Genius is a peculiar thing.
Even the most brilliant musicians can drift into stagnant creative waters, leaving them out of step with both the spirit of their seminal work and the contemporary artists they’ve inspired. It happened to Bob Dylan; it happened to Johnny Cash. And while she never became desperate enough to file for artistic bankruptcy by re-recording her old hits or doing a covers album, some would say it happened to Loretta Lynn.
“I think it’s hard for a lot of us out of her world to realize how much she has been lauded and how much acclaim she has gotten in her life,” says Jack White, producer of Lynn’s latest, Van Lear Rose. “She’s won so many awards and sold so many records and had so many people tell her how amazing she is. That’s a hard thing to deal with when people do that to you,” he says, undoubtedly having encountered the same in the media- and critical-frenzy surrounding The White Stripes. “You start to lose appreciation of what it is that you do, and you kind of become this thing that it’s hard to say what it is. But I think she has a really strong knowledge of her storytelling
being appealing to people, and when she puts that in her music and when she tells it like it is, people go for that. I know she knows that.”
Still, that’s the danger in being an icon: No matter how compelling your current work is, you’re continually being measured against yourself and your legacy. But just as producer Rick Rubin knew how to reclaim the innate power in Johnny Cash’s music by stripping it down to its essence, someone outside the Nashville establishment realized
creating another classic Loretta Lynn album meant once again pairing her inimitable persona with her voice’s undiluted purity and her songwriting’s naked honesty. As unlikely as the coupling may seem—of Appalachia
with Detroit rock; a 70-year-old country-music legend with a guitar god who’s celebrity tabloid fodder—the sound of Van Lear Rose couldn’t be more natural.
A household name who hasn’t had a Top 40 hit in 19 years, Loretta Lynn inhabits a unique place in the American landscape. As an icon whose life story plays late at night on classic movie channels, it’s easy to forget that 42 years have passed since her first hit, virtually leaving her a living relic from country music’s heralded past. Still, her legacy commands respect, whether earning her an invitation to the Kennedy Center Honors or the tributes of every would-be diva performing in Nashville’s dives. Great new album or not, it’s difficult not to be at least a little intimidated by her, even over the phone.
“OK, are you ready to talk to Loretta?” asks a particularly harried publicist, lending the moment even more nervous anticipation. The next voice I hear is Lynn’s. “Matt, are you ready for me now?”
She laughs disarmingly, seemingly amused by any notion of her grandeur. On this day, she’s fresh from a David Letterman appearance with Jack White and the Do-Whaters (so named by Lynn because of their ability to “do whatever” she wanted as a backing band), making a brief stop before heading back out on the road. “I’m home right now, and we’re leaving … maybe tomorrow … I think,” she says, apparently a bit disoriented by the whirlwind of press and acclaim that has returned her to magazine covers and radio playlists. “I just got in last night from New York. We went up and done all that TV stuff.”
No doubt, their performance of “Portland, Oregon”—a curiously unwinding duet with White, as much wall-of-sound as it is honky-tonk, that weaves through a minute-and-a-half intro before Lynn’s entry—provided a moment of pop-culture trivia. I tell her as much when I mention I saw the performance. “Oh, did you?” she laughs. “I went back to the hotel, and I missed it because I fell off to sleep waitin’ for it.”
Having gotten friendly with the country legend after Lynn invited The White Stripes for a homemade dinner at her Nashville ranch (after her manager noticed that the blues-rock experimentalists dedicated their breakthrough White Blood Cells album to her in the liner notes), White immediately proved himself with his near encyclopedic knowledge of Lynn’s recorded canon and the history of country music as well. “He loves it, and he does have respect for it,” she says, having been particularly flattered by a red-and-white cowboy suit White made to wear in tribute to her in preparation for their performing together. “And he can sit down and talk to you about any country artist you want to talk about. And that kind of shocked me, too. He went and saw my movie when he was nine years old. And he said he thought then, ‘Well, if I ever see Loretta, I’m going to try to play in her band.’”
When the Stripes asked Lynn to open for them at one of their sold-out New York City appearances, casual conversation revealed that Lynn’s next project was without a producer. White was quick to volunteer for the job. “So that’s when they said, ‘Hey, why don’t we try this out?’ And I was so surprised,” White says with believable modesty. “I was so sure they wouldn’t let me do it.”
While he seems a bundle of bristling creative energy and unapproachable outsider cool when fronting what is arguably America’s most-lauded rock act, you can almost see the 15-year-old in him as he rifles through stacks of dusty vinyl LPs, remembering the summer 2003 recording sessions. “It was insane. It was amazing,” he gushes. “It happened so fast, I had to stop myself every hour and remind myself—you’re recording Loretta Lynn! You’re producing Loretta Lynn right now. I had to keep reminding myself so I could enjoy it. It was happening so fast that I didn’t want to say, ‘Wow. I didn’t even get a chance to enjoy what was happening.’” Still, while he may have wanted to savor every moment with the country-music legend, reaching his objectives was going to deliberately limit the time they spent in the studio.
