There’s a lot of irony involved in the fact that Van Lear Rose is the first record that I’ve chosen to review here on my review site. The first concert I ever attended in person was a Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty dual affair at the Houston Rodeo sometime back in the early eighties. I don’t even remember how old I was, but I’m guessing it was somewhere in the range of 6-8. That concert is one of the earliest things about my life that I can remember, but I do know that I’ve got a small collection of old Loretta Lynn tapes back at home in a storage box somewhere, so there’s got to be something about her music that I was drawn to at an early age.
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve been a Loretta Lynn fan my entire life. At an early age, I was trained in old-school gospel music simply because that’s what our family represented. Every single member of my family dating back, oh, four generations or so has been involved in some fashion with old school gospel. It wasn’t really a choice — it was just something that we did because…it was what we DID.
Loretta has pretty much been off the map for the better part of twenty years. Most of her absence was due to the fact that she pretty much refuses to adhere to the good old boy network rules that permeate country music these days. In reality, there’s been unspoken rules in country music for as long as the Nashville scene has existed. Here’s a brief sampling of a few of them.
1. Women must listen to men and do as they say.
2. Women who don’t listen to men are forced into the background.
3. Women can NEVER write their own material, and must perform music given to them by men.
Granted, things have changed a bit — you’ve got groups like The Dixie Chicks who write their own material and say what they feel — but even with that, you can see how big the outcry is against them when they don’t tow the Nashville line.
Let’s get back to Loretta before this turns into a big anti-Nashville rant (but don’t worry, because I’m saving that for another day).
Loretta broke every rule in the book in the golden age of countries, and in doing so, she blazed a trail that women in music follow to this day. Every female singles artist owes Loretta a debt, because without her there’s a good chance that things on the scene would be a LOT different these days.
Loretta Lynn is pushing 70 years old, and she’s STILL blazing trails for country music.
She had a little help this time around, though.
When I first heard that Jack White was to produce Loretta’s new record, I wasn’t sure what to think. Jack’s an amazing guitarist, after all, but what kind of result could possibly come from pairing a garage-rock savant with an old-school country crooner with a sweet and gentle voice?
I’ll tell you what kind of result — it’s a classic rock record.
Van Lear Rose opens up with the title track, a song in which Lynn reflects on her life. She’s always been good at this type of thing, but rarely has it sounded like it does in this cut.
The true highlight of the album is the second track, “Portland Oregon.” White steps up to the plate quite timidly for a duet about drunken sex fueled by “sloe gin fizz,” with ever-cresting vocals shimmering over a Detroit-class garage rock stomp. Part Hank Williams and part classic Jack White, the song cuts right to the chase and gives you a pretty clear indication that this album isn’t like any other country album you’ve ever heard.
There’s a few straight-forward country tunes, but all of them shed the mold that’s been used in country music since day one. “High On A Mountain Top” is a tunesy sing-a-long that you’ll know by heart after the first listen, but the music that accompanies it isn’t your normal fare. Yes, there’s steel and pickin’ guitars, but White’s production makes them seem a lot more…dirty than what you’re used to. The same goes for the bluesy “Have Mercy,” which sees Lynn begging for something while White lays down cut after cut of classic blues rock in the background. Jack was named one of the Top Twenty Guitar Players of all time by Rolling Stone last year, and while I may not agree with that sentiment, he certainly shows some incredible chops here.
The backing band for this record is called “The Do-Whaters,” a name Lynn coined because “they could go in there and do whatever we asked them to.” Made up of misfits and friends from Detroit, this foursome from a garage-rock background give a fearsome performance.
White’s production skills need to be noted here, too. This is his first major-label production job, and he has essentially crafted a masterpiece by allowing Lynn to be herself and sing in her own style while providing a shocking, refreshing change of pace with the music and sonic mixing. I dare say that you won’t hear anything else like it, and a lot of that credit has to be given to Jack White. Say what you will about The White Stripes (I love them), but one simply cannot deny that White has crafted a masterpiece by fusing two contrasting styles together in a way that has to be heard to be believed.
It’s part country and part garage…but totally rock and roll. With Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn (and Jack White) may have altered the course of country music forever. If you compare Van Lear Rose with albums from other top artists like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, you quickly realize how much all other albums pale in comparison. In fact, with the exception of The Dixie Chicks’ Home, Van Lear Rose pretty much makes every other album I’ve heard this year seem insignificant. It is at once a classic and an enduring reminder that good music and good musicians still exist — it just sometimes takes a leap of faith to bring them out.