Honky Tonk Girl

Emily Portman channels the Coal Miner’s Daughter in ‘Always Loretta,’ a touring tribute show coming to Nashville March 21

The queen is gone, but her spirit lives on in Always Loretta, a tribute show coming to Nashville’s Troubadour Theater on Tuesday night, March 21.

The one-night-only event features Emily Portman singing the songs of country superstar Loretta Lynn, along with a slew of special guests cheering her on—Lynn’s sister, Crystal Gayle, and Nancy Jones, the wife of the late legendary George Jones, are expected to be there.

How did this small-town Kentucky gal come to channel the Coal Miner’s Daughter?

“I was in a band years ago, called Country Cooking, in Kentucky, where I’m from,” she says. “We played a really good little show out in Lebanon Junction [Kentucky], and the guys there told me I sounded like Loretta Lynn.” A steel guitar player gave her a stack of Lynn’s CDs and suggested that she study them.

“So, I learned the songs and really started honing in on her voice and her mannerisms,” says Portman. “I started singing them and did a few shows on my own around the state.”

A few years later, around 2008, she auditioned for the Loretta Lynn role in a touring roadshow musical, Conway Twitty: The Man, The Music, The Legend, based on the life of Lynn’s 1970s singing partner and featuring Alabama singer Glenn Templeman as Twitty. Portman got the part, and she says it was “God’s hand” showing her a direction.

The Twitty trbute hit the road but eventually fizzled out, as things do. But over the next decade, she sang Loretta Lynn songs every chance she got. People would find her on YouTube, and book her to come to their fair, festival or dinner theater. She would sing all the hits—“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Pill,” “Fist City,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind”—as well as some of Portman’s persoal favorites, lesser-known tunes like “Hey Loretta,” a 1973 single from Lynn’s second album, or 1974’s “What Sundown Does to You.”

Playing Loretta on stage, Portman says, “is something I love to do, and it’s like it’s as easy as breathing to me. I sound like Loretta. If I had to do Reba or Dolly, I’d have to really practice.”

And she looks like Loretta, too, with her hair—sometimes a wig—and her stage attire. Last year, Portman (above) was asked by one of Lynn’s Coal Miner’s band members to come and sing a few songs at a reunion event for the group. Another musician saw her backstage and thought he was seeing things—like, the real Loretta Lynn, some 50 years ago.

“I had my hair done and my long Coal Miner’s Daughter dress on,” says Portman. “He said, ‘I swear, I thought that was Loretta standing back there.’”

When Portman and the Twitty musical came to Nashville, and she guested on the Grand Ole Opry, guess who was also there that night? That’s right, Loretta Lynn.

Backstage, Lynn’s daughter said, “Mama, this is Emily. She’s playing you in the Conway show.” Loretta looked at Portman and said, “Honey, you look just like me,” and she “smiled real big and hugged me tight.”

That just confirmed to Portman that she was doing what she was destined to do.

She got to be friends with Loretta, visiting the country queen in her Hurricane Mills home, west of Nashville. The first thing Loretta said to her, the first time she was there, was “‘They told me you was coming, so I want back there and brushed my teeth,’” says Portman. “It completely eased my mind because I was a little scared and nervous.”

Sounding, and looking like Loretta aren’t the only similarities shared by Portman, now 43, and Loretta, who died in October last year at age 90. “I’ve got six kids, just like Loretta,” Portman says. “I live in a rural area, like Loretta did.” Portman’s home in central Kentucky, near Leitchfield, is about five or six hours away, on the other side of the state, from where Loretta grew up, near Paintsville. “Kentucky is pretty wide,” says Portman.

But in the back of her mind, she feels a kinship with Loretta—and Loretta felt it, too. “Loretta Lynn told me herself, ‘We’ve got a real connection’,” she says. “She looked me in the eye and told me that, and it really went deep.” And Portman isn’t fully convinced they’re not related, both being native Kentuckians. “I wonder, if we were to dig down, we’d probably be kin somewhere along the line. My grandma was from Crab Orchard in East Kentucky, too [like Lynn]. I’ll bet if you look back far enough, we’d probably be connected somewhere.”

Now Portman is back on stage and singing the songs of her fellow Kentuckian, who had 24 No. 1 country singles and 11 No. 1 albums, a truly groundbreaking country singer and songwriter who became the first country music artist to be featured on the cover of Newsweek. Lynn was nominated 18 times for a Grammy. The 1980 movie about her, Coal Miner’s Daughter, is considered one of the best musical movie bios of all time, and it won Sissy Spacek, who played Loretta, an Oscar.

On Tuesday, March 21, she’ll bring her show to Nashville’s Texas Troubadour theater on Music Valley Drive, across from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.

But don’t call her a Loretta impersonator. “I think some people look at it as kind of an insult to be called a tribute act or an impersonator; I don’t really like those words. I like to think of myself more as a songstress or a vocalist, and an actress.

“I love Loretta. She’s my hero. I do sound like her, and it’s all just for entertainment. Everybody knows I’m not her; I’m not trying to be her, as a person. I’m proud of who I am, but also proud of my ability to portray her.”

She’s been singing Loretta’s songs for years, here and there, but the Always Loretta show is brand new—and it’s now her show. “It’s just kind of getting started,” Portman says. “So far, the shows we’ve done have been sold out.” She is especially excited because, behind her, backing her up on stage, are members of Loretta’s own band, the Coal Miners.

Portman says, unlike a lot of entertainers, she never really dreamed of writing hit songs, recording albums or filling concert halls. And she certainly never dreamed of touring the country as Loretta Lynn, performing with Loretta Lynn’s band. “I never started out thinking, ‘I just want to do Loretta Lynn,” she says. “I loved to sing, but I never sang in front of everyone until I was 19, and I was scared to death.”

She’s written a bunch of songs over the years, even recording her own CD in 2008. “I’ve got notebooks full of stuff; I’ve written a lot. I’m not finished. There are a lot of country songs I’d still like to record. Not to make it big, but just to have my stuff ‘on file’ for my great-grandkids and thereafter, so they can say, ‘This was my memaw’ or whatever, back when she was singing and stuff.”

She also took time off from making music to build a life and raise a family. She still teaches—at a Catholic school near her home, instructing K-through-8 students in music, social studies and “PE, believe it or not. We go to the gym and play.” She also gives riding lessons.

And she continues to carry the torch for her singing idol. She sounds like Loretta, she talks like Loretta, and she looks like Loretta, especially on stage. And right now, Always Loretta is her musical calling.    

“I feel like it’s something that I need to continue,” she says. “I’m not a young spring chicken right out of the gate anymore, but I still have a lot of life in me.”

Spoken, well, just like Loretta might have said it.

—Neil Pond


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