Reinventing oneself is always a gamble. I direct you to the extreme case of clean-cut, ’60s pop crooner Pat Boone who tragically, but hysterically, donned black leather in the ’80s and put out a heavy metal covers album that didn’t even lend itself to ironic appreciation. Loretta Lynn who, like Boone was born in 1934, thankfully never tarnished her image by pandering to trends, and has always made music in keeping with who she is. But in more recent times this hasn’t necessarily proved all that exciting, as she was stuck in the Nashville production rut where strict uniformity and overproduction are the rules of the game.
Enter rock torchbearer and producer Jack White of the White Stripes, whose friendship with Lynn developed after he and Meg White dedicated their album White Blood Cells to her. His reworking of Loretta Lynn is miraculous, and he did it in the simplest way possible. Rather than transform her into something she’s not, he peeled away the layers of paint to reveal the rustic essence that was already there. Twelve of the 13 songs on Van Lear Rose are Lynn originals and draw from her own life experiences, each was recorded in a single live take on analog equipment, and the result is an album that has rightfully and tastefully highlighted Lynn’s worth for a whole new generation of listeners.
Sixty-nine years old, Loretta Lynn sounds nearly as young as she did on her very first release, and just as much of a tough country mama. Never one to shy away from controversial topics — “The Pill”, her 1975 women’s-lib anthem about birth control was removed from radio playlists across the country — Lynn tackles, with equal force, her husband’s mistress in “Family Tree”. Simple, traditional country instruments underpin this Kentucky-style confrontation — just imagine Lynn’s five-foot two-inch frame standing in the doorway in that big blue dress yelling “Their daddy once was a good man/ Until he ran into trash like you”. Do not mess with a woman who once knocked her own husband’s teeth out during a domestic dispute.
Incidentally, her husband Oliver “Mooney” Lynn — better known as “Doo” — plays an important role in Van Lear Rose, which essentially serves as an overview of Lynn’s life, from her poor, mountain upbringing to the present. Her relationship with Doo was a stormy one, but also one full of love. A bitter phone call to Doo is recounted in the lonely, pedal steel-dominated “Trouble on the Line”, and the stark “Miss Being Mrs.” laments his absence since his death in 1996. Lynn’s plain, honest manner has always been her strong suit and to hear her against such stripped-down production only increases the weight of her words.
The catchy “Portland, Oregon”, on which White shares vocal duties, starts off with an idiosyncratic, thoroughly un-country bit of guitar noise and plunges into straight-on rock and roll. But pedal steel, guitar, and fiddle are at the core of most of the album, with White’s now-trademark electric licks adding just the right edge to Lynn’s already powerful delivery. The heavy, blues-rock of “Have Mercy”, a song she wrote for Elvis Presley, has her sounding like the female counterpart to Johnny Cash, whose often flat singing style changes register only to emphasize what is necessary. “Women’s Prison”, a sympathetic contemplation of a woman on death row, seeems likewise to be the female, albeit less rowdy, response to Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.
The glory shout of “High on a Mountain Top” could have been recorded in 1940, for all its reminiscences of country living — poor but “rich in love”. White excels at capturing the old-time feel these lyrics require. Lynn herself said “it sounds like we’re all drunks settin’ in the house singin’ this”, which is exactly how it needed to sound.
Long-time Loretta Lynn fans or country purists will no doubt bristle at White’s modern flourishes — like the heavy drums, the Black Sabbath-esque guitar screeches, and the bits of feedback here and there. But in this time of stale nostalgia trips littering the airwaves, a throwback, front-porch hoedown of an album would have done Lynn a disservice. When revisiting old musical styles, or any art form for that matter, the antidote to excessive fetishizing of the past is precisely to update it with elements relevant to the present. The purpose of this album was not anthropological, after all. The fact that a woman of Lynn’s tenure can slide so easily into what is essentially an alt-country environment without losing any of her down-home authenticity simply underscores her versatility and timelessness. In short, Van Lear Rose is a blessing. Enough said.