Tuesday, October 5, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1509: Loretta Lynn

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey. I just watched part of an episode of “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” while eating dinner, which is appropriate, since this next album went and fooled me.

Disc 1509 is….  Van Lear Rose

Artist: Loretta Lynn

Year of Release: 2004

What’s up with the Cover? Ms. Loretta Lynn herself, looking absolutely resplendent in a seafoam dress. With guitar in hand she looks ready to get married, and then play at her own reception.

How I Came To Know It: This record got a lot of hype because of the Jack White connection. I heard a couple of tracks and decided it was worth giving it a shot.

How It Stacks Up: This is my only Loretta Lynn album, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

Loretta Lynn has been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember. My mom had a bunch of her records, and I grew up listening to her tales of love, heartache and threadbare poverty. “Van Lear Rose” came out a good twenty-five to thirty years later but captures every bit of the vitality of those early records of my childhood.

In fact, this record sounds so timeless and classic, it messed me up, and left me convinced I’d known these specific songs as a kid. So convinced, in fact, that I spent a good amount of time trying to prove myself right. Despite some intensive Googling, I couldn’t find a single cover. It was downright unnerving, and more than a little humbling. A good reminder that no matter how certain something may seem, we all kneel before the power of cognitive dissonance.

I hope I can be forgiven my error, which was made a lot easier by just how good these songs are. Any one of them could have been a Loretta Lynn chart topper back in the sixties or seventies.

Back then, Lynn wrote unabashed songs about love not only failing, but failing ugly, with songs like “Fist City” where she threatens her husband’s mistress with a beating. “Family Tree” is the natural inheritor, but this time no fight is in the offing. As Lynn notes:

“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, no
Bring out the babies' daddy, that's who they've come to see
Not the woman that's burnin' down our family tree.”

The song is a sequel right down to the trash metaphors, (“Fist City” goes with “But the man I love/When he picks up trash/He puts it in a garbage can”). 35 years later, she holds both the cheater and the mistress equally below her contempt.

Lynn has variations on the theme throughout “Van Lear Rose,” including the sadness of broken communication (“Trouble on the Line”), a “Fist City” style barroom beatdown (“Mrs. Leroy Brown”) and a decision to graduate from fisticuffs to full-blown murder (“Women’s Prison”). Lynn has always told her stories from the perspective of unapologetic women, but in her maturity the dirtbag men that inspire her ire fade even farther into the background. On “Women’s Prison” the tragedy is not the murder of the philandering husband that inspires the tragedy, so much as the mother crying out as she loses her daughter to the electric chair.

Lynn also revisits themes of the poverty of her youth