What do you get when you combine the songwriting abilities and heartfelt conviction of a county music legend with the excellent skills and trained ears of a Detroit-based rock music artist and record producer? Answer: Van Lear Rose, which just happens to be the title of the latest release by country music star and living legend Loretta Lynn. 

Loretta Lynn

(2004) Music Review by Jim Davis

This page was created on August 23, 2004
This page was last updated on July 27, 2005

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Van Lear Rose
Loretta Lynn

Garage-rock hero Jack White producing honky-tonk legend Loretta Lynn? And Lynn comparing him to renowned Nashville producer Owen Bradley? Yes, we all know the world is rapidly shrinking, but now we've seen everything. Most stunning of all--they nailed it. For the first time, Lynn has written all of an album's songs, and her lyrics are as cutting and incisive as ever. On the powerful, biting "Family Tree," she brings her babies to the home of her husband's mistress, so that they can see the "woman that's burning down our family tree." Throughout she cunningly tackles tried-and-true honky-tonk themes of love gone bad, drinkin', cheatin', and murder. Lynn even offers a compelling slice of theological fatalism ("God Makes No Mistakes"). White's production--mostly stark and atmospheric--ranges from more-traditional country to straight-up White Stripes, with most tracks falling somewhere in between. White duets with Lynn on the rousing one-night-stand story "Portland, Oregon," but he does not need to sing to leave his personal stamp. At 70, Lynn seems thoroughly engaged and delighted; at times she delivers some of the most emotionally potent singing of her career. A decade earlier, Johnny Cash turned to rock and rap producer Rick Rubin, and the move resuscitated Cash's career. Now, Jack White has done the same for Loretta Lynn, another country legend whose music is simply too raw and honest for the contemporary country crowd. Van Lear Rose exceeds all expectations, a bold collaboration in which artists from two different musical universes forge a memorable work that neither could have created alone. --Marc Greilsamer
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(2004) Music Review by Jim Davis

Jim is the Director/Program Administrator of a Christian organization called “God’s Havens For Children”, San Luis Obispo, California. GHFC currently operates a licensed Foster Family Agency and a youth mentoring program. He received degrees in Organizational Communication (B.A.) and Public Administration (M.P.A.) from California State University, Stanislaus (Turlock, CA). A native San Franciscan, he now lives on the California Central Coast with his wife Eileen (employed as a teaching assistant for autistic children) and their 4 children. Jim appreciates an eclectic variety of music styles, and says that, “music has a considerable amount of influence on people of all ages and popular culture in general.”
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What do you get when you combine the songwriting abilities and heartfelt conviction of a county music legend with the excellent skills and trained ears of a Detroit-based rock music artist and record producer? Answer: Van Lear Rose, which just happens to be the title of the latest release by country music star and living legend Loretta Lynn.

The recent passing of American music legend Johnny Cash (who, in the decade before his death had made several excellent “American Recordings” label releases under the direction of veteran rock-record producer Rick Rubin) left a hole in the world of music. Crashing right out of that vacuum comes this powerful and revealing work by Loretta Lynn. Her latest release pairs her up with producer Jack White (of the Detroit rockers “White Stripes” fame) and the resulting effort showcases the engaging, often biographical, and always honest songwriting talents of Lynn (all of the 13 songs are original tunes penned by Loretta).

The entire album has a very warm and rich sound, thanks to producer Jack White, who avoids using digital recording equipment and mixers, opting instead for an analog 8-track studio set-up. The result makes VLR truly sound like a record, rather than a CD (audiophiles who grew up actually listening to records will understand the difference between the two).

Along with Lynn’s compelling lyrics and talented singing, the musicians on this record provide a wide range of enjoyable music. Lynn plays acoustic guitar, producer Jack White (in addition to his assistance on vocals) plays acoustic and electric guitar, piano, organ and even some percussion instruments. Assisting Lynn and White with the music is the garage-rock band “The Greenhorne’s” (and a couple of other excellent Detroit and Cincinnati session players). Lynn, in the liner notes of VLR, dubbed this group the “Do Whatevers,” saying, “they got in there and did whatever we needed them to!”

This talent-rich musical gene pool provides surefire, rock-tinged country music that not only complements the lyrics and singing, but provides listeners with a heightened appreciation of the entire Country and Western music genre (which, as a musical category, doesn’t even begin to explain the range of music covered by the songs and music contained on this record).

