If it wasn’t clear that certain country legends were on their way out of the mainstream by the time the class of 1986 showed up, it was more than clear by the time the class of 1989 came around. Sure, Garth Brooks could make statements such as “George Jones needs to be on the radio,” but it wouldn’t work.
It might have been for the better though. After all, now these artists had the freedom to do what they wanted. Johnny Cash teamed up with hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin to deliver a string of highly acclaimed albums that covered everything from Cash’s own material to Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails (as if that wasn’t known), Jimmie Rodgers and beyond.
As for Loretta Lynn? Well, she was already out of the spotlight on her own accord at that point, helping to nurse her husband Oliver Lynn as he was dying (something that would come to fruition on a track here called “Miss Being Mrs.”).
Jack White of The White Stripes had dedicated his band’s 2001 album, White Blood Cells to Lynn (there’s a cover of “Rated X” on the album), but working with the legend was obviously the next step up. Actually, it was that cover that managed to capture Lynn’s attention, so much so that she asked him and Meg White down to her home. The rest is history.
What else can be said about Lynn too? She formed the mold and subsequently broke it by recording songs that were hard-edged and unapologetic, from “The Pill” to “Fist City” to “Rated X” and beyond.
It’s fair to say that Lynn was never really an album artist, and that’s perfectly fine (and not meant as a put-down). She was a singles artist who recorded many of the genre’s best and brightest songs over the span of many decades. A greatest hits collection of hers could easily be hailed as a perfect album.
2004’s Van Lear Rose changed all of that though. While Lynn would release another album that encompassed her life on 2016’s Full Circle, Van Lear Rose saw her bridging the past with the future in a way that had never been done before. Autobiographical in nature, Lynn recounts personal stories in a different way from her traditional methods. Between her and White, the perfect pairing resulted in something both artists believed in – pushing boundaries while staying true to tradition (there’s a paradox for you).
On the surface, it’s easy to hear tracks such as “Trouble On The Line” or “Family Tree” as classic Lynn tunes. It’s telling how cohesive they are in relation to one another, and this goes for other tracks as well. “Family Tree” to “Have Mercy” reads like a mini-movie, with Lynn dealing with the frustration and acceptance of a rocky relationship on “Trouble On The Line” before confronting the woman her husband has been messing around with on “Family Tree.”
Unlike past Lynn songs in this vein however, Lynn is often at the losing end of these tracks. “Family Tree” sees her desperately crying for the cheating to stop rather than threatening this woman, and by the time “Have Mercy” rolls around, she just wants him to, at the very least, let her down easy enough in a way that shows her he at least pretended to care about them at one point.
That losing end is later revisited on “Women’s Prison,” a rather important part in the album’s progression. In what has to be Lynn’s most underrated song, the focus really isn’t on the murder committed here. Instead, she longs mostly for forgiveness for hurting the ones she loves. There’s so much emotion that goes into hearing a mother watch her own child be killed for murder, calling back to the sentiment of an old country classic in “Don’t Tell Mama” that says “sometimes others pay for our mistakes.” It could also be seen as one of Lynn’s protagonists from before finally carrying out her actions. Either way, with the dirty steel guitar outro by the end, it’s clear that it’s too late.
On most other artists’ albums, it would read like a closing of the book on younger, rebellious days, but that’s the last thing Lynn does with this album.
And of course, she still has one last devilish hurrah, like on the electrified honky-tonk meets rockabilly stomper “Mrs. Leroy Brown” which kicks things up a notch with its barroom piano and lyrics that could only be sung by Lynn (for the record, she wrote every song on this album according to the liner notes). Along the way, Lynn celebrates her musical upbringing on “High On A Mountain Top” while adhering to her beliefs and faith on “God Makes No Mistakes.”
Enough also can’t be said about White’s production either. The “do-whaters” (“I named them that because they got in there and did whatever we needed them to!” per Lynn in the liner notes) bring a raw, almost live atmosphere to Lynn’s usual sound that compliments her well. “Portland, Oregon” is essentially the point where Lynn and White’s worlds collide, from his spacious minute-and-a-half long introduction to her timeless vocals (another note to make is that Lynn sounds phenomenal vocally) that reincarnates the old Lynn and Conway Twitty duet. “Little Red Shoes” is also magnificently brilliant in its execution all around.
Fittingly, the album opens and closes with two tracks that speak to Lynn’s life. The title track introduces the story of how we were graced the presence of Lynn in the first place while “Story Of My Life” is an excellent wrap-up of not only a fantastic album, but of Lynn’s life thus far. Personally, this is one of my favorite albums ever, and while it seems odd recommending something so late in an artist’s career as a good starting point into their discography (and life), Van Lear Rose excellent captures who Lynn was, is and is going to be.
Album highlights: All of them, particularly “Portland, Oregon (w/ Jack White),” “Women’s Prison,” “Little Red Shoes,” “Mrs. Leroy Brown” and “Miss Being Mrs.”