Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose

Loretta Lynn
Van Lear Rose

After taking a hiatus through most of the 1990s first to care for and then to mourn her husband of 48 years, Oliver “Doo” Lynn, Loretta Lynn has come charging back with a vengeance. And believe me, that’s a bit of an understatement.

Van Lear Rose, with its punked-up production coming courtesy of Jack White (White Stripes), gazes beyond the present of the country genre to its future, while at the same time mining its past, and Loretta Lynn’s own, for inspiration. Revisiting her childhood and her longtime marriage, Ms. Lynn treads the same terrain that yielded her hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and digs even deeper. The title track retells the story of her parents’ romance, in which her father sweeps into town and steals the heart of her beauty queen mother from under the noses of the local miners. This disarming nostalgia bookends that album, which closes with the breezy “Story of My Life.” And “Story” is just that, a five-verse autobiography. For all the nostalgia, though, Ms. Lynn is never, ever maudlin. In “Story of My Life,” she humorously bemoans her oft-noted fertility: “Oh gee, oh Lord, I swear / The babies are comin’ in pairs.” And later, recalling the movie of her life that helped raise her status to legend, she complains, “It was a big hit, made a big splash / What I wanna know is, what happened to the cash?”

More impressive though, is that far from looking only backward, as though this album were an end to a career, Ms. Lynn spends most of the album marching along, as though she’d never left the scene. “Family Tree,” “Women’s Prison,” and “Mrs. Leroy Brown” are all truly classic you-ain’t-woman-enough-to-screw-with-me-or-take-my-man-away anthems that could stand with any of her hits from the 60s or 70s. “I’m gonna grab ger by phony ponytail and swing her around and around,” she warns on “Mrs. Leroy Brown.” She ends that song ad-libbing to guitarist/producer Jack White, “We’re leavin’ you two losers…. C’mon Jack, let’s get outta here,” with White laughing and mumbling agreement in the background.

The narrator on “Family Tree” shows up at the house of her husband and his new woman, kids in tow, to see “the woman that’s burnin’ down our family tree,” but informs the interloper, “I didn’t come to fight / If he was a better man I might / But I wouldn’t dirty my hands on trash like you.”

Ms. Lynn’s genius, beyond her plainspoken verbiage, is the understated, almost cheery way she delivers these lines. It’s a wink, but it’s not a hip, ironic wink. It’s the knowingness of a true veteran of the broken-heart wars. See, the woman in the songs isn’t there to beg her man to come back or to raise a scene. She’s there because she’s got kids to raise, so she needs their no-good daddy to pay up for “the bills that’s overdue.” And that’s it. For all the no-nonsense pragmatism, though, Van Lear Rose has its moments of sublimity. “Woman’s Prison,” the lament of a woman on death row for murdering her husband (the song is sequenced, cleverly, right after a song called “God Makes No Mistakes”), ends with a breathtaking coda: Ms. Lynn singing a chorus of “Amazing Grace” off-mic over a church organ, in the person of the doomed prisoner’s mother, the last voice she hears before her execution. Ms. Lynn’s voice gets so quiet that it almost disappears, and the effect is gorgeous.

In truth, the bad-ass songs are fiction and the sentimental ones are truer to life, by all accounts. “Miss Being Mrs.” is a tribute to Doo, the husband who encouraged Lynn to learn guitar and took her on the road early on, touring radio stations to get her songs out. Lynn has unearthed a song the two co-wrote, the simple ballad “Trouble on the Line,” and included it here.

Rose continues in this vein, alternating seamlessly between the hard-nosed and the tender. Jack White’s Detroit-rock backing band satisfactorily punches up the barroom numbers and stays out of the way of the quieter songs, and White himself offers duet vocals on one standout track, the raucous pickup song “Portland, Oregon.” White may be a long way from Conway Twitty as a duet partner, but the two are remarkably well paired for the song. White’s presence is felt as well on “Little Red Shoes.” He tape-recorded Ms. Lynn telling a story about her mother stealing young Loretta’s first pair of shoes, which the family couldn’t afford, and later underscored it with a bed of rambling guitar and pedal steel. Other than that, the songs are all Lynn’s, and the result is a rich, rewarding showcase for a woman whose voice, spirit, and energy have not faded, and don’t seem as if they will for a long while now. Thank goodness.