(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
What Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash, Jack White of the White Stripes is trying to do for Loretta Lynn. Her resulting new album Van Lear Rose — set for release Tuesday (April 27) on Interscope — is a dramatic departure in some ways but a logical continuation of her work in many other ways. Loretta has been a quiet revolutionary throughout her career but — just as Cash did not realize what remained to be tapped in his artistry — she did not sense the unrealized potential at her command.
The White Stripes have long admired Lynn, and White met Lynn, started hanging out with her and saw before him a remarkable career that appeared to be over or stuck in a rut of tours and tired albums. He told her he’d like to produce an album with her.
The result is raw, almost-primitive, grab-you-by-the-throat music that ranges from traditional, stark Loretta declarations of truths to psychedelia to grunge. This album will shock some country fans, should delight most and will certainly puzzle some. But it presents Lynn’s unique sensitivity and remarkable voice in new settings that are remarkably receptive and resonating to her. As she sings in the title song, it’s “a beauty to behold/Like a diamond in the coal.”
The title song, “Van Lear Rose,” refers to the little Kentucky town where her father worked in the coal mines. The song is a gorgeous bit of Lynn reminiscing at her best about her father telling her tales about her mother, who was the rose of Van Lear, Ky., and the “belle of Johnson County.”
Years ago, Lynn became puzzled as to why feminists were showing up at her shows and seeking interviews and looking for the fount of her wisdom. Of course, they had discovered a strong-minded woman who on her own was figuring out her life. She was a one-woman, do-it-yourself, frontier feminist movement. She’s still charting her own musical course, whether lamenting her newly found widowhood in “Miss Being Mrs.” Or chasing down a wandering husband by limo in “Mad Mrs. Leroy Brown.”
“Family Tree” is vintage Loretta Lynn at her best. Just as she did in female anthems such as “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” Lynn is the aggrieved wife going after the woman who’s seducing her husband: “Woman, you don’t know me/But you can bet I know you/Everybody in this whole darn town knows you too/I brought along our little babies/’Cause I wanted them to see/The woman that’s burnin’ down our family tree.” Unlike the feisty, ferocious Lynn of “Fist City,” Lynn now sounds too resigned to fight: “No, I didn’t come to fight/He was a better man I might/But I wouldn’t dirty my hands on trash like you/Bring out the babies’ daddy/That’s who they come to see/Not the woman that is burnin’ down our family tree.”
She can also veer into a sheer psychedelic drinking-flirtation song, such as “Portland, Oregon.” It takes me back to the Fillmore West in San Francisco circa 1967, to the sounds of Janis Joplin jamming with the Quicksilver Messenger Service. This duet (with White) is a peculiarly endearing tale of barroom flirtation and cheap romance in Portland, where they’re slugging down sloe gin fizz by the pitcher. “Portland, Oregon and sloe gin fizz/If that ain’t love, then tell me what is.”
White has said that he considers Lynn to be “the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century.” It’s hard to argue with that, but I do have a two-word reply: Dolly Parton. Even so, Lynn stands alone as a fearless, trailblazing country music pioneer. What White has enabled her to accomplish here is remarkable, yielding what may yet be a career-transforming work. Hard as it is to comprehend, this is the first time in her 44-year recording career that Lynn has written every song on one of her albums. Or, more correctly, been allowed to write all the songs on her own album.
Just as Rick Rubin let Johnny Cash be Johnny Cash, Jack White now allows Loretta Lynn to be Loretta Lynn. What could be better than that?