I love that instead of a tasteful black and white photo -- something haunted and contemporary like the portraits on Johnny Cash's last few albums -- the cover of Van Lear Rose is 100 percent Grand Ol' Opry. Wearing the kind of voluminous forget-me-not blue gown she and the other gals (Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, to be sure) wore at the height of their popularity, Lynn leans against an old tree and contemplates how far she's come from Butcher Holler. Her hair is unnaturally black; her guitar has her name spelled out down the length of the neck in mother of pearl. She could, in fact, be the hip mama (or grandma) of the White Stripes' Jack White, who's photographed with her inside the front cover, also with unnaturally black hair and a belt buckle that reads "Jack."
But this is no "Madonna-kisses-Britney," in which an aging star latches on to the next big thing in an attempt to grab one last fleeting bit of limelight. Although Lynn hadn't recorded much in recent years, it was White who'd grown up on her records and sought out his idol with an idea for a great project. White produced this album and appears on one of the songs ("Portland Oregon"), but the rest is all Loretta's deal. In fact, the first album she's ever recorded where she wrote every single song.
In short, it's a lark. Lynn doesn't sound anywhere near her 70 years -- her voice is as supple and melodic as it was in her "Don't Come Home Drinkin' [With Lovin' On Your Mind]" days. White and the rest of the backup band (the Do Whaters) offer a surprisingly aggressive backbone for Lynn's feminine drawl. Steel guitars, dissonant riffs and a lonesome violin give her lyrics -- all about drinkin', cheatin', makin' up and makin' babies -- resilience and weight. In fact, if it's old-style country you miss, Van Lear Rose is a welcome trip back in time. While the spoken word of "Little Red Shoes" is hypnotic, and "Have Mercy on Me" is pure rock 'n' roll, it's "Family Tree" -- with its sassy little chorus, "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," that's the most Loretta Lynn-esque and the most fun.
Publication date: 06/10/04