By Gilbert Garcia
Loretta Lynn once famously sang that when you looked at her, you were looking at country.
It's a hard point to argue, because few performers have been less altered by riches and fame than the Coal Miner's Daughter. Lynn spent a mere 13 years living in that mythic little cabin in Butcher Holler, while she's been a major star for more than four decades, yet at the age of 69 she continues to view the world from the mountain-top prism of her dirt-poor childhood.
If Lynn is unassailably country, Van Lear Rose - her unlikely but perfectly conceived collaboration with White Stripes frontman Jack White - also demonstrates that she's equally at home with the blues and rock 'n' roll. White takes the gritty implications of Lynn's songs, pulls them out of Nashville, and drops them right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Conceptually, it's as much a mash-up as Danger Mouse's Grey Album.
The thrill of hearing Lynn cut loose on the bluesy "Have Mercy" (a song she wrote for Elvis Presley shortly before his death) or the raucous sex-and-booze saga "Portland, Oregon" (a duet with White) rivals witnessing Satchel Paige travel through time to strike out Barry Bonds. It's pop-culture, cut-and-paste voyeurism - watching a legend step off the pedestal of history right into your living room.
Like Johnny Cash - another country giant whose career was revived in its final stages by a hip, sympathetic producer - Lynn is incapable of phoniness, but she is susceptible to the easy comforts of piety and patriotism. The album's weakest track, "God Makes No Mistakes," goes so far as to hint that even birth defects are part of God's flawless plan. But Lynn and White, with masterful perversity, follow that track with the first-person account of a female inmate who murdered her cheating husband. In Lynn's world, God may get off the hook, but deceitful two-timers get no mercy. •