Few artists have had the career of Loretta Lynn. She achieved country music superstardom in the late 60’s and early 70’s with albums like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Don’t Come Home a’ Drinkin. From 1966-1970 she had thirteen top ten singles and four number one hits. She remained a popular concert draw in the 80’s long after her influence on the country music charts waned. Lynn ended up retiring in 1991 to take care of her ailing husband Oliver (who passed in 1996).
When she returned in 2000 with Still Country, the world of country music had changed. Classic artists like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Lynn were shunned from radio playlists and ignored by the mainstream. It didn’t help matters any that Still Country wasn’t her best effort.
But then, a funny thing happened. Alternative-Rock group The White Stripes declared her an influence by dedicating their 2001 album White Blood Cells to Lynn and covering her song “Rated X” for a B-side. Word made its way back to her and she met with the Stripes; after which she decided to make Van Lear Rose with frontman Jack White in the producer’s chair.
The record itself is a conglomeration of both Lynn’s country music background and White’s fascination with blues, folk, and garage rock. Both of their strengths dominate the album and create an enjoyable listen, regardless of any interest in country music previously held. It’s a testament to White’s production skills that he can make a record that sounds nothing like Lynn has done before, but make it solely and uniquely hers.
Penning all thirteen tracks on Van Lear Rose, the 70 year-old Lynn has created another classic. She sings with a vitality that is astounding for her age and the versatility of her songwriting is in top-form here, most evident on “Portland, Oregon” (a duet with Jack White), “Miss Being Mrs.,” a touching piece about her late husband with the heartbreaking line, “I took off my wedding band/And put it on my right hand”, which Lynn sings with the perfect sense of emotion, and the boot-stomper “Have Mercy”.
The only misstep is on “Little Red Shoes,” a spoken-word piece that White wrote the music for. It may be an interesting story to hear, but it doesn’t match up to the other cuts on Van Lear Rose, all of which are full of depth and range many modern country artists only dream of aspiring to. Now if only radio can get a clue…