By MARIO TARRADELL / The Dallas Morning News
There’s no doubt that Loretta Lynn, the coal miner’s daughter from Butcher “Holler,” Kentucky is today’s hipster country goddess. But even after 40 years as a musical legend, she dismisses the thought, too humble to entertain it.
“I can’t believe this,” says the 69-year-old Ms. Lynn during a phone interview from her home in Tennessee. “I’ve never been hip, and I worked all the time.”
The reason: Van Lear Rose, Ms. Lynn’s wonderful new album produced by rocker Jack White of The White Stripes. The feisty singer-songwriter has made a career out of penning tough-and-tender anthems such as “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” and “Fist City.” Her autobiographical Coal Miner’s Daughter was turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1980. Now she’s savoring her second dip into the pop culture mainstream.
The disc quickly became the toast of magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Rolling Stone and Blender. Rock critics, the most jaded kind, are all in agreement about Ms. Lynn’s collaboration with scraggly haired Mr. White. She’s already been on Late Show With David Lettermen, singing the Led Zeppelin-sounding “Portland Oregon,” a duet with Mr. White. During a Today show appearance, she performed “Family Tree,” with Mr. White accompanying her on guitar.
In its first week of sales, Van Lear Rose sold more than 37,000 copies, landing at No. 2 on Billboard’s country albums chart and No. 24 on the pop list. It’s Ms. Lynn’s best sales week ever.
“It’s great,” she says. “I can’t believe it. I said, ‘OK, I don’t believe it but it’s true.'”
Ms. Lynn grew up in a log cabin nestled in the Kentucky mountains. She has a natural charm, an almost ingénue quality, that belies her years of touring, raising six children, writing songs and caring for her late husband, the rambunctious Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn.
But her spitfire nature still commands center stage. That’s exactly what Mr. White captured on Van Lear Rose. Every song on Rose comes from Ms. Lynn’s pen, a first for her since her heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.
On “Family Tree” she brings along her kids, her dog and even her unpaid bills to confront the woman sleeping with her husband. On “Mrs. Leroy Brown,” she’s a fed-up housewife who trots into the local honky-tonk to settle the score with a “big ole blonde that thinks she’s a movie star.”
Then there’s “Have Mercy,” a rockabilly corker she originally wrote for Elvis Presley but never gave to him. You’ll think Ms. Lynn’s at least 30 years younger judging by the way she wails the sexy lyrics.
“I went looking for it,” she says, explaining how she took the song to Mr. White. “I said, ‘Hmm, he’s going to like this.’ He was sitting down and I was, too, and he was singing and I was singing and he said, ‘Cool.’ I said, ‘Do you like this?’ He said, ‘Cool, we’re cutting that.'”
Most of the tunes were recorded in one take, at first much to Ms. Lynn’s chagrin. She was used to Owen Bradley, the iconic producer who helmed her career-making records. Mr. Bradley made her sing the songs over and over until she got them just right. But Mr. White wanted the first, fresh try.
“He just said, ‘Sing them one time,’ and I sung them. But I said, ‘Jack, let me do this one over.’ The song was “Miss Being Mrs.” a melancholy ballad in which Ms. Lynn reminisces about her 48-year marriage. “We were in a big old room and I didn’t know the sound was on,” she says. “I sang it and almost missed one word but I caught it. He was just playing the guitars, but he kept on going. He used it. He wanted to catch everything raw. He wanted to let people know that this was sung one time. Jack told me he wanted people to know that ‘she’s still the greatest singer in Nashville, Tennessee.’ He’s got a lot to learn.”
Ms. Lynn giggles, finding humor in her self-deprecating demeanor. But clearly, the presence of a 28-year-old rocker, who could be her grandson, has rejuvenated the country legend. Their friendship began in early 2003, when Ms. Lynn invited Mr. White and his White Stripes partner, Meg White, to her Hurricane Mills mansion for homemade chicken and dumplings.
The meeting was long overdue. The White Stripes dedicated their 2001 album, White Blood Cells, to Ms. Lynn. The duo has recorded Ms. Lynn’s “Rated X,” a tune they sometimes perform in concert.
“I didn’t even know he was fan,” says Ms. Lynn. “He saw Coal Miner’s Daughter when he was 9 years old. He’s the biggest fan I’ve got.”
And like Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin and Willie Nelson with Matt Serletic, Mr. White was the right – albeit unlikely – rock-charged, hip producer to recapture the greatness of a country icon. As luck would have it, he met Ms. Lynn at a time when she was ready to make classic records again.
In retrospect, her last album, 2000’s Still Country, was a mistake. She was still mourning Doo’s death and settled for a batch of forlorn songs by Nashville tunesmiths.
“I did it too soon,” she remembers. “I wasn’t ready and I was doing other people’s songs that was hitting home where I was at. That first one that Randy Scruggs wrote about your husband being gone, that was the wrong thing for me to do. But that’s where I was and that’s what I did. I could barely get through it. I’d start crying and we’d start all over.”
Now it’s full steam ahead. Ms. Lynn already has enough songs for another studio record and wants to put together a gospel disc and a Christmas effort filled with original material.
“We’re having a great time doing this,” she says. “It’s kind of like the first one. It really is. I think that’s what Jack wanted to catch. Even as far as I’ve been, it’s just now starting. It’s good to feel that way.”