NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Eerie guitar licks creak and swirl on Loretta Lynn’s new album as she sings about a woman on death row: “Now they’ve strapped me in the chair / And covered up my eyes / And the last voice I hear on earth / Is my mama’s cry.”
The 69-year-old Lynn jolted country music 30 years ago with plainspoken feminist songs like “Rated X” and “The Pill.” Now she’s re-establishing herself with “Van Lear Rose,” a sometimes dark collection produced by Jack White of the White Stripes.
White gives Lynn’s twangy vocals and traditional instrumentation a rock edge, with loud drums and bursts of grungy guitar. There’s a driving duet between the two called “Portland Oregon,” a moody, atmospheric spoken-word song “Little Red Shoes” and a hand-clapping sing-along “High On a Mountaintop.”
The loose sound is by design. Lynn’s vocals were recorded in only one or two takes, and White used outside musicians instead of polished Nashville studio pros.
White gives Lynn a raw sound
Lynn is pleased with the results, if not entirely sure what to make of them.
“It’s different,” she says in telephone interview from her home in Hurricane Mills. “This one’s just raw. It’s right out of the front room — like we’re sittin’ in the front room singin’. I think that’s what he was lookin’ for, and that’s what he got.
“The only thing I was worried about was the musicians. I thought ‘Well, how we going to come out with this,’ but it come out just as country as my first one, my first album.”
At White’s urging, all 13 of the album’s tracks were written by Lynn. “He’s as bad as (the late, famed Nashville producer) Owen Bradley about that,” she says. “That’s how Owen was.”
White is a longtime admirer of Lynn’s. He dedicated the White Stripes’ breakthrough disc, 2001’s “White Blood Cells,” to her. Lynn’s manager told her about it, and she wrote White a letter thanking him for the dedication and for the Stripes’ cover of “Rated X.” They became friends and even performed together in 2003 at a New York show.
When Lynn decided to record a new album, White was chosen to produce it.
“He’s got a lot of energy,” Lynn says. “He’s still a kid, you know, so he feels like he can jump the river and turn around and jump back over. He don’t think that nobody’s any older than him.”
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Still a ‘Coal Miner's Daughter’
Lynn’s been a bit like that herself. Born into poverty in Butcher Holler, Ky., she married Mooney Lynn — the man she calls “Doo” — in 1948 when she was only 13. He cast her aside for another woman when she was pregnant with their first child. After reconciling, the couple moved to Washington state so Mooney could find work.
There, Lynn was a neglected and sometimes abused housewife and mother for more than a decade. But it was Mooney who bought her a $17 guitar and forced her to sing in public.
After the late start — she was the mother of four children when she first sang in public — Lynn rose quickly to stardom, recording 16 No. 1 hits, including her signature, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Her best-selling autobiography of the same name was the subject of a 1980 movie starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones.
Lynn’s 48-year-marriage ended when Mooney died at their home in 1996.
A real country record
Lynn’s new songs have a fresh, urgent feel. “Have Mercy,” “Portland Oregon” and “Mrs. Leroy Brown” are rockers. The title cut about Lynn’s mother recalls Janis Joplin with its earthy vocals and heavy beat.
Lynn still writes about the hardships of being a woman. In “Family Tree” she revisits infidelity, aiming her scorn at the mistress rather than the cheating husband. “I brought along our little babies / ’Cause I wanted them to see / The woman that’s burning down / Our family tree.”
And in “Women’s Prison,” she takes a sympathetic view of the woman who shot her cheating lover. “I’m sittin’ here on death row / And Lord I’ve lost my mind / For love I’ve killed my darlin’ / And for love I’ll lose my life.”
“It’s just another way to write about that instead of ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’ or ‘Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin,”’ Lynn says. “If you write about something for so many years, you have to find a new way to say it.”
She doesn’t know if country radio will embrace her new album — and doesn’t seem to worry much about it, either. Most of the music she hears on the radio is too pop for her taste:
“I don’t know what they’re trying to do, but I knew what I was doing. Me and Jack went in to cut a country record.”
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