honor Lynn, and Billboard was inside rehearsals at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for their performance.

The tribute began with video footage of Lynn at the Ryman Auditorium in 1972, accepting her CMA entertainer of the year trophy; she was the first woman to take home the Country Music Association’s highest honor. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that milestone, when Lynn was victorious over category competitors Merle Haggard, Freddie Hart, Charley Pride and Jerry Reed. Lynn won a total of eight CMA Awards during her career, including three female vocalist of the year honors and four vocal duo of the year honors, alongside Conway Twitty. Kentucky native Lynn went on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988.

Underwood, backed by a full band, began the tribute with a solo performance of Lynn’s 1966 song “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man),” as a collage of Lynn’s press photos along with images with her frequent collaborator Twitty flashed on the screen. Underwood was quickly joined by Lambert and later McEntire, offering renditions of songs including Lynn’s 1971 release “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” McEntire’s own distinct Oklahoma drawl was particularly well suited for the song, as she slightly changed the final lyric to “If your eyes were on Loretta/ You’re looking at country.”

Photos of Lynn with a variety of artists, including Dolly Parton, Lambert, Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson continued flashing across the screen as the three female artists concluded the tribute by trading off verses on Lynn’s signature song, 1970’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” before melding harmonies on the final line, “‘Cept the memories of a coal miner’s daughter.”

McEntire, Underwood and Lambert were each close to Lynn, with Underwood and McEntire collaborating with Lynn on the title track of her album Still Woman Enough, which was released in March 2021. Lambert joined Crow and Lynn to record a version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” for the 2010 album Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn. That release also includes Underwood’s rendition of “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” and McEntire collaborating on Lynn’s “If You’re Not Gone Too Long” with The Time Jumpers.

Following Lynn’s passing in October, Underwood shared a personal story about the late artist. “The first time I met Loretta Lynn was at the Grand Ole Opry at the beginning of my career. I was chatting in the corner with another artist and someone walked behind me and smacked me on the rear end! I turned around and there she was…in a big sparkly dress…laughing as she continued to walk down the hall at what she had just done,” she recalled on social media. “This is one of my most favorite stories to tell. I think it sums up her personality pretty well. She was a cantankerous little pistol…friendly and sweet…never afraid to be herself and speak her mind…I am truly grateful to have known such an amazing woman and artist. Thank you, Loretta, for showing us how it’s done. May you Rest In Peace in the arms of Jesus and add your heavenly voice to the angel choir.”

Lambert said via Twitter at the time, “I’m so heartbroken to hear about Loretta’s passing. She was so kind to me and she blazed so many trails for all of us girls in country music. Thank you for all the songs. Miss You. Fly high.”

McEntire wrote on her Instagram account, “I always did and I always will love Loretta. She was always so nice to me. I sure appreciate her paving the rough and rocky road for all us girl singers.”

Lambert and Underwood are both nominees heading into Wednesday evening’s CMA Awards, and each is once again poised to follow in both Lynn’s and McEntire’s entertainer of the year-winning footsteps (McEntire won the accolade in 1986), as they are set to face off in the category this year against Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen and Chris Stapleton. This marks the third consecutive year that Lambert and Underwood have been nominated in the category, and the first time two female artists have been nominated in the entertainer of the year category for three consecutive years since 1986-1988, when McEntire and The Judds were nominated.

Jessica Nicholson