HURRICANE MILLS, Tenn. – If Johnny Cash was the last great “feel good” story in country music, Loretta Lynn, the self-proclaimed “coal-miner’s daughter” whose latest album is one of the most exciting recordings to come out of Nashville in years, is poised to be the next one.
The CD, Van Lear Rose, produced by young rock phenom Jack White of the White Stripes, is mercifully free of the bland, pop-minded elements that have stripped country music of much of its character and passion in recent years.
Through the two-week process of making the album, Lynn, who opens a two-night stand at Mohegan Sun’s Wolf Den on Tuesday, and White got along famously and formed a mutual admiration society. She calls White as country as corn bread, and he claims she has so much power and heart she can sing daisies out of the ground.
“I was a little nervous when we started because Jack wanted to do all the vocals in one take and I’m used to warming up on a song a few times,” Lynn says of the collaboration, “but he felt you get the most feeling the first time you do it, and he was right. I’m so proud of the album, and I can’t wait to get out on the road and start singing these songs.”
From Lynn’s exquisite vocals to White’s inspired production work, this is an album so rich and varied that it could pick up Grammy nominations in pop, rock and contemporary folk categories.
In “Portland, Oregon,” one of the most inviting tracks, Lynn, who is believed to be around 70, and White, 28, blend their talents so deftly that you’d think they were the same age and had been playing clubs together for years. White’s production has some of the arty traces of Daniel Lanois’ moody soundscapes with Bob Dylan or Emmylou Harris, while Lynn’s vocals are almost shockingly youthful — commanding enough to light up any college rock radio playlist.
Elsewhere, White’s arrangements blend the aggression of his own guitar with the lonesome wail of a steel guitar for a sound that is both ultra-contemporary and faithful to the honky-tonk tradition associated with Hank Williams. The mood moves from self-affirmation to heartache, witty to warm.
Lynn wrote all 13 songs on Van Lear Rose, which came out from Interscope in April. Many have the brash, confrontational style of such old signature tunes as “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” “The Pill,” a once-shocking declaration of independence against being forced into motherhood, and “Fist City,” in which she warned a flirtatious rival:
If you get too cute or witty
You better move your feet
If you don’t wanna eat
A meal that’s called fist city
In “Family Tree,” one of the new songs that continues that early tradition, she injects the same spunk into a tale of a woman who brings her children along to try to shame the other woman:
I brought along our little babies
‘Cause I wanted them to see
The woman that’s burning down
Our family tree.
It has been 40 years since Lynn broke down barriers in country music by standing up to, rather than always standing by, her man, and she still marvels at the emotional nerve she struck.
“It’s hard for me to write a song if it’s not true,” Lynn says, sitting in the living room of her 14-room house, which overlooks endless acres of farm land, well shielded from the tourist spots of her 6,000-acre entertainment destination about halfway between Nashville and Memphis. “Most of my songs, including ‘Family Tree’ and ‘Fist City,’ come from the same place — things I’ve seen other people go through or things that have happened to me.
“Women would come up after our concerts and say, ‘You know that song you did tonight? I think you wrote it about me.’ I’d go, ‘Well, it’s about a lot of women, ain’t it?’ ”
Do as I sing, not as I Doo
The irony of Lynn’s bold declarations all these years was that she didn’t live what she was preaching. As she outlined in two bestselling autobiographies, her husband, Oliver “Doo” Lynn, was a heavy drinker who frequently cheated on her.
But she stood by him, even putting her career on hold for four years in the ’90s to be at his side during his prolonged illness. He suffered from heart problems and diabetes so severe that both feet were eventually amputated. He died in 1996.
Lynn says she used to joke about the gap between her songs and her personal life with her close friend and fellow country star Tammy Wynette, whose “Stand by Your Man” was country’s greatest tale of feminine loyalty.
“Tammy came to me one day and said, ‘Loretta, you’re the one who should have sung ‘Stand by Your Man,’ and I should have sung your hits.’ We laughed because she was right. I stood by Doo, and Tammy changed men three or four times, you know. We both got a big bang out of it.
“But I knew that (Doo and I) really loved each other and that our relationship was worth fighting for. So I would write a song about it when we had problems and it would help take it off my mind.”
Songs lying around
Lynn has never stopped writing. She has parts or all of scores of songs around the house, on scraps of paper or in notebooks. But this is the first time she has written all the songs on one of her albums. Her last album, “Still Country” in 2000, contained only two of her songs.
When White talked to her about making an album together, the first thing he wanted to know was whether she had any songs. “Why, honey, I’ve got hundreds of them,” she recalls telling him.
Like Cash’s rock guy
White doesn’t bother with a “country” qualifier when he calls Lynn the best female singer-songwriter he’s ever heard. “She has a unique way of telling about women’s feelings in a way that almost borders on novelty but is so heartfelt and moving that you know it’s absolutely sincere,” he said.
His appreciation of her, in turn, helped him bring a new dimension to her music, much as rock producer Rick Rubin did in his well-lauded pairing with Johnny Cash that began in the ’90s.