Coupled with the great production work and warm, rich sound of the record is a strong sense of lyrical honesty, as Lynn digs down deep into her roots and brings forth tales of strong family ties, love, good memories, and the darker stories of revenge, adultery and even murder. Surrounding all of this is the singer’s ever-present faith, as many of Lynn’s songs reflect her faith in and reliance on a redemptive God of love and mercy.

The title cut, “Van Lear Rose” recounts Loretta’s fond memories of sitting on her father’s knees and hearing the story of how her Dad was the “poor boy” that caught the eye of “the belle of Johnson County . . . a beauty to behold, like a diamond in the coal.” Her Daddy proudly told her how he, right under the nose of all of the other coal miners, “stole the heart of the family rose.” The song’s steel guitar wails and cries, the drums are strong (but not overbearing), and Lynn’s voice is in great form as she tells this classic story of how the underdog wins the girl of his dreams, and in doing so surprises all the others that stand around telling you how it “ain’t never gonna happen.”

Click to enlargeNext, Lynn shouts out a emotion-crusher-power-ballad entitled, “Portland Oregon”; this song is a duet with Jack White, and it is delivered with the earnest conviction of a woman who has been there and back and yet still lives to talk about her journey. Pain, shame and trials abound as Lynn sings about a woman who bemoans the pitfall of a “sloe gin fizz induced one night stand.” The music is strong and supports the tune that Loretta belts out, and Jack White answers her back in true country-rock duet fashion.

“Trouble On The Line” is the honest woman’s tale of the static that seems to always exist in the relationship between her and the Lord. The steel pedal guitar rings out as if to highlight Lynn’s simple and apologetic prayer: she sings that she “cannot understand a word you’re saying” and that “communication is one thing that we never seem to find.”

This song reminded me of a Bible story (found in the book of Luke, Chapter 18) where Jesus spoke about the Pharisee (in this case, a word for a religious hypocrite) and the tax collector: The Pharisee was very proud of the fact that he was “not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” The scripture goes on to say that the tax collector stood at a distance, and would not even look up into heaven, but “cried out and asked God for mercy.” Jesus said the it was the tax collector who was righteous and deserved mercy, and who was the one person who, in Christ’s eyes, was justified before God (in another part of the Bible Christ said that “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”)

Lynn’s lyrics remind me of the tax collector who was humble, and would not compare himself to others, and because of his humility, ended up being called “righteous” by the Lord. [The message that I read between the lines is that sometimes we are actually closer to God than we may realize.]

Click to enlarge“Family Tree” is the cry of a woman who is in the midst of the hardship and pain associated with a husband who has gone astray; this song focuses on the proverbial “other woman,” who in Lynn’s song has come to “tear down the Family Tree.” Lynn sings, “I brought along our little babies, ‘cause I wanted them to see the woman that’s burnin’ down our family tree.” Lynn sings with gut-level honesty and pulls no punches, calling this woman the “trash that is burning down our family tree.” Once again the steel guitar wails and cries along with Lynn, echoing the heartfelt, sad emotions reflected in the lyrics of this simple, and yet haunting tune.

“Have Mercy” an upbeat tune (driven by strong guitar and a steady drum beat) has Lynn crying out to a lover that is tearing her apart; she begs him to “Have mercy on me baby, I’m down upon my knees” and reminds him that “the way you did it to me . . . you know that you done got to me.” She follows up with a line of truth by saying about the other woman, “she’s’ got you hypnotized and paralyzed, like a puppet on a string.” Lynn does not flinch, and tells the truth about what will happen to her lover if he chooses to continue down this road of pain and misery.

“High on a Mountain Top” is a charming song that evokes the smoky mountain music and close-knit family life that the coal-mining region of Virginia is famous for. Loretta sings this song as if she had never left her hometown or the family roots that she still seems to be closely connected to. She tells how her family “never did have a lot of money, but they laughed a lot.”

I was talking with someone just the other day and wondering how we ever made it without cell phones, fax machines and microwave ovens? Oh, for a bit more simplicity as the pace of life seems to run at such fast speed!! Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan captured this thought well, as he sang, “Time is a jet plane, it moves so fast” in his song “You're a Big Girl Now.”

“Little Red Shoes” sounds like a page right out of the singer’s childhood diary: in the song she tells a story of growing up in a family of humble beginnings, where money did not grow on trees. Lynn has an amazing ability to draw the listener in to her early world (even during a song that seems to ramble around a bit too much) and the memories, both happy and sad, that seem to be so strongly etched into this woman’s heart, soul and mind.

