A country legend inspired by a rocking White Stripe Country comeback: A collaboration with Jack White is making Loretta Lynn cool again
By Lorraine Ali
April 26 issue – There are at least half a dozen sequined gowns stuffed into the small closet on Loretta Lynn’s big purple tour bus. “I like this one a whole lot,” she says, running her hand down the shiny satin skirt of a beaded yellow number. The singer’s gearing up for a tour to promote her new album, “Van Lear Rose.” She reaches in to find another favorite (“that nice blue one”), but accidentally pulls out a worn pink chenille robe instead. “Here she is, folks,” she says, waving her hand over the tattered material. “The fabulous Loretta Lynn!”
Lynn may be a country-music legend and an American icon, but she’s still the scabby-kneed Appalachian girl who married at 14, played one of her first gigs on the lawn of a sanitarium and had six kids before scoring her first top 10 hit. The 5-foot-2 Grand Ole Opry star sang songs for overworked housewives such as “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and by 1971 became a household name with “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a ballad about her poor but happy childhood. She had written 27 No. 1 hits, and artists ranging from George Jones to Tina Turner had covered her songs by the 1980s. But Nashville was going pop, and Lynn became a symbol of country music’s past: revered but not relevant. Now, thanks to an odd pairing with a garage rocker from Detroit, Lynn is hot again. Guitarist Jack White, of the hipster duo White Stripes, produced “Van Lear Rose” and recorded the songs as they did in the old days—in one or two takes. The result is spontaneous, raw and Lynn’s most compelling work in years: sentimental one minute, knock-your-teeth-out tough the next.
The extremes on her album mirror the tumult of her marriage to Oliver Lynn (a.k.a. Doolittle, or Doo) almost 60 years ago. Fed up with his drinking and bullying early on, Lynn says, she decked him one night and “sent his teeth a-scatterin’.” Though their relationship was mercurial (as memorialized by Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones in the film “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), he was the one who pushed the shy Loretta to stardom. “Doo came in from work and I was singing the babies to sleep,” recalls Lynn, who just turned 70. “He thought I was a better singer than anyone out there on the radio. He said we should go out and try it for a few years—give it enough time to make some money and to buy a house, then I could quit. Two years later, we didn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger.”
The singer now owns her own restaurant on the Loretta Lynn Ranch, an hour outside Nashville, where fans can camp in their RVs, visit the Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum and see a replica of the Kentucky cabin where she grew up. Her home is off-limits, but it’s easy to spot—just look for her tour bus in the drive, the one with the sparkly script LORETTA LYNN on its side. In her home, Lynn proudly displays her doll collection and pictures of her family: from her 29 grandkids to her own parents. Even though “Mama and Daddy” died several decades ago, they’re very much alive in these parts.
“Van Lear Rose” was named after her mother: Van Lear was the local coal mine where Daddy worked, and Mama the rose. Lynn sings about them, and her rural roots on the upbeat fiddle number “High on a Mountain Top”—where “the rest of the world is like an itty, bitty spot.” On the spare country tune “Family Tree,” she puts her sentimentality aside and faces the woman who stole her man: “No I didn’t come to fight/If he was a better man I might/But I wouldn’t dirty my hands on trash like you.” White’s triumph here as a producer (he also plays guitar on the record) is getting Lynn to free-associate about her childhood while the tape is running. He adds sublime steel-pedal guitar behind her, and the effect is haunting. “It was the easiest album I ever cut,” says Lynn, munching on a piece of catfish on her couch and chastising herself for dropping greasy crumbs on her coral-colored blouse (“Loretta, Loretta, the mess you’ve made”). “We cut seven songs in one day. There’s one song that has us laughing and I says, ‘Come on, Jack, let’s get the heck outta here.’ He kept that on the record. It’s so funny. It’s just like being in the front room singing. It’s countrier than anything I’ve ever cut.”
Some numbers were tougher than others, like “Trouble on the Line.” It’s a song she wrote years ago about a communication breakdown with Doo. Lynn’s husband died of diabetes complications in 1996. “After he died,” she says, “I only went out of the house once in an entire year, and it was to go shopping with my granddaughter. I bought a full-length mink coat. Now, where am I gonna wear that in Nashville?” Lynn looks down and brushes some invisible crumbs off her lap. “Maybe it’ll get cold enough here one day.” Until then, the tattered pink robe will do just fine.