BY JAY LUSTIG
LORETTA LYNN strikes a regal pose on the cover of her new album, “Van Lear Rose.” She stands beside a tree in a long powder-blue dress, gazing into the distance. Her right hand rests on a custom-made acoustic guitar that spells out her name in capital letters on its neck.
Lynn, 69, is one of the reigning queens of country music — her long list of hits includes “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “You’re Lookin’ At Country” and “Blue Kentucky Girl” — so that’s how she’s supposed to look. But “Van Lear Rose” does not sound like she’s expected to sound.
Produced by Jack White of the bluesy, minimalistic rock band the White Stripes, and featuring him on guitar and other instruments, it’s the rawest album of her career.
Remember the shock you felt the first time you heard Johnny Cash’s aching version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”? You’ll be just as surprised listening to Lynn duet with White on the rowdy drinking song, “Portland Oregon,” or mourning her late husband Oliver “Doo” Lynn on the bone-dry acoustic ballad, “Miss Being Mrs.”
On the spoken-word track “Little Red Shoes,” she casually tells a story about her hard-scrabble childhood while White and other musicians vamp behind her.
“It’s so country, it’s more country than anything I’ve ever recorded,” says Lynn, who performs in Atlantic City on Saturday. “If I’d-a went in to record it (alone), I probably wouldn’t have done it like that. But since (White) was doing it, I stayed out of it. I thought, ‘This is the best thing to do, to give him the right of way.’ And he took it.”
White, 29, is a longtime fan of Lynn. He and his White Stripes partner, drummer Meg White, dedicated their 2001 album “White Blood Cells” to her.
Lynn’s manager brought them to her Nashville house for a visit, then they invited her to open a show for them at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. She told Jack she was getting ready to record a new album, and he offered to produce it.
“I said, ‘Why not?’,” she remembers. “So that’s how we got into that.”
White refused to clean up the tracks with overdubs and other studio tricks. In many cases, he used Lynn’s first vocal take.
“It wasn’t doctored, like they do today,” she says. “They doctor everything up — if you miss one little thing in a line, they go back and get that one little thing.
“I sang them songs one time. I thought surely to God he was going to let me sing them more than once, ’cause Owen (her longtime producer Owen Bradley) would say, ‘Get in there and sing it three or four times, to get your voice opened up.’ But not Jack. The first time I sang it, we took it.”
Lynn wrote or co-wrote all of the material, and is particularly proud of “Women’s Prison,” which is about a woman convicted of killing her cheating husband. “I’m sittin’ here on death row, and Lord, I’ve lost my mind/For love I’ve killed my darlin’, and for love I’ll lose my life,” she sings.
“I thought that was the most different song on that whole album, because nobody’s ever (written) anything about a women’s prison,” she says.
“You know, I go to the men’s prison and entertain them, but nobody has ever asked me to go to the women’s prison. When I put the song together, I was thinking, ‘Why don’t they do something for the women, too?’ I mean, we’re in jail, and the ones that ain’t, it feels like it, now and then.”
She lets out a big laugh, then adds, “I know I’ve felt that way many times.”
The album has inspired countless gushing reviews, and peaked at No. 2 on Billboard magazine’s country chart. It was also No. 24 on Billboard’s pop chart.
Lynn says it has done so well because “people are hurting for country music — real, down-to-earth country music. There’s people who really love that and are hanging on to everything they can that’s real country.”
Lynn, who maintains a busy touring schedule despite an ongoing struggle with pneumonia (“It seems like when you have it, you keep having it,” she says), says the success of Johnny Cash’s uncompromisingly rough-edged late-career music had nothing to do with her decision to collaborate with White.
“Somebody said, ‘Are you going to do this like the Johnny Cash record?’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand what you’re asking me,’ because I didn’t know about Johnny’s record. I’m on the road workin’ all the time, so you’re the last to know.”