Loretta and Jack? Scratch below the somewhat unlikely premise and there’s a sense of synchronicity about the twinning of Nashville’s Hickory homesteader with Detroit’s golden boy. In Jack White’s case, the motive appears to be simple fandom. The Stripes’ third album, 2001’s White Blood Cells, was dedicated to Lynn, while a cover of 1972 classic “Rated X” popped up on the “Hotel Yorba” single. Introduced to her music via Coal Miner’s Daughter (the 1980 biopic of Lynn, with Sissy Spacek’s remarkable Oscar-nabbing turn as Loretta), White has since declared her the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century.
For the 70-year-old girl from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, the appeal of the White stuff?despite the obvious hipster kudos?is more complex. As one third of the Holy Trinity of Country Queens (alongside Dolly and Tammy), Lynn was by far the most pragmatic, her spirit steadfastly rooted in the soil, even amid the deluge of dollars and gongs, and the acquisition of an entire town-cum-personal ranch in Tennessee. Where others slipped relatively easily into Nashville’s mainstream, Loretta’s songs of death, sex, familial dysfunction and?above all?female empowerment, were radical free swimmers. From 1966′ s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” through housewife lament “One’s On The Way”, “Fist City” (revenge on the other woman), the philanderer butt-kicking of “Happy Birthday”, “Rated X” (a divorcee leered at by men, ostracised by women) and “The Pill” (championing contraception in the same year Tammy hit big in the UK with “Stand By Your Man”), uproar was part of the deal.
A headlong rush at life, too, suggested a reckless soul: married at 13, mother of four by 17, star at 25, grandmother at 29, country’s first millionairess before she’d hit 40. No half measures. She began suffering blackouts in the early ’70s, evincing a fragility in the face of fame described in Randall Riese’s Nashville Babylon as “like a thin cotton summer dress on a brutally windy day”.
Apparently alerted by daughter Patsy to the album dedication, when she first heard The White Stripes, Lynn remarked that it sounded “like someone was breaking into a bank”. Soon after, she joined them on stage at New York’s Hammersmith Ballroom, duetting on “Fist City”and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”. Then, while White recovered from the busted finger he sustained in a car crash in Detroit, he offered to produce her first album for four years in Nashville.
So much for the build-up. Does it deliver? However you judge the Stripes shebang?and will they really be seen in 20 years’ time as anything more than totems of an age when music had little to offer apart from a celebratory reel around its own past??White does a magnificent job of stripping away Loretta’s customary Music Row gloss and achieving the objective of “something raw, like she really is”. The sound can be a little muddy, but White’s wilfully basic approach is what gives Van Lear Rose its freshness. Perhaps only legendary Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley (see 1967’s Singin ‘With Feelin’ or the following year’s Fist City) has ever drawn such visceral might and intuitive heat from that mighty larynx. “Have Mercy On Me”, for instance, is astounding: huge ’60s-reverb production with staccato guitar, Lynn’s fat Kentucky twang and a 12-bar freakout at its coda. Loretta and white noise? You’d better believe it.
But lest we lose sight, this is Loretta Lynn first and foremost. Thirteen Lynn originals, fleshed out by the Do Whaters?White and The Greenhornes’ Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence. At times, it’s unerringly beautiful and soft. At others, it howls like a blue mountain banshee.
It’s deeply autobiographical, too. While “God Has No Mistakes” is a weary acceptance of the Man’s Grand Plan (one that robbed Lynn of her first-born son, who drowned at 34) with the lines, “Why is this little boy/Born all twisted and out of shape?/We’re not to question what he does/God makes no mistakes”, the chilly peal of steel cupping the lovely “Trouble On The Line” underscores a crisis of faith. An open letter to God?”We have nothing left in common/Your thoughts are not like mine/Oh lord, I’m sorry/But there’s trouble on the line”?bristles with the static of a dialogue fizzling in the ether.
There are tales of how Dad met “belle of Johnson County” Mom (“Van Lear Rose”), cheatin’ ballads (“Mad Mrs Leroy Brown”, “Family Tree”) and dirt-poor childhood snapshots of stolen booty (“Little Red Shoes”). White may be no Conway Twitty, but “Portland, Oregon” is a stunning barroom duet with flashing slide and tom-toms?a wry nod to 1968’s “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath”, perhaps??that simultaneously boils and blossoms. “High On A Mountain” is pure joy?a rowdy country-gospel hop that Lynn describes as “like ev’rybody’s uncle hollerin’ in the front room drunk”. A kind of debauched cousin to Uncle Tupelo’s “Screen Door”, it’s the simple sound of life.
Predictably, it doesn’t always work. “Little Red Shoes” is a remarkable stream-of-(unself) consciousness with the intimacy of a toasted-fireside tale, but the band drown her out like crockery crashing in the kitchen. Likewise, the poignancy of “Women’s Prison” is swamped by drums way too high in the mix. Minor quibbles, though. Van Lear Rose closes with “Story Of My Life”, a panoramic look back across 70 years full of candour, humour and little regret. (Of the Coal Miner’s Daughter flick, she remarks: “It was a big hit/Made a big splash/But I wanna knows/What happened to the cash?”)
In a way, whether or not Van Lear Rose kickstarts a commercial revival is immaterial. If you thought Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash reinvention was impressive, wait’til you grab a fistful of this.