By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2004; Page C01
In pop, the what-if game ordinarily requires a vivid imagination, but if you ever wondered what Loretta Lynn would sound like backed by the Rolling Stones, wonder no more. Get yourself a copy of “Van Lear Rose,” Lynn’s new album, and you can hear for yourself.
We’re not talking about the Stones of today, but rather the Stones of the early ’70s, the Stones of “Sticky Fingers,” when the band was flirting with country rock and writing songs such as “Dead Flowers.” Picture it: Mick, Keith and the boys taking a break after their 20th stab at “Brown Sugar,” kicking aside the whiskey bottles to make way for a petite woman in a sundress with a thick Kentucky drawl. She warbles about love, God and her dirt-poor beginnings; the musicians don’t drown out her songs, but they don’t exactly hold back either, and there’s searing slide guitar whenever Lynn steps away from the microphone. It’s the Grand Ole Opry overrun by longhairs, the sound of Nashville wired to a stack of Marshall amps.
That’s “Van Lear Rose,” one of those singular concoctions that works so well, it’s odd nobody thought of it before. It’s a collaboration between Lynn and Jack White, the guitar-playing and songwriting half of the garage rock duo the White Stripes. A lifelong fan who dedicated the Stripes’ third album to Lynn, White strums, sings and produces on “Rose,” and it’s hard to imagine anyone else approaching this material with the same mix of boldness and respect.
Lynn’s bumpkin charm is intact here, right from the first verse of the first song. It’s the title track, a tale her daddy tells about the belle of Johnson County, Ky., a young lady who bewitched every suitor from “the Ohio River to the Big Sandy.” In the tradition of great country narratives, this one has a surprise ending: the “Van Lear Rose,” it turns out, is Loretta’s mother, and the man who won her heart none other than dear old dad. “Your momma,” Lynn sings, recalling her father’s words and pouring her heart into the line, “she’s the Van Lear Rose.”
But if White leaves alone Lynn’s sentimental streak and her undefeatable pluck, he’s overhauled her sound. On “Have Mercy on Me Baby,” which Lynn originally wrote for Elvis Presley, you can hear him struggling to keep his guitar corked until the solo. When it arrives, the band shrugs off the restrained, march-to-war beat and White bolts like a greyhound. “Have mercy!” Lynn hollers over the din, and if she’s begging Jack, he apparently doesn’t hear her.
Lynn, who wrote nearly every song on the album, has endured serious hardships in recent years, but the subjects that consume her on “Rose” are much the same as when she was the queen of country music in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Trouble on the Line” is a teary slow-dance number about a dysfunctional marriage, told through an excessively beaten phone metaphor. Revenge on a wayward husband is exacted on “Mrs. Leroy Brown,” and Lynn conjures a first-person death-row narrative on “Women’s Prison,” describing the last minute of an inmate as she’s led to the electric chair for killing her cheating “darlin.’ ”
“Story of My Life” is exactly what it says it is, right down to the biographical detail that Lynn never saw a penny from the film version of her autobiography, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” And as much as she complained about Doolittle, her philandering husband, now that he has passed away Lynn pines for him on “Miss Being Mrs.” But the best track is an un-Lynn-like account of a fling on “Portland, Oregon,” a duet with White that comes across as an epic in miniature. It starts with a buckle-up intro that could have been lifted from some avant-garde quartet from New York, segues into the sort of tag-team effort that Lynn used to cut with Conway Twitty, and winds up in a full-on thrash.
White is convinced that recording technology peaked in the early ’60s, and he’s given “Rose” a sound that you can’t get with digital equipment; it’s vintage without seeming nostalgic. Exactly whom this music will appeal to is hard to say. Lynn fans might have a hard time coping with the back-dated atmospherics and distorted guitars, and the typical White Stripes fan has never heard “Fist City.” With any luck, though, “Rose” will do for this legend what all those American Recordings albums did for Johnny Cash — namely, introduce her to a new generation of admirers. Ready or not, at the age of 70 Loretta Lynn has come for your grandkids.