Shortlist Music Prize Nominees (number: 2004)
en: Van Lear Rose [info]
With old-style country falling out of favour by the late 80s, the living legends of Music City had only two choices: modernise or retire. Loretta Lynn - the coal miner's daughter from Butcher Hollow - did the latter in 1990. Meanwhile contemporaries such as Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton managed the alchemical transformation into durable icons by bypassing middle America and connecting with younger, more credible accomplices. Lynn returned in 2000 with the limp Still Country but - praise the lord - she's finally found her very own Rick Rubin in the shape of Jack White. Amazingly the combination of a snotty young Detroit garage pugilist and a 69 year-old Opry veteran works beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
Lynn has described the album as the most country thing she's done for years. The stripped-back accompaniment (courtesy of White and fellow Detroit native Dave Feeny) may smack more of Led Zeppelin than Chet Atkins but White's genius has been in recognising the connection between Lynn's gritty tales of beleaguered women in a poor patriarchal bible belt and the kind of dirty working class blues and folk that he idolises. Lynn's classic songs such as ''Don't Come Home A'Drinkin''' conformed to the country template of bitter experience, but combined them with the righteous (and witty) fury of a woman scorned. White's convinced her to return to this lost art and all 13 songs are not only self-penned, but quite wonderful.
This doesn't mean that this is a straight three-chord blast a la White Stripes either. Jack manages to coat Loretta's tales of hard-won experience with an ambience that veers from honky tonk to r 'n' b via sleazy batchelor party rock. ''Have Mercy On Me'' has such an air of bump 'n' grind about it you'd swear it came from a lost Russ Meyer film. Loretta's subjects remain as close to her heart as ever. Her narrators have all been dealt a bad hand, but retain the feisty fighting spirit that's kept Lynn herself going through teenage pregnancy, neglect, abuse and more. ''Women's Prison'' is a song sung from behind bars while ''Family Tree'' and ''Mad Mrs Leroy Brown'''s abandoned wives aren't afraid to confront the mistresses who've wrecked their lives. Most touching though is ''Miss Being Mrs'' which is undoubtedly a lament for her deceased husband Oliver.
Van Lear Rose may sound like a radical departure for Lynn, whose place in the Nashville pantheon is as assured as Patsy Cline. Yet strangely it feels more like a return to her roots rather than some trendy attempt to garner a young audience. Lynn herself compares White to her original producer Owen Bradley and she's not far wrong. Somehow he's managed to get this legend to produce a legendary album. Absolutely essential...