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Jack gets behind Loretta Lynn’s new Van Lear Rose
Lynn’s best spins

All Time Greatest Hits (MCA/Decca). You’ll find the essentials on this 2002 collection, from 1964’s "Wine Women and Song" to her 1976 tribute cover of her late friend and mentor Patsy Cline’s "She’s Got You" to the ’78 hit "I Can’t Feel You Anymore" — with the suspicious omission of "Dear Uncle Sam," which was most recently available in the 1994 three-disc Honky Tonk Girl MCA box set.

Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man (MCA). Rocker turned country singer Conway Twitty was Lynn’s second great duet partner, and this 1973 classic — the #1 country album of that year — is their finest work together, even if they were born in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Loretta Lynn Writes ’Em and Sings ’Em (Decca). Truth in advertising prevails on this rambunctious 1970 album, which includes the tough-wife anthems "Fist City" and "You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)."

Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (MCA). Lynn is paired with the A-Team, and her voice is captured at its energetic peak. This was the top-selling country album of 1967, featuring the title tune by Lynn and Kitty Wells and work by other great Nashville songsmiths including Ernest Tubb.

The Ernest Tubb/Loretta Lynn Story (MCA). Early in her career, Decca Records teamed Lynn with the great Texas Troubadour for three LPs of duets. It’s a pleasure hearing Lynn’s sweet mountain twang and Tubb’s flatlander baritone blend on this reissue of those discs, with expert musical support that often boldly swings.

— TD

Sure, the pop-culture press is hyping the great country singer Loretta Lynn’s new album because it was produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. Otherwise, magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly wouldn’t give a damn about a woman thrice as old as and infinitely more talented than most of their cover artists. Soon enough, they won’t give a damn about White, either, but that’s another story.

The bottom line is that Lynn’s new Van Lear Rose is quite good, a reblossoming of her songwriting talent sparked by White’s fan-boy enthusiasm. The album has moments of reeling musical-culture clash. Lynn, who was influenced by the careful phrasing of earlier country queens Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline, sings unerringly and beautifully on the beat. White’s musicians sometimes have trouble finding the beat, especially when they’re singing harmony. And pedal-steel-guitarist Dave Feeny sounds as if he were using the session to learn his instrument, especially on the title track, Lynn’s tribute to her mother, Clara Webb.

Even though she’s 70, Lynn’s alto is still a powerful instrument: sweet, brittle, and gritty, all on demand. The only difference between her performances here and on the 70 hits she put on the country charts in the ’60s and ’70s is a slight quiver in her tone and a little unsteadiness in her ascending lines. But the hitches in her throat as her pitch climbs to emphasize the heartache in the love-gone-wrong song "Trouble on the Line" or the post-divorce regret of "Miss Being Mrs." just add character. If she’s lost some of the cream-smooth ability to execute vocal glisses that characterizes her classic "Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)" in 1966 and her biographical "Coal Miner’s Daughter" in ’69, she’s kept all of her gifts as a storyteller. Lynn, If nothing else, Lynn is the matriarch of female country songwriters. Before her, most women in the genre, including Wells and Cline, depended on other, usually male, writers for their hits, and that’s still standard practice today.

It’s been suggested that Van Lear Rose is Lynn’s American Recordings (American), the stripped-down 1994 album produced by rap and metal auteur Rick Rubin that introduced Johnny Cash to a new, young audience and renewed his standing as a cultural icon. As Cash did before he connected with Rubin, Lynn has continued to make the occasional album. Her most recent was 2000’s Still Country (Audium), a half-hearted return to recording after the 1996 death of her husband of 48 years, Oliver Lynn, whom she nicknamed both "Doolittle" and "Mooney," the latter for his taste for moonshine liquor. Before that came 1989’s Who Was That Stranger (Universal), an attempt to update her sound with the kind of crunchier, flashier arrangements Nashville had by then adopted. Like Cash’s pre-Rubin discs, they were largely ignored.

Although Jack White is an adequate producer, he is no Rick Rubin, and, terrific as she is, Loretta Lynn is no Johnny Cash. Cash reached beyond the personal and the emotional to spin tales that dealt with the cold edges of human nature. He performed joke tunes like "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog" and "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart," but often questions about mortality, spirituality, and the essence of the soul bubbled up through his lyrics. Lynn has plainspokenly stuck to the personal and the emotional. Even when dealing with Vietnam in "Dear Uncle Sam" (remarkably one of her first numbers to reach the country Top 10, in 1966), she made her protest from the home front, assuming the role of a woman writing the government to question the wisdom of the war and to beg the safe return of her men.

