I can see why some country purists might get upset about Van Lear Rose, the new album by Loretta Lynn. Produced by Jack White White of The White Stripes, many of the songs here rock seriously. Some of the tracks have about 10 times the drum sound as any previous Loretta effort. And White’s slide guitar sure can scream.
So if you’re a purist who doesn’t like to see those lines crossed, by all means stick with Loretta’s ‘60s-’70s classics. (In fact, if you’re a newcomer who came to Loretta through The White Stripes, immerse yourself in some classic Loretta as quickly as possible. You won’t be sorry.)
But as a long-time Loretta fan, I give my heartiest squeal of approval for Van Lear Rose. The lady sounds inspired here. And if, at the age of 68 or 70 or whatever she is, she wants to rock out with a bunch of young punks, more power to her.
After all, she made her name in the early days by challenging Nashville orthodoxy. She was the first female country singer who actually wrote most of her own songs. In an era when the C&W industry was looking for mainstream respectability she unabashedly kept things real with her songs about domestic discord, drinking and real-life heartache.
Not to mention the fact that her songs like “Pregnant Again” and -- especially -- “The Pill” were always getting banned on country radio back then for their “controversial” subject matter.
Besides, in the liner notes, Loretta compares Jack White to her old producer, Nashville icon Owen Bradley.
Trust her. She’s Loretta Lynn.
The singer wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album. And there’s some fine ones.
“Family Tree,” featuring some sad fiddle by hotshot stringman Dirk Powell, is a confrontation with “the other woman,” a tried and true Loretta theme we’ve heard before in songs like “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” My favorite line in the new song: “No I didn’t come to fight/ If he was a better man I might/But I wouldn’t dirty my hands/ On trash like you …”
Likewise on “Mrs. Leroy Brown” she indulges in a revenge fantasy against bad, bad Leroy
A variation on that theme is found on “Women’s Prison,” in which the narrator gets the death penalty for plugging an errant husband.
The most moving song on the album is “Miss Being Mrs.,” in which Loretta, who lost her husband of 48 years in 1996, sings frankly about the loneliness of widowhood.
The most surreal track here is “Little Red Shoes,” a spoken -word piece in which Loretta tells the story of her mother shoplifting her first pair of shoes for her over a dreamy instrumental track. Has anyone coined the genre name “Honky tonk/trip hop” yet?
The last song, “The Story of My Life,” is just that, a humorous overview of her well-known biography (slyly working in some of titles of her hits). The verse about the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie ends with , “What I wanna know is what happened to the cash.” But it’s hardly a bitter tune. “I have to say that I’ve been blessed/ Not bad for this ol’ Kentucky girl I guess.”
Not bad, indeed, Loretta.
The Graceful Ghost by Grey DeLisle. This has to be one of the prettiest country albums -- actually one of the prettiest CDs of any genre -- I’ve heard in a long time.
DeLisle’s voice invites comparisons to Dolly Parton’s, both in timbre and emotional punch. And like Dolly, DeLisle is a smart songwriter and fascinating storyteller. She wrote all the tunes here except for her cover of an obscure Kitty Wells song, "This White Circle on My Finger."
The music here, provided by a small acoustic group including her husband Murry Hammond (the bass player for The Old 97s, who plays guitar and sings on this album) wisely keeps the emphasis on the singer’s voice.
There’s a Civil War feel to much of the album. Some songs sound like antebellum parlor songs. "Tell Me True," a simple love song done as a duet with her husband includes a spoken part -- done on antiquated recording equipment -- in which DeLisle reads from a Civil War love letter.
DeLisle has said in interviews that The Graceful Ghost represents her long distance courtship with Hammond. That’s sweet, but I hope it’s not literally true. There are some beautiful love songs here, but there’s plenty of tunes that, following the folk-ballad tradition, are downright tragic.
Such is the case of "Poor Katy Allen," which is about a woman lost in a shipwreck and “Black Haired Boy” -- another heart-tugging Hammond duet and another shipwreck song.
But most tragic of all is "The Maple Tree," a war ballad (I think this one’s World War II) in which a case of mistaken identity leads to horrible consequences.
If she keeps putting out records like this, I hope Grey is around as long as Loretta.
Hey Loretta! Tune in The Santa Fe Opry Friday night on KSFR, 90.7 FM, for a musical salute to the Coal Miner’s Daughter -- Loretta old and new, Loretta with Conway, Loretta with Ernest Tubb, Loretta covers and more. Show starts at 10 p.m. (and I’ll play some Grey DeLisle in there somewhere) while the Loretta segment starts right after 11 p.m.