“Two nights before I was heading down to Nashville to start working with her, I just laid on my back on the floor, and I listened to the whole record that they sent up,” he explains. “And I just kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do? How can I present these songs that would serve Loretta best?’ “I started putting the band together before that, so I thought, ‘I know I have guys that can play this well. I just have to make sure that we keep things simple and do it as fast as possible and do it on the eight-track.’ Just keeping everything really simple and not overthinking or overproducing is the best thing to do. Knowing what not to do is one of my theories.” And while recording with a sense of immediacy has remained his modus operandi with The White Stripes, he admits it took some persuading to get Lynn to see the advantage of going back to older recording standards. “Some of them, she said, ‘OK … I guess so,’” he says, conveying her hesitance about creating a record so defiantly outside the current Nashville system. “I’m not a fan of modern technology and modern recording techniques; it just doesn’t appeal to me because it’s so far away from soulfulness.
“It’s in the wrong direction for any artist. I think that the way we did it let Loretta’s voice come out, and you could tell that these things were happening live in the studio and there was a warm feeling. We did it in a house, and you can feel all of those things.” For Lynn, the approach couldn’t have been more different from that of her other famous producer.
“You know what, this is really weird,” she says with a tone that pulls you in and makes you feel like she’s telling you a secret the two of you will share. “When I worked with Owen Bradley, Owen would make me sing a song three times before we’d even try it on tape. And Jack, we walked in and I didn’t know what he was doing. I thought he was going to let me go over a song three or four times and then we’d record it. I sang it one time and that was it,” she says in disbelief. “One time and that was all! I said to Jack, ‘Jack, we need to do this at least two or three times.’ And he said, ‘No. That ain’t right.’ We did every one of them one time and that was it.”
White concurs. “She’d usually do a lot of takes, and I said, ‘Well, there’s no point in us trying to perfect this,’” he explains. “Sometimes we’d get a really great take, and she’d want to go back and do it again. She’d say, “Oh, I didn’t sing that line very good.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, Loretta, it’s really great. I think it’s wonderful, and everyone here thinks it’s great. There really is no reason for us to redo it and miss out on all the things that are in there, just to fix one little thing.’ That’s soulful to me. I like things like that. In her mind, it wasn’t perfect. In my mind it already was.”
Still, even though Lynn was uncomfortable with a process that emphasized the raw vulnerability of her musical aesthetic over the polish of modern recording technology, her faith in her new friend prevailed. “You know what, I never give it one thought, because I figured Jack was a smart boy. I knew whatever he’d do, it would be right. He wanted it to be like I used to record and not like the country artists record today.” Consequently, Van Lear Rose offers everything that’s characterized Lynn’s best work, being both vulnerable and defiant, spiritual and carnal, timely and timeless. It’s one of those rare recordings that can unite disparate demographics, with enough integrity to please longtime Lynn fans and enough visceral drive to appeal to White’s rock following. And while she hasn’t received this kind of attention for the better part of two decades, Lynn has little fear that her faithful following will hesitate to rub shoulders with a different crowd.
“If you’ve got fans that love you, they’re going to stay behind you no matter what happens,” Lynn explains. “And they love this record. They’ll holler from the audience, ‘Is Jack White with you?’—that would be the girls. And I say, ‘No, honey, he wouldn’t come on this trip,’” she giggles. Soon, though, White’s childhood predilection will come to pass, as he and his handpicked Detroit indie-rock ringers will accompany Lynn out on the road.
Given how well the first collaboration came out, as well as Lynn’s prolific pace, rumors are already circulating that another release is in the offing. “Of the first 13 he heard, those are the ones he took,” she says of the batch of demos she sent White before the recording sessions. “He didn’t wait. I wrote two or three others, like two or three months before, but he didn’t get around to them. And those were ones that I was going to put on the album … but we’ll put them on the next one,” she sighs contentedly.
It may have taken the prodding of a producer who wasn’t even born when Lynn was at the apex of her career, but that same innate genius that seemed to so effortlessly and accurately catalog a life lived simply and sincerely has once again become the defining element in the mix of her album. “I think some of them I could have sung better, but Jack swore I couldn’t,” she says, apparently still a little bewildered by the commotion surrounding an album so humbly made. “But he’s a fan, and what are you going to tell a fan? It ain’t hurtin’ it any, so I ain’t going to complain.”