Click to enlarge“God Makes No Mistakes,” expresses the simple faith that seems to be at the core of Lynn’s life. She expresses her confidence in the Maker, and attempts to provide some answers to the “why did God allow this?” questions that almost everyone seems to ask at one time or another in their lives. The bedrock faith that the singer seems to hold close to her heart comes shining through with an autobiographical tone in this simple song of testimony. The message of this tune rings true as Lynn attempts to connect with listeners and provide them with some answers to their own questions of faith.

“Women’s Prison” is the earnest cry of someone who caught her lover cheating and, in a “crime of passion,” committed murder. In this song Lynn sings that she knows that she “has been forgiven, but the price of love is high.” In the midst of the singer’s pain and cries there is an expression of faith that surfaces as the song trails off into an “Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me” chorus. This song portrays the eternal hope that someone with faith may experience, even in the midst of the dark walls and hardship that are so often associated with the life of a prisoner on death row.

“This Old House” recounts the Lynn’s childhood years, as she sings about pleasant family related memories that come from a warm and loving home life. It seems that this “coal miner’s-daughter” has never forgotten her roots, and her strong sense of family and related memories of “home-sweet-home.”

“Mrs. Leroy Brown”: Crafty guitar hooks and quick-paced drums are combined with Lynn’s singing and sense of humor in this tune about a woman who is fed up with having to stay at home “bouncing babies on her knees” while her husband is down carousing at the local bar. The song’s character, “Mrs. Leroy Brown” draws all of her husband’s money out of the bank to buy a pink limousine, that she then uses to chase her wayward husband all the way around town, finally confronting the mistress that has wreaked havoc on her home life. Lynn sings that “I’m gonna grab ‘er by her phony ponytail, I’m gonna sling her around and around. When she wakes up she’ll know she met up with mad Mrs. Leroy Brown.” Talk about revenge: this woman is not content to sit by idly but instead gladly and literally takes matters in her own hands! (this song brought back memories of the early 1970’s hit song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, by the late Jim Croce).

In the song “Miss Being Mrs.” Lynn remembers her late husband as she sings of lying all alone in her bed of memories, and dreaming of her husband’s sweet kiss. As the song title so aptly says it, she misses being Mrs. Tonight. This song is the sad and haunting cry of a widow bemoaning the loss of her husband, and coming to grips with living life without her mate. Apparently this song is very close to Lynn’s heart and her life, as she lost her husband Doo back in 1996 (who died as a result of a long illness), and now knows all too well that pain and hurt that a grieving widow struggles with as they face life without their marriage partner.

“Story of My Life,” the autobiographical closing song on the album, retraces the steps of Loretta’s life: Lynn sings “Here’s the story of my life, listen and I’ll tell it twice . . . folks in Kentucky are born lucky” and continues to tell the story of her rise to stardom, “ Got me a guitar, moved to Nashville and wrote me a song,” recounting her marriage at a young age and early motherhood and caps off her album by singing, in spite of life’s hardships and trials, “I hafta say that I’ve been blessed . . . Not bad for this ole Kentucky girl, I guess.”

This “ole Kentucky girl” has done well, and the most recent proof of this is Van Lear Rose, a powerful collection of all original Loretta Lynn songs. Lynn’s cutting edge collaborative effort with Jack White has produced a record that stretches (and pulls apart) the “County and Western” and “Nashville” music categories, and in doing so, these artists rightfully deserve the acknowledgment by the Grammy Award judges. Keep your ears open to find out what happens at the Grammy Awards, but in the meantime give this record a good listen.

Jim's Van Lear Rose blog comment here

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Van Lear Rose  

For over four decades now, Loretta has fashioned a body of work as artistically and commercially successful—and as culturally significant—as any female performer you’d care to name. Her music has confronted many of the major social issues of her time, and her life story is a rags-to-riches tale familiar to pop, rock and country fans alike. The Coal Miner’s Daughter—the tag refers to a hit single, an album, a best-selling autobiography, an Oscar-winning film, and to Lynn herself—has journeyed from the poverty of the Kentucky hills to Nashville superstardom to her current status as an honest-to-goodness American icon.

