No matter who you are, one thing is for sure: You ain’t woman enough to take Loretta Lynn’s man. Miss Loretta has been a country legend for more than forty years, but she still sings with all the passion of the blue Kentucky girl who busted out of Butcher Hollow, the coal miner’s daughter who got married at thirteen and fought her way to fame. She’s always had the toughest, meanest, fiercest, warmest and sexiest voice in country music. But on her fantastic Van Lear Rose, she’s got a new man named Jack White, the mastermind of the White Stripes, and together they deliver the answer to her fans’ prayers: a classic Loretta Lynn album. There’s no Nashville glitz, no crossover schlock — as the lady used to sing, you’re lookin’ at country.
The surprise is that Lynn has started writing her own songs again. As she says in the liner notes, “This is the first time I wrote all the songs on a record, and I hope you like ’em.” In the Sixties and Seventies, Lynn wrote her sharpest hits — anthems of down-home pride such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” as well as two-fisted tantrums including “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Rated X” and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath.” If all Jack White did was get her writing again, that would have been enough. But he has juiced up her muse, keeping the mostly acoustic instrumentation spare and sweet, adding his electric-guitar kick to the fiddle, dobro and pedal steel. Listen to the way she yowls the bluesy sex stomp “Have Mercy on Me,” dueling with White’s guitar until she sounds like Loretta Zeppelin — when was the last time you heard anyone sing with this much libido and fury? Let alone a woman pushing seventy?
The White Stripes have always idolized Loretta Lynn — they dedicated White Blood Cells to her, and Meg sings “Rated X” onstage. It would have been fun to hear Jack and Lynn remake her Conway Twitty duet “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” But he’s too gracious to butt in — he just gives her room to do her thing, like Johnny Winter did for Muddy Waters on his great comeback Hard Again. Their one vocal duet is a killer, “Portland, Oregon,” where they sing about a hard-core drinking-and-shagging night: “Portland, Oregon, and sloe-gin fizz/If that ain’t love, then tell me what is.”
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In “Mrs. Leroy Brown,” she rides a pink limo to the honky-tonk to get all Von Bondie on the blonde who messed with Mrs. Leroy Brown’s man; Jack’s got the mug shot, but Loretta’s the scary one. “Little Red Shoes” is a spoken-word ramble through a dreamlike childhood memory over atmospheric guitar twang — it sounds like nothing she’s ever done before.
Lynn’s husband, Doo, who died in 1996, is an emotional presence throughout the album. “Miss Being Mrs.” slams home because she’s so forthright about the loneliness of life as a widow: “I took off my wedding band/And put it on my right hand/I miss being Mrs. tonight.” It evokes “This Haunted House,” the song she wrote for Patsy Cline’s husband back in 1964, as well as the love songs she wrote about Doo while he was alive, and it’s a heart-rending tribute.
Loretta Lynn hasn’t made an album this rich since her 1977 concept tribute to Cline, I Remember Patsy — an album recorded when Jack White was two years old. It almost feels strange to make a fuss about Van Lear Rose, since the music soars because of its modesty and gentle touch. Lynn and White weren’t straining to make history, just a damn good Loretta Lynn album. But it sure sounds classic anyway. Anybody who worships Loretta Lynn dreams about being able to thank her for all the music, but Jack White has pulled off the ultimate fan fantasy: He’s helped her make the album we all dreamed she would make.