By Mark Guarino
Next to David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing Christmas carols together, Loretta Lynn and Jack White make one of the oddest couplings in rock.
White, who fronts the White Stripes with ex-wife Meg, produced and was the chief instigator behind “Van Lear Rose” (Interscope, 4 stars), Lynn’s new album that arrived in stores last week. Glowing reviews accompanied its release and Grammy nominations plus its placement on year-end critic’s choice lists seem assured.
There is a precedent to the buzz and it is Johnny Cash. Before teaming up with hip-hop/hard rock producer Rick Rubin in the late ‘90s, Cash played strictly to his fanbase and in Nashville industry circles was considered a country music patriarch whose day had long past. With Rubin, Cash not only was introduced to a new generation entirely, he was shown as relevant. Rubin emphasized the connection the Man in Black shared with gothic rockers like Trent Reznor, Glen Danzig and Nick Cave. In return, Cash wound up competing for awards with pop rookies like Justin Timberlake. When he died last year, the onslaught of exposure ensured that the barriers he broke down 40 years ago would be remembered for years to come.
“Van Lear Rose” is not as solemn as the Cash/Rubin albums, but it does mix country and rock textures just as freely. Although the album can hardly be called a comeback — her last album was just four years ago and she tours often, including Chicago last summer headlining the Country Music Festival. Nonetheless, it does feel like a renewed chapter in her 44-year career. Not only did she write most of the songs (she had handed those chores to others long ago), but her voice sounds renewed, especially on those songs requiring her to keep pace with White’s moody and sometimes aggressive guitarwork.
In a climate where Beyonce and Avril Lavigne sell sisterhood to young women in the guise of fashion choices and video posing, the arrival of Lynn is well-timed. During her hitmaking years in the ‘60s, she was a true innovator on many levels. A decade earlier, the dominant female country stars were Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline, singers who were demure and polished. Lynn took their poise and twisted it. While she possessed a voice that was worthy of their own, her songs were set in the earthier world of honkytonks and addressed spousal abuse with journalistic grit. Like Cash, she did not downplay her country roots in fear of alienating a wider audience. Instead, her breakthrough singles like “Rated X,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough” established a new type of female country singer who was down-home but still self-assured and uncompromising.
The fact she wrote her own songs was also an anomaly that remains true to this day. In country music circles especially, Lynn is the last of a line with a legendary past. As recounted in the 1980 film “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn’s early life coming from raw poverty and hardship was a rich source for her later songwriting. With today’s influx of images over character, it’s understandable why her life history would not have a place. It’s too inconsistent to sell and no match against the yearly crop of groomed blonde bombshells marketed to deliver bland radio country devoid of regionalism or passion.
Lynn’s life story is reportedly what drew White and partner Meg to her years ago, resulting in the dedication of their 2001 album “White Blood Cells” (SFTRI/V2) to her. Lynn learned about the recognition and invited them to her Tennessee ranch. After a performance together in New York City, plans to record together were made and Lynn wound up financing the entire project herself. Like the White Stripes albums, “Van Lear Rose” was recorded fast (two weeks) and on the cheap (using only an eight-track). After it was finished, the White Stripes had in the meantime become bankable stars, having many major Grammy nominations under their belt and their recent album “Elephant” (V2) on the top of most critic’s choice lists. Quickly, the album was licensed by Interscope, making Lynn an unlikely rostermate to arena rock bands like Limp Bizkit and No Doubt.
White, 28, steers clear of making Lynn, 69, anything she’s not. Instead, his production focuses on the mystery and dark undercurrents in her songs. While there are many traditional staples found in any worthy country music canon (the murder ballad “Women’s Prison,” a spiritual “God Makes No Mistakes,” and “Story of My Life,” a straightforward testimonial), the album gets interesting with its unanticipated turns.
White allows their duet “Portland Oregon” to emerge from a fog of echoing percussion and guitars, making it sound like it was rising from the shadows of the two singers’ past. The crashing drums and riffing guitars on “Have Mercy” never feel intrusive, yet they feel like they’re prompting Lynn to throw herself further into the song, a lover’s plea to be granted a second chance. “Little Red Shoes,” the single songwriting contribution from White, features Lynn in a hushed conversation with herself, recounting a childhood memory as a wash of shadowy guitars creep underneath.
The White Stripes were able to pounce out of Detroit because they sounded like no other band in their wake. Their back alley grind of blues and country was both triumphantly large and remarkably simple. Like Bob Dylan — who invited White to the stage when his tour visited Detroit this year — their music is built upon archetypes and old-time Americana to avoid an expiration date while sounding at the same time more engaged than anything on the charts.
White approaches Lynn as an original treasure, and unlike most Nashville producers approaching a legend with kid gloves, he refuses to let her star emit too heavy a glare. As with his own albums, “Van Lear Rose” shines when stripped to a stark emotional core. Her Appalachian spiritual (“High On A Mountain Top”) and bar fight recap (“Mrs. Leroy Brown”) both get the back porch treatment with flickers of slide guitar, stomping percussion and easygoing backup vocals. Lynn sings as if surrendering to the high emotional arc this album draws. The songs move forward through themes of retribution, salvation and family whose conclusions are blurred due to the music’s restlessness and fading twilight.