Loretta Lynn’s return to form, Van Lear Rose, prompts many musings, chief among them: What is it with careworn Nashville icons and their seemingly ageless voices? Country veterans, particularly those around retirement age, have spent as much time on the road and on drugs or booze as any boomer rock star. But listening to recent George Jones, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard albums, you’d barely know it. The men sound older, of course, but their phrasing and timbre appear to have miraculously warded off the ravages of time and self-abuse. Creaky-voiced rock stars half their age should be embarrassed.
On ”Van Lear Rose,” Lynn is the latest to follow in this grand, wonderfully weathered tradition. The protofeminist anthems she wrote and recorded in the ’60s and ’70s were sung in a voice that alternated between plucky, lusty pride and stern moralism, with a dash of Kentucky rodeo-queen vivacity. It’s hard to believe, 40 years later, that the spunky, vibrant instrument we hear on ”Van Lear Rose” emanates from a woman of 69 – starting with the way it soars into an upper register in the majestic title song, her retelling of her father’s courting of her mother.
Lynn’s delivery is but one of the album’s calling cards. Acting as producer and bandleader, the White Stripes’ Jack White is the least likely candidate for reinvigorating a roots-music legend since Rick Rubin approached Johnny Cash. Unlike Rubin, though, White doesn’t treat his hero gingerly. Setting Lynn’s songs to honky-tonk waltzes (”Family Tree”), barreling-down-the-highway boogie (”Mrs. Leroy Brown,” ”Have Mercy”), folky bluegrass (”This Old House”), and foot-stomping sing-alongs (”High on a Mountain Top”), White has made an album that sounds as if it were recorded in the corner of a hardwood-floor bar. Crackling with a bristling immediacy, ”Van Lear Rose” yanks Lynn into the present while never abandoning musical traditions that continue to define her, her voice, and her material.
”Portland Oregon,” Lynn and White’s lone duet on ”Van Lear Rose,” embodies the way in which their worlds gleefully collide. After beginning with a swirly, spacey introduction that’s more U2 than Bob Wills, this tale of a boozy one-night stand in the Northwest is all rakish, lusty vigor, from its whooping singing to its jumpy, unpaved-road arrangement. Conversely, White sets ”Miss Being Mrs.” to just his guitar, letting the sorrowful lyric and Lynn’s choked delivery stand beautifully on their own.
Rising to the occasion by contributing a mostly fresh batch of songs, Lynn doesn’t stray far from the themes that made her a spokesperson for put-upon wives everywhere. She may be trying a little too hard to re-create her old self, but few write better done-me-wrong dispatches. Picking up where ”Fist City” or ”Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” left off, she’s a spurned woman run amok in ”Family Tree” (in which she drags along the dog, the kid, and even the bills when confronting her husband’s dalliance) and ”Mrs. Leroy Brown” (where revenge means emptying out hubby’s bank account and renting ”a long pink limousine” in which to track down and whup another hussy). In ”Women’s Prison,” Lynn’s character goes so far as to gun down her philandering darlin’, and we follow her straight to the electric chair. Like the bleak ”This Old House,” a song haunted by home memories both good and bittersweet, ”Women’s Prison” has a gothic undercurrent that harks back to country’s early days, and that vanished somewhere along the road.
In such ways, the often sentimental ”Van Lear Rose” conjures a world that no longer seems to exist. Lynn sings of miners, ”God-fearin’ people simple and real,” and the sight of her uncle grabbing his fiddle at a family get-together. Yet the album is the best type of throwback, a welcome antidote to the vapid country-pop of Faith Hill or the grating, robotic novelty songs of Shania Twain. So here’s another thought brought on by the album: What does it say about the current state of women in country music when Loretta Lynn, last of a dying breed, can still kick their butts?