Nonetheless, Lynn’s consistent honesty of expression makes her a great artist and makes Van Lear Rose a standout. The TV broadcast of the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards a week ago Wednesday drove that home. Instead of songs from the heart, that event offered Clint Black singing an up-tempo doodle about bayou babes, Gretchen Wilson’s phony anthem "Redneck Woman," and an awkward stab at rap with a "Hey Ya"–style production number. Instead of encouraging thoughtful personal expressions like "Dear Uncle Sam," the CMA presented Toby Keith with four awards for wallowing in knee-jerk jingoism, including Album of the Year for his opportunistically titled Shock ’N Y’All (DreamWorks). (How far is Keith willing to go to exploit the fervor of wartime patriotism for album sales? Visit his Web site and the first thing you’ll see is Toby draped in the American flag — right next to ads for Shock ’N Y’All and Country Weekly magazine, proving yet again that in today’s United States, war sells.)

Much has been made recently of Lynn’s standing as a feminist. It’s hard to take that label seriously when so many of her lyrics are sung from the perspective of a woman who feels incomplete without her man. From 1965’s "You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" to ’68’s "Fist City" to ’72’s "Rated X" to Van Lear Rose’s "Family Tree" and "Miss Bring Mrs.," her protagonists have fought to win their cheating men back from floozies more often than they’ve told the two-timing bastards to go to hell. That perspective probably developed during the early years of her marriage to Mooney in 1949, when he was 21 and she was 14. For a poor coal miner’s daughter, leaving a cad while raising four children probably wasn’t much of an option. There’s also the infamous early-’70s David Frost Show incident, where Lynn actually fell asleep while the host and fellow guest Betty Friedan discussed feminist theory.

True, Lynn has occasionally delivered a vengeful kiss-off like the new "Mrs. Leroy Brown," a piano-driven honky-tonk rocker in which a woman who’s been left at home "bouncin’ " three babies on her knee takes her husband’s dough and splits — after she makes sure he’s seen the pink stretch limo she’s riding off in. And she slays her two-timer in "Woman’s Prison," as White and his session men walk the line between the steel-guitar cries that are a signature of weepy country tunes and the chordal sting of a dirty rock guitar. But that doesn’t make her a feminist. Rather, she’s a strong, determined, gifted, and articulate individual who took hold of her own bootstraps. She made the Horatio Alger version of the American Dream her own reality while making plenty of other people happy with her art, and for that she deserves admiration without labels.

Lynn has two autobiographies in bookstores: 2002’s Still Woman Enough (Hyperion), with co-author Patsi Bale Cox, and 1976’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (DeCapo), the latter of which inspired the 1980 movie. (Sissy Spacek won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta’s rise from child bride in her native Butcher’s Hollow, Kentucky, to country star, and former Band drummer/singer Levon Helm also gave an affecting, earnest performance as Lynn’s hard-working father, Ted Webb.) Now she’s written a third in Van Lear Rose. If one excuses the sloppy drumming, which Jack White is obviously used to doing, "Story of My Life" is just that. Lynn sings of her poor-but-happy upraising in the Kentucky hills, of marriage and motherhood, of how Doolittle’s gift of a guitar and his encouragement helped her make the leap from a coal-stove cabin to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and a lifestyle like "Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind." The rambling ragged-but-right accompaniment is a far cry from the tasty precision of the men who played on most of her ’60s and ’70s albums: Nashville’s so-called studio A-Team of guitarist Grady Martin, six-string-bassist Harold Bradley, bass-player Junior Huskey, pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harman, and pedal-steel-guitarist Hal Rugg. But White and his B-team stay the hell out of Lynn’s way, just as the A-Team did, and that’s what’s most important.

It’s a pleasure to hear Lynn sing about herself and her family and the land she comes from, her voice ringing with warmth and joy. As she always has, she offers us the meat of true human life in Van Lear Rose, not some outrageous facsimile designed for the marketplace. And regardless of who’s helped her to serve it, that’s a nourishing banquet.

Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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