Wow. Sometimes we get knocked back a notch in the business of listening to, and
trying to interpret for others, new music. Sometimes still we get flat stunned.
I don’t know if it’s a new White Stripes record with Loretta Lynn filling in on
vocals or a Lynn record with the Stripes providing the garage band sentiment and
modern-day appeal. But since her name is on the sleeve, we’ll settle for what it
is: Van Lear Rose by Loretta Lynn (produced but not written by Jack
White). And it’s the best new album I’ve found this year.
Allow me to affirm a couple of pretty amazing facts right up front. First, the
country icon is 70 years old now. More notably, Van Lear Rose represents Lynn’s
first ever album of completely original material that she has penned all by her
little ol’ lonesome. Sure, it’s produced and arranged (not to mention very
heavily influenced) by Jack White, but these are her songs through and through.
No way to argue the two-step tambourine boogie that is “High on a Mountain Top”
or the grisly front-porch mantra “This Old House.” Nope, these pearls of wisdom
and heartache could just as easily have been shared with Patsy Cline or Buck
Owens. In fact, the poetic reading of “Little Red Shoes” not only transcends a
made-for-TV movie starring Shirley McClain, but it narrates the very kind of
hard-knock upbringing that would drive most anyone and their guitar to Nashville
in the first place.
These songs are astral. Whether thumbing a sober ballad (“Miss Being Mrs.”) or
grinding out the electric climax to a steel-guitar classic (“Women’s Prison”),
Lynn seems more certain in this skin than any I’ve never heard her
display before. Admittedly, I don’t own a back catalog of Loretta Lynn records.
It took a blockbuster alliance here, not unlike the renowned partnership between
Rick Rubin and the late Johnny Cash in the mid-1990s, to really peak my
interest. As it stands, I can’t imagine the end of 2004 without having benefited
from a monumental cut like “Portland, Oregon.” White Stripes fans will gobble up
this hayseed offering for no other reason, as White executes a perfect duet.
Another must-hear is “Have Mercy,” as it serves up a killer Janis Joplin vibe
complete with White and the boys tearing through a Big Brother & the Holding
Lynn is pictured on the CD case leaning against a craggy old oak tree, sporting
an out-dated and ghastly-colored wedding gown and brandishing her signature
six-string guitar. It looks like an album cover straight out of the Sun Records
vaults. Thank God the songs share some of this moth-ball nostalgia. Marc
Greilsamer of Amazon.com notes that this radiant collaboration pits “artists
from two different musical universes to forge a memorable work that neither
could have created alone.” How, I ask, can you resist that?