Jack White, in a skintight, red cowboy suit with white fringe, seemed a little nervous when he came out to introduce his opening act. So nervous, in fact, that the White Stripes frontman offered a cautionary preface of sorts to the massive huddle of young fans at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York last April.
"Now I want you all to be very nice to my next guest. I think she's the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century," he said. The crowd looked around at each other, visibly puzzled, and one teenager near the stage asked aloud: "Who is this Loretta Lynn chick, anyway?"
That's a good question, one that Loretta Lynn's fans and particularly the uninitiated are bound to ask when Lynn's new album comes out today. After more than 40 years in country music, Loretta Lynn has nothing to prove, but on "Van Lear Rose," she has reinvented herself.
In White, Lynn has found her Rick Rubin. Finally. Much like the producer who revitalized the late Johnny Cash's career with spare, homespun recordings, White has raised the notion of Loretta Lynn as a hip, renegade country artist. The transformation is of the same magnitude as Emmylou Harris's ethereal work with Daniel Lanois in the mid-'90s and even Dolly Parton's lauded return to traditional bluegrass. All of which means the new CD, easily one of Lynn's best albums, is likely to bring critical acclaim coupled with mass appeal.
Lynn, 70, wrote all of the songs on "Van Lear Rose," something she hasn't done in decades, and she has plenty on her mind: memories of her mother (for whom the album is named); two-timing men; murder; God; and a new life on her own. Her husband of 48 years, Doolittle, died in 1996, and "Miss Being Mrs." ("I took off my wedding band/ And put it on my right hand") is a tender take on widowhood.
None of the songs sounds geared for radio, and that's a plus. Mike Brophey, program director at Boston's Country 99.5 FM, says the album is "consistent in that the music is good, but there's also a lot of variety." In this case, variety means a rock 'n' roll sheen in the arrangements, which still complement her folksy lyrics. It's a new direction that Brophey says won't be a gamble for Lynn. "I don't think it will alienate her fans because they're already pretty hard-core, but I don't know about it picking up new fans -- I think it could happen."
That said, Brophey acknowledges that the station probably won't play it. "Loretta doesn't have any national chart success right now, and we tend to be more of a chart-driven station," he says. "If it gets enough attention and press, there's a chance we'll pick it up." (At least one Boston station plans to air it. Oedipus, program director at WBCN-FM (104.1), says he'll play the album on his Sunday night show, "Nocturnal Emissions.")
White, along with his bandmate, Meg White (who has sung Lynn's "Rated X" in concert), is the ultimate Lynn fan. To hear Lynn tell it on her website, she and the White Stripes have been fast friends since the band dedicated its "White Blood Cells" album to her in 2001. That led to a meeting over homemade (as in Lynn in the kitchen) chicken and dumplings at her Tennessee ranch.
As a producer, arranger, and occasional duet partner, Jack White brings a lean approach to the dynamic between the instruments and Lynn's voice. Long gone are the slick production and radio-friendly melodies of Lynn's last album, 2000's "Still Country." His insistence on recording vocals in one take leaves Lynn sounding honest, heartrending, and raw.
It's hard to imagine any female country singer, aside from maybe Wanda Jackson, sounding as fiery and hungry as Lynn on the blistering "Have Mercy." And she's still feisty enough to knock her man's mistress straight to Fist City, as she proves on "Family Tree" when she sings to the other woman, "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."
By the time she recounts her long career in "Story of My Life," including a mention of the film based on her life, "Coal Miner's Daughter" ("It was a big hit, made a big splash/ What I wanna know is what happened to the cash"), you have to wonder: Who is this Loretta Lynn chick, anyway?