Click to enlargeHer latest album, the Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, is poised now to remind the world yet again of Lynn’s power as a vocalist and her skill as a songwriter. As she puts it on “Story of My Life,” the new album’s closing track: “Not half bad for this ol’ KY girl, I guess... Here’s the story of my life. Listen close, I’ll tell it twice.”

Loretta was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, the second of Clara and Ted Webb’s eight children. Just as she would later sing in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta’s family eked out a living during the Depression on the “poor man’s dollar” her father managed to earn “work{ing] all night in the Van Leer coal mine [and] all day long in the field a-hoein’ corn.” As she also notes in that song, “I never thought of leavin’ Butcher Holler.” But that was before she met Oliver Lynn (aka Doolittle or Doo, or “Mooney” for moonshine), a handsome 21-year-old fresh from the service who swept the young Loretta Webb off her feet. The couple married when Loretta was barely 14.

Looking for a future that didn’t require him to work the mines, Doo found work in Custer, Washington, and Loretta joined him in 1951. The following decade found Lynn a full-time mother—four kids by the time she began singing seriously in 1961—of precisely the sort she would one day sing to and for. In her spare time, though, with Doo’s encouragement, she learned to play the guitar and began singing in the area. During one televised talent contest in Tacoma, hosted by Buck Owens, Loretta was spotted by Norm Burley who was so impressed he started Zero Records just to record her.

Before long, Loretta and Doo hit the road cross-country, stopping every time they spotted a country radio station to push her first Zero release, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” By the time they reached Nashville, the record was a. minor hit and Loretta found work cutting demos for the publishing company of Teddy and Doyle Wilburn. One of these, Kathryn Fulton’s “Biggest Fool of All,” caught the ear of Decca Records producer Owen Bradley. He thought the song would be perfect for Brenda Lee, but the Wilburns worked a deal—you can have the song if you record Loretta. Soon, Loretta was in the studio cutting sides with Bradley, producer at the time not only for Lee but Patsy Cline, Bill Anderson, and Webb Pierce.

At this early stage of her career, Loretta was greatly influenced by Kitty Wells, the groundbreaking “girl singer” who turned the tables on several decades worth of male double standards with the 1952 classic, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.” Like Kitty’s, Loretta’s delivery on “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” was twangy and nasal, rhythmically straight up and down, plainspoken and emotionally understated. Such a down-home vocal style was Loretta’s birthright; it was more or less the way she had sang back in Kentucky, it was the style she took with her to Washington, and it was a vocal approach particularly well-suited to the duet sides she soon made in Nashville with honky-tonk legend Ernest Tubb. (“Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be,” from 1964, was the pair’s first and biggest hit.)

Working with Bradley in Nashville, however, Lynn quickly fell under the musical spell of new friend Patsy Cline. Patsy’s distinctive style, marked by dramatic slides, growls and crescendos, was more modern and “pop” sounding than that of Wells’ and the other female country singers of the day. It’s not surprising then that “Success,” the 1962 single that became Loretta’s first Top Ten hit (and that was later covered by Elvis Costello on his Almost Blue album) showcased Loretta in a full-throated, string-backed setting that’s more than a little reminiscent of Patsy Cline.

Out of these influences, Lynn soon fashioned her distinctive style—a mature fusion of twang, grit, energy and libido—an approach she first perfected in the songs of other writers. In “Wine, Women, and Song,” “Happy Birthday,” and “Blue Kentucky Girl,” each a Top Ten hit in 1964, Loretta played a plucky young woman who alternated between waiting for her wayward man to walk back in the door and threatening to walk out herself.

Such hits were early hints of Loretta’s undeniably strong female point of view—a perspective unique at the time both to country music specifically and to pop music generally and a trend in her music that became further pronounced as she began to write more of her own songs. In her first self-penned song to crack the Top Ten, 1966’s “Dear Uncle Sam,” Loretta presented herself as a woman who was going to fight to keep what was important to her, even if that meant questioning the wisdom of her government. Indeed, “Dear Uncle Sam” was among the very first recordings to recount the human costs of the Vietnam War. “Doo encouraged me to write that one,” she recalls today. “I was wondering what it would be like to have someone over there and what I would do if I did.” (The song made a return to Lynn’s live sets with the coming of the Iraq war.)

