Van Lear Rose
oretta Lynn’s back, and we have Jack White to thank. OK, so it’s not that simple; we all should have been dusting off her still-durable 60s and 70s LPs every month or so since they were first released, revisiting “The Pill” and “Rated X” and “One’s On the Way” with the compulsive fervor of classic rock radio DJs. Shit, who should be more inescapable, Loretta Lynn or Deep Purple? You’d never hear of somebody rescuing Bob Seger from obscurity.
Of course, we didn’t keep Lynn in heavy rotation (Nashville’s hyper-accelerated ageism didn’t help), so now Jack White gets credit for blowing life into the limbs of a lady who never lost an ounce of vitality. Hell, we should be talking about the repair job Lynn did on White’s cred after the leaden Elephant, but he’s still getting on magazine covers, so how could he have possibly needed the pull of a country music legend, y’know?
No, Van Lear Rose isn’t grand because it’ll revive Lynn’s moribund career (2000’s Still Country was plenty resilient in its own right). It does, however, recast her matchless mountain holler and ever-sturdy songwriting genius in the milieu of gut-bucket blues riffs and blistering rock guitar, making Lynn sound not so much reinvigorated as reimagined, given a raucously purposeful, wildly authoritative new playground for her still-terrific proto-feminist (even in 2004) tropes. And like it or not, White’s largely hype-driven luminosity will attract a bundle of new fans to Lynn’s camp, many of whom will hopefully pore through her back catalogue to fill out the legacy of this fully-formed icon.
With that in mind, Van Lear Rose works as a distillation of Lynn’s most trusted themes and best-loved personas. In fact, the title track picks up right where most of America left off with Lynn, as the moviehouse “Coal Miner’s Daughter” from Butcher Hollow, KY.
Retreading the familiar tale of her parents’ courtship, however, something’s different right from the start. In place of the impeccably pristine arrangements of 70s countrypolitan, over which Lynn’s voice would soar with startling ease, White has substituted too-loud guitars and drums that force the unflappable legend to swallow syllables and threaten to drown her out completely. It shouldn’t work, but it does; Lynn rises to the challenge, fighting back without losing her cool, owning a song that doesn’t even play to her strengths. After 40+ years of mainstream Nashville mastery, Lynn’s more than ready to conquer new terrain, and the first single, “Portland, Oregon” shows her going even further, letting White rave up with a three-pronged classic-rock intro—here the Stones, the Allmans, a little Led Zep—then blowing off the hinges with a hell-raising vocal take on drunk lovin’ in the Pacific Northwest.
This take-on-all-comers attitude towards White’s retro-rock roadblock is more than just a metaphor for Lynn’s hard-won career success. It’s also the single most distinguishing trait of her lyrical identity, the essence of her icon status. Granted, family, God, and home play huge roles in Lynn’s universe, and Van Lear Rose gives us wonderful reminders in the bucolic “High On a Mountain Top”, nostalgic “This Old House” and somber “God Makes No Mistakes”. It’s within that family-values framework, however, that Lynn’s legendarily complex feminism comes shining through, stamping even her softest ballads with spit-shine grit and conflicted tenderness (a perfect example being “Family Tree”, where Lynn hauls the kids out to see Daddy in his new digs—at home with the Other Woman. It seems her rage is misguided when she threatens to throttle the homewrecker rather than the wandering spouse, until she acknowledges that the only thing stopping her is that he’s not “a better man”). With White pealing out shards of blues-rock raunch, however, Lynn can really dig her nails into some priceless vengeance fantasies, cleaning out her faithless man’s bank account to buy a pink limosuine in “Mrs. Leroy Brown”, driving right into the bar to beat the snot out of some blond-haired floozy. Likewise, the unbelievable “Woman’s Prison” might seem to cast a pall when the cheated-on wife shoots her hubby and gets sentenced to the chair; she claims the last sound she heard on earth was her momma’s cry, but after a benediction of “Amazing Grace”, White rips off an amped-up blues outro that reveals the bad-ass artifice and feminist toughness of the track.
Never quite the obvious outlaw rebel like Haggard, Nelson, or Cash, Lynn’s defiance was nonetheless much tougher and more crucial to her audience. She rebelled against feminine roles from inside the family unit, never selling herself as an aw-shucks rags-to-riches glamour queen, meeting the clarion calls of the 60s and 70s head-on rather than retreating back to Butcher Hollow. At the same time, Lynn didn’t try to force Butcher Hollow into the modern world, but rather made the best parts of the modern world fit into Butcher Hollow’s unbendable pieties and unbreakable family bonds, making feminism transferrable to Middle America in the process.
All these years later, Lynn needed nothing more than a liner note mention from the White Stripes to spark her reemergence on record. Look how quickly she returned to the top of her game, then ask yourself whether she really ever left, or whether we’ve just been taking her for granted all along.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - MAY 3 - MAY 9, 2004