Loretta Lynn has a real claim on the title “The Godmother of Country Music”. She’s been recording for over 40 years now, forging a reputation as a trailblazer for women in music with her feminist lyrics and image. Songs such as Coal Miner’s Daughter and Woman Of The World are regarded as classics and her partnership with Conway Twitty produced five consecutive number ones.
Now aged 70, for the last few years it’s seemed as if she’s been content to settle into her old age without troubling the charts – her last hit being in 1985. However, after The White Stripes dedicated their White Blood Cells album to her, Lynn asked Jack White to produce an album that she was working on. Van Lear Rose is the result.
It’s tempting to draw parallels with Johnny Cash, who teamed up with metal/rap guru Rick Rubin for the awe-inspiring, and career-resurrecting, American Recordings series. However, while Cash’s albums were strewn with some brilliantly chosen cover versions, Van Lear Rose is Lynn’s first album which she has written herself. The result is a marvellous record, full of warmth, heart and humour.
Fans of The White Stripes may come away slightly bemused however. This is as far from De Stilj or Elephant as it could get. Those who are familiar with White’s contribution to the Cold Mountain soundtrack though will feel right at home. This is pure bluegrass, and White obviously has immense respect for Lynn – longtime fans will find nothing to fear here, while people who usually run screaming from Country And Western records will be pleasantly surprised.
Lynn is in fine form throughout, belting out the chorus to the muscular title track (dedicated to her mother) like a woman half her age. Her duet with White on the atmospheric Portland Oregon is nothing short of extraordinary – she sounds disconcertingly sexual as she swaps lyrics like “next day we knew last night got drunk, but we loved enough for the both of us”. Not the usual sort of words one would normally expect from a grandmother!
Elsewhere, traditional Country And Western still plays a part, especially on Trouble On The Line’s mournful pedal steel guitar, while High On A Mountain Top is a charming bluegrass stomp, which proves impossible not to sing along to after a couple of hearings.
Have Mercy is a blisteringly rocking number, with White’s guitar work being typically supercharged. Most surprising is Little Red Shoes, a spoken word number with a blissful backing track which brings to mind Ani DiFranco of all people.
By the time the autobiographical Story Of My Life closes the album, it’s hard to resist the temptation to hit the start button and go straight back to the beginning again. Lynn has found the perfect partner in Jack White and together they’ve managed to engineer one of the most unlikely comebacks of the year. Hopefully, this will be the start of a beautiful friendship.