Over the next few years, Loretta wrote a string of hits unprecedented for their take-no-crap women narrators. In “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man)” [#2, 1966], “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” [#1, 1967], and “Fist City” [#1, 1968], among others, Loretta presented a new character on the country scene: a woman unafraid to stand up for herself, just like real women did. Drawing upon her own experiences as a harried young wife and mother, and upon a homespun sense of humor at once both pointed and hilarious, Loretta issued warnings to soused and philandering hubbies everywhere—and to the female competition—that she was not to be trifled with. In her words, “You better close your face and stay out of my way if you don’t wanna go to Fist City.”

[Note: As on most of Lynn’s biggest solo hits, the studio band for the above numbers included members of Nashville’s famed A-Team: guitarist Grady Martin, six-string electric bassist Harold Bradley, bass player Junior Huskey, pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harman, and pedal steel guitarist Hal Rugg.]

As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, Lynn forever solidified her reputation as an advocate for ordinary women. Typically, Loretta’s brand of women’s liberation was attuned specifically to the lives of her blue-collar audience, the wives and mothers who were far too overwhelmed by the demands of, say, childcare to place much stock in symbolic foolishness like bra burning. Indeed, while a guest on The Dick Frost Show, Loretta once famously dozed off while listening to the upper-middle class feminist Betty Freidan talk theory with the show’s host.

Loretta was more interested in life as it was lived—in the kitchen and in the bedroom--by millions of working-class women everyday. For example, “One’s on the Way,” a Shel Silverstein-penned hit from 1971, let Lynn voice the concerns of a harried Topeka woman, worn out from raising her kids, cleaning the house, and dealing with a husband with enough free time to be calling her from a bar while she’s home making dinner.
But it was with her own songs that Loretta best conveyed the complexity of women’s lives. In “I Wanna Be Free,” Loretta reveled in the possibilities a divorce might bring (“I’m gonna take this chain from around my finger, and throw it just as far as I can sling ‘er”), while in “Rated X” she complained that new divorcees were inevitably treated like easy women. In “I Know How,” she boasted of her sexual prowess; in “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” she bemoaned the loss of desire that accompanies a bad marriage; and in “The Pill,” a record banned by many radio stations in its day, she captured perfectly the power of birth control to let women love without the passion-dowsing fear of pregnancy: “The feelin’ good comes easy now since I’ve got the pill!”

Each of the above songs was a Top Three country hit between 1968 and 1975, and Loretta Lynn (to paraphrase the title of a 1970 album) both wrote ‘em and sang ‘em. The same was true, of course, of her signature song, the 1970 chart- topper “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which chronicled for all time the strides women were making in these years—from country to city, from home to workforce and, in Lynn’s case, from “girl-singer” to superstar.

The immense popularity of these songs, as well as other straight-shooting hits like “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath,” “Women of the World (Leave My World Alone)," and “You’re Looking at Country,” culminated in 1972 when Lynn won her second Best Female Vocalist award from the Country Music Association—and when she became the first woman to win the CMA’s most prestigious award, Entertainer of the Year.

It didn’t hurt that sprinkled among her many solo hits was a series of amazing collaborations between Loretta and her dear friend, singer Conway Twitty. Indeed, Loretta also won her first Vocal Duo of the Year award in 1972, with Conway, a title the team held onto through 1976. (And this in the years when the duet competition annually included Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton and George Jones & Tammy Wynette!) The pair’s close harmony style and dramatic song selections—especially, “After the Fire Is Gone,” “Lead Me On,” “As Soon As I Hang up the Phone,” and “Feelin’s”—explored adult romantic relationships as wrenchingly as any records ever made.

Through the next decade, Loretta scored more and more hits—and became more and more famous beyond her country base. In 1973, she appeared on the cover of Newsweek; in 1976 her autobiography (written with journalist George Vescey) became a New York Times Bestseller; in 1980 the book was made into a hit film starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. By the time of her last major hit—”I Lie,” in 1982—Lynn could count 52 Top 10 hits and 16 #1’s.

Loretta Lynn spent the ‘90s largely away from the spotlight, caring for her ailing husband Doo and, after he died in 1996, grieving his loss. The music scene has changed considerably in her absence but it’s also a scene she helped create. Indeed, it would be all but impossible to imagine the likes of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” and Deana Carter’s “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” or any number of Dixie Chicks hits, without her. Van Lear Rose, with its moody, propulsive arrangements, loud and rocking guitars and intimate songwriting, can only extend Lynn’s profound influence into a new century—and to a new generation of fans.


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