Comparisons between this Lynn-White album and the Cash-Rubin projects will be plentiful, though the parallels are mostly superficial. There is, however, one undeniable similarity. Lynn and Cash are both Country Music Hall of Fame members who, like most veteran country artists, were given the cold shoulder by country radio programmers obsessed with the latest young voices.
White a dedicated fan
In White’s eyes, though, there’s nothing out of style about Lynn. He’s been a fan ever since seeing Coal Miner’s Daughter, the 1980 film biography of Lynn.
White, who was raised in a rough, dead-end section of Detroit, was inspired by how Lynn overcame the hardships in her life and made something of herself. Born in raw poverty in Kentucky, she had limited education, was married at 13 and had four children by 18. She didn’t start making records until her mid-20s.
White is such a fan that he and Stripes bandmate Meg White even visited the Hurricane Mills ranch — as tourists — when driving back to Detroit after recording their 2001 album, White Blood Cells, in Memphis.
“We went all over the place and saw the mansion and everything,” he said. “The whole place was amazing. That’s when we decided to dedicate the album to Loretta. We both loved her music so much, and there were some country aspects to the album.
“I think people thought we were trying to be ironic or something when they saw the dedication, but it was absolutely from the heart.”
He framed her thank you
Lynn’s manager, Nancy Russell, a fan of the Stripes album, noticed the dedication and passed “White Blood Cells” along to the singer in the summer of 2002. Lynn liked the country elements in parts of the CD and wrote White a thank-you note. He framed it and jumped at Lynn’s invitation to come to Hurricane Mills for chicken and dumplings the next time he and Meg were in Nashville. They later did a concert together in New York City and began laying plans for the Van Lear Rose album.
But record executives sampled by Russell in 2002 were cool to the idea of a Lynn-White album because White was an unproven quantity in their eyes, despite mounting critical acclaim.
So Lynn financed the album, which was recorded last year in typical Jack White fashion — fast (eight tracks during one especially productive day and evening) and on old-school eight-track studio equipment. Lynn was backed by three country-rock musicians brought in by White, who plays lead guitar on the CD.
By the time the album was finished, the Stripes had exploded commercially and label interest was high. Rather than stick with a Nashville label, Lynn signed with Interscope, whose co-founder Jimmy Iovine has championed such acts as Dr. Dre., Nine Inch Nails, Eminem and U2. The question is how radio will respond to an album that defies easy categorization.
She’s just like her songs
The more you talk to songwriters — at least the good ones — the more you find that they’re a lot like their music, because the music is a reflection of them, not simply something designed to catch your ear on the radio.
That’s true in Lynn’s case.
She’s got as much warmth, spunk and wit as all those landmark hits. She’s also a gracious host. If she’s too busy to cook her prized chicken and dumplings, she’ll phone her restaurant — Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen is just down the road — and ask them to whip up something for her guests.
On this afternoon, that call leads to heaping trayfuls of fried catfish and hush puppies plus a peach cobbler almost as large as a pingpong table.
When a visitor from California points out that a plateful of that rich Southern food has more calories than most people back home eat in a week, Lynn cracks a mischievous smile and says, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re not in California, isn’t it. . . . How ’bout some more cobbler?”
She sees his genius
If there’s anything she’s more excited about than food, it’s the album and her new pal, White.
“I think Jack is a genius,” the bubbly 5-foot-2 singer says, so excited to be making music again that her eyes virtually twinkle. “I think he may eventually be a greater producer than an artist, and he’s already a great artist. I see so much of Owen in him.”
“Owen” is the late Owen Bradley, the acclaimed Nashville producer who worked with scores of artists including Lynn, Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee.
It was Bradley who encouraged Lynn to write her own songs rather than turn to Music City’s male tunesmiths. But even he winced a few times at such Lynn themes as “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man).”
“I never thought the songs were too far out there until I would go in and sing them for Owen because I was writing about real things that women go through. I wasn’t making things up or exaggerating them,” Lynn says now.
“But Owen would say, ‘Well, we may not be able to do that one.’ He was especially worried about ‘The Pill.’ He thought DJs might not play it, but he never actually stopped me from recording something. In the end, he’d go, ‘Just do what’s in your heart because if the song isn’t a hit, we’ll do another song that will be a hit.’ ”
By the time her recording career slowed in the late ’80s, Lynn had generated more than 50 Top 10 hits. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988 and was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor last year.
Nowadays, Lynn is comforted by friends and relatives who live nearby, including daughter Patsy.
Fond reverence for Doo
Through the interview and lunch, Lynn comes across as someone of such strength and good judgment that it still is difficult to imagine her putting up with the heartache of coming home from the road and finding evidence around the house of her husband’s philandering.
“I was very blessed by Doo,” she says quietly, when pressed on the subject. “If it wasn’t for him, I would probably never have got out of Butcher Holler.”
He also encouraged her to get into singing, giving her a $17 guitar after hearing her sing around the house, and giving her the confidence to go to Nashville and seek a contract. He also, it turns out, helped her find the strength to return to the concert trail after his death.
His passing, she said, “tore me up. I couldn’t go out for a year. I might not have even gone out then, but I recalled what Doo said before he died. He looked at me and said, ‘As long as you can, don’t leave that road.’ “