Loretta Writes 'Em & Sings 'Em 

On her new collaboration with Jack White, Loretta Lynn reasserts herself as one of the greatest singer-songwriters, country or otherwise

On her new collaboration with Jack White, Loretta Lynn reasserts herself as one of the greatest singer-songwriters, country or otherwise

Loretta Lynn

Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

According to Grammy-winning rocker Jack White, he didn't expect Loretta Lynn to take him up on his offer to produce her forthcoming CD, which is due this Tuesday. After all, sharing a stage and exchanging public compliments—he's called her "the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century," while she gamely referred to his band, The White Stripes, as "my idols" when they invited her to appear with them in New York last year—are one kind of thing. A collaboration as permanent as an album is something else altogether.

Lynn did accept, though, and if one wonders why, the answers embodied in Van Lear Rose say some interesting things about country music, the country music industry and, most of all, about Loretta Lynn, who may well be exactly what White says she is. Indeed, the young rocker's insistence on seeing her as a writer as well as a singer likely had a lot to do with her decision to bring him on as producer. (There's also, of course, the fact that Lynn's adventurous sensibility has often been reined in by the conservatism of earlier producers, including Hall of Famer Owen Bradley.)

Lynn's re-emergence, after a long period during which she put caring for her dying husband Mooney before career considerations, began with 2000's Still Country. Produced by Randy Scruggs, the album continued a long tradition of surrounding a couple of her own compositions with well-crafted songs by others—on this occasion, songs that reflected her fragile but resilient state of mind after Mooney's death but that couldn't express it as precisely or as deeply as Loretta herself.

Unfortunately, Still Country essentially went nowhere. Radio snubbed its singles, critics were for the most part unenthusiastic, mistaking its sleekness and restraint for commercialism and stuffiness, and fans seemed more interested in reissues—or in seeing her perform at the casinos and theaters that make up most of her tour dates—than in a record that sounded neither just like her old ones nor radically different from them. Thoughtful and elegant, modern yet tradition-steeped, Still Country might have been the album Loretta Lynn needed to make at the time, but it turned out to be something of a placeholder.

Van Lear Rose, by contrast, pushes forward by returning to the strength of Lynn's earliest days, when she was popping out songs almost as fast as she could write them down. What's more, while the sense of loss that informed much of Still Country makes itself felt on songs like "Miss Being Mrs.," the predominant feelings here hark back to Lynn's salad days. The feisty "Mrs. Leroy Brown," who searches the honkytonks for a straying husband in a limo she charges to his account, could be the same woman who declared "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" almost 40 year ago. "Story of My Life" is an engaging, if not equally substantial, alternate "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Still, what are likely to make the strongest first impressions on listeners who still hear the classic strains of songs like "One's on the Way" and "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill" in their minds' ears are the gritty sonic quality and garage rock settings provided by White and his crew of pickers. It's almost shocking to hear Loretta's unmistakable voice, with its trademark vibrato, conversational phrasing and earthy, down-home accent surrounded by grungy electric guitar tones, rudimentary acoustic strumming and heavy drums.

Yet if Van Lear Rose's dramatic recontextualization of Lynn's voice makes one uncomfortable, it is the best kind of discomfort. Even more than Johnny Cash's American Recordings, to which Van Lear Rose is starting to be compared, this is an album that signals a major country artist's re-engagement with her own creativity. For where Cash had largely withdrawn from touring by the time he began to work with producer Rick Rubin, Lynn is still carrying on the kind of dialogue with her audience that can only be done outside the recording studio, which is where these songs will meet their ultimate test.

In the end, Van Lear Rose is more likely to be a revivifying side excursion for Lynn than a harbinger of a changed career path. Yet if it serves no other purpose than to bring her songwriting to the fore once again—and to signal that Loretta Lynn is once again finding joy in making records—it will have done more than enough.

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