Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose
Genre: Traditional country featuring untraditional, lo-fi alternative rock production
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- As country music evolves (some might say devolves) to accommodate an increasingly cosmopolitan demographic, living legends are pushed out of country radio and television, where they’re left to live out their days in the wings of the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series proved there was an alternative market in which a country singer could not only survive but flourish, commercially as well as critically. Just as Cash proved his salt as one of America’s premiere roots artists and found a new audience in the process, so has traditional country’s reigning queen, Loretta Lynn. She has revitalized her career by treading outside the boundaries of carefully manicured Nashville industry product. In so doing, she’s conjured up a milestone in Van Lear Rose, which makes her strongest personal statement in perhaps decades. Like the unlikely collaboration between Cash and upstart producer Rick Rubin, Lynn’s association with The White Stripes’ Jack White provided the necessary alchemy for the project. White, a devotee of Lynn’s music, won the role of the album’s producer by emphasizing her importance as a songwriter - something the country industry has played down despite the self-penned hits that launched her career in the 1960s (well-documented in the film biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter). As a result, Van Lear Rose is the first Loretta Lynn record to exclusively feature her own compositions. Lynn, while perhaps not as sophisticated a songwriter as Dolly Parton, shares Parton’s hard-knocks upbringing and her natural knack for creating wholly believable, three-dimensional slices of rural life. With Loretta, what you see is what you get - no-frills depictions of relational difficulties, the joys of simple country life, and the disarmingly straightforward stories drawn from Lynn’s own life. In this case, though, you also get musical backing which deviates from anything longtime fans might expect to hear from the gal from Butcher Holler, Ky. Yes, it’s a startling revelation to hear rumbling, rock-oriented instrumentation alongside Loretta’s mountain-bred, pure country vocals - especially on "Portland, Oregon," a tale of drunken revelry on which revved-up, reverb-laden guitars and Jack White’s strained duet vocal signal that you’ve clearly entered another state. For the most part, though, the edgy, slightly clunky performances behind Lynn’s vocals provide unpretentious accompaniment that suits her style in unexpected ways. Whereas the A-team session players on her older efforts whirred along like a first-class Amtrak car, White and his cronies transport Loretta in a chugging but determined old jalopy in which she’s plenty comfortable.
The personal details and family sagas that inhabited classic songs like "One’s On The Way" and "Coal Miner’s Daughter" can be heard on tracks like the title song and "Little Red Shoes," a touching Lynn family anecdote captured on tape and pasted over a retro instrumental backing. These display the down-home quality her faithful followers have come to adore, as do the intimate emotions shared on "This Old House" and "Miss Being Mrs.," which alludes to her widowhood. As a songwriter, though, she excels on finely crafted mini-dramas like "Family Tree" and "Women’s Prison." The latter, a chilling account of murder and consequences, would be affecting enough as a stand-alone track. With its attached prelude, "God Makes No Mistakes," it becomes the left hook in a one-two punch that provides the disc’s most provocative and challenging segment. In "God Makes No Mistakes," she declares her belief in a sovereign God whose divine hand is in every detail of life, regardless of our ability to comprehend them. "Well, I’ve heard people say/ why is this tree bent?/ why, they don’t have God enough to know/ that’s the way that it was meant." When the song’s solemn organ later becomes a funereal drone behind the execution of a death row inmate on "Women’s Prison," the juxtaposition is stunning. It seems to be saying that it isn’t God’s design that evil be done, but the freedom of choice he’s given his creations can, and does, result in tragedy. At the song’s close, Lynn can be heard singing "Amazing Grace" under her breath in one of the album’s most moving moments.
If Van Lear Rose isn’t the definitive Loretta Lynn recording, it is nonetheless a creative and inspired musical manifesto that’s bound to turn more than a few heads and garner her some long-deserved respect. It also makes it hard to dismiss the heavily distributed hype surrounding Jack White’s alternative rock success with the White Stripes, as the young musician excellently handles the reins on a horse of a different color. It’s a win-win for them both, as well as a treat for lovers of roots music who like their stylistic lines on the blurred side.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.