By Gilbert Garcia
In the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, rock critic Dave Marsh had this to say about Loretta Lynn: "If Lynn were ever granted artistic rather than purely commercial production values, she might become the most important female singer of her generation."
Marsh's observation is striking for a couple of reasons. For one thing, by the time of his review, Lynn was already regarded as a country music legend and a working-class feminist queen, on the verge of being immortalized on screen by Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. To her legion of admirers, Lynn didn't need to do anything to become the most important female singer of her generation: She was already there.
These days, however, Marsh's critique looks amazingly prescient. At age 69, Lynn has finally been granted the "artistic" production values Marsh wrote about, courtesy of White Stripes leader - and unabashed Lynn fanatic - Jack White. Sure enough, in the twilight of an improbable, rags-to-riches career that's spanned five decades, Lynn has delivered an instant classic in Van Lear Rose, an album brimming with so much confessional candor and raw vitality that it puts the work of most singer-songwriters to shame.
White deserves tremendous credit for not only urging, but demanding, that Lynn be Lynn. Most modern-country producers would be tempted to retool her for today's pop-friendly market, but White does the opposite here, hooking her up with a tough-rocking young band called the Do Whaters and going for first-take spontaneity.
Recognizing that it's an insult to Lynn to even think about trying to compete with unctuous, designer divas like Shania Twain and Faith Hill, he strips away the sheen that Nashville always tried to - but could never quite - wrap around Lynn. The album has brought the contemporary audience to Lynn, rather than the other way around. The week after its release, Van Lear Rose debuted on the Billboard album chart at number 24, the highest chart position of Lynn's career.
In discussing the album, Lynn has praised White by saying, "I see a lot of `Nashville producer` Owen Bradley in this young fella." She must mean that White shares Bradley's firm command in the studio, because the two men could hardly have more divergent musical sensibilities.
Bradley, more than any other figure, transformed C&W into city music, a form of polished Southern pop that would eventually be dubbed "countrypolitan." His defining artist was Patsy Cline, a friend, role model, and ardent supporter of Lynn's.
Hearing Bradley's early work with Lynn on hits such as "Wine Women and Song," you can't help but notice how much inspiration the young Lynn took from Cline. While never losing the husky, Kentucky mountain drawl that's always made her so distinctive and appealing, she borrows Cline's studiously refined pop phrasing and showy vibrato.
As Lynn's own songwriting voice began to assert itself, however, her natural earthiness became increasingly prominent in her singing. At that point, she began to eclipse Cline. For all of Cline's vocal brilliance, she was not a songwriter, and the male-crafted material she recorded usually consisted of sorrowful take-me-back laments that did not suggest the tough-talking woman behind them.
Lynn's feisty, rebel streak made her Nashville royalty, but she never completely shed the lessons of Bradley's radio-ready approach. Although her finest, most groundbreaking hits were self-written ("Rated 'X'," "The Pill," "Coal Miner's Daughter"), she always hedged her bets by recording outside material. Some of these records, particularly her romantic duets with Conway Twitty, succumbed to Nashville conventionality.
That's why White - who views Lynn as the greatest songwriter of the last century - insisted that every song on Van Lear Rose be a Lynn original. As a result, you get an album that fully expresses the range of her work: tales of marital strife ("Trouble On the Line," "Family Tree"), memories of her dirt-poor youth ("High On a Mountain Top," "Van Lear Rose," "Little Red Shoes"), outlaw ravers ("Women's Prison," "Mrs. Leroy Brown"), and a highly moving reflection on her late husband, Mooney ("Miss Being Mrs.).
One song, a driving blues number called "Have Mercy," was written in the mid-'70s for Lynn's old pal Elvis Presley. It's amazing to consider that Lynn and Presley were born the same year, yet Lynn is making the best music of her career nearly three decades after Presley died a bloated, lethargic wreck. But then again, anyone who ever heard "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" or "Fist City" could have told you this woman doesn't back down from a challenge. •