Loretta Lynn retired from the music business in the '90s, returning to her home in Nashville to take care of her husband, Oliver Lynn, as he was dying. As it happens, she left the spotlight at a time that was not kind to country legends like herself, as they were exiled from country radio and left with a fraction of their audience. Some tried to adjust to modern radio, some railed against it, and others, like Johnny Cash, retooled their sound and wound up appealing to a younger, hipper audience raised on alternative country. By the time Lynn decided to return to recording in 2000, Cash's path had been followed by other veterans like Merle Haggard, but Loretta turned out a fairly pedestrian comeback on Audium called Still Country, which garnered little attention, but then a funny thing happened. The following year, Detroit garage punk duo the White Stripes dedicated their breakthrough album, White Blood Cells, to Loretta and covered her "Rated X" as a B-side. Word worked its way back to Lynn, and soon she invited Jack and Meg White down to her home and, not long after that, she agreed to cut a new album with Jack as the producer, which wound up being 2004's Van Lear Rose. On paper, this sounds like a strange pairing, yet upon further inspection, it makes sense. Loretta Lynn has always been an independent spirit, taking risks within the confines of Nashville country, yet respecting the rules of Music City. Jack White works much the same way, adhering to traditional American musical conventions yet pushing against their borders, while imposing strict aesthetic rules for each of the White Stripes albums with the intent of giving each its own distinct feel. The brilliance of Van Lear Rose is not just how the two approaches complement each other, but how the record captures the essence of Loretta Lynn's music even as it has flourishes that are distinctly Jack, such as the slide guitar that powers their duet, "Portland Oregon."
Upon its release, Lynn claimed that the album is "countrier than anything I've ever cut," which is no doubt a reference to the charmingly ragged, lively feel of Van Lear Rose. Working with a band of kindred garage punkers, including Dave Feeny of the Detroit-based country outfit Blanche, White insisted that Loretta and crew keep to a minimum of takes, preserving the energy and excitement of musicians cutting an album when the music is still fresh to their ears. Often, the classic records she made with Owen Bradley were cut in a handful of takes, but he was producing a fine-tuned machine. White, in contrast, keeps things loose and fresh, as if it was a jam session. The end result is quite different than Lynn's classic hits in terms of production, but the feel is strikingly similar, since White focuses on the essence of her music and subtly shifts his approach according to the demands of a song. If it demands it, he'll lay down some crunching guitar, as he does on the aforementioned "Portland Oregon" and the bluesy stomp "Have Mercy." He keeps things spare and sad on "Miss Being Mrs.," where Loretta is mourning the loss of her husband, and "This Old House" is lean and tattered, appropriate for the uptempo old-timey singalong. Unlike Rick Rubin's productions for Johnny Cash, which were deliberately somber and monochromatic, White's work on Van Lear Rose is multi-textured, with the layers of steel guitars, muffled drums, and echoed guitars lending a dramatic, impressionistic quality to the songs -- and unlike Daniel Lanois' productions, it feels organic, not studied. Van Lear Rose also gives equal import to every side of Lynn's persona, so this is equally sad and funny, sacred and secular. On a sheer sonic level, the album is enthralling -- it's easy to get lost in the music, and Lynn sings with a vigor that's startling for a woman of 70 -- but it's an instant classic because of how that sound is married to set of songs that are among the strongest she's ever had. On her last studio album, she wrote only one song. Here, she's penned all 13 tracks, and there's a sense that these are songs that she needed to get out of her, particularly in a setting as intimate as this. While not all the songs are as explicitly personal as "Miss Being Mrs.," that's for the best, since the variety of styles and types of songs on Van Lear Rose -- everything from heartache ballads and country rave-ups to story-songs and gospel -- illustrate the depth and range of her writing. These are songs that hold their own with her greatest hits, and while it's unlike anything else she's cut, this is surely one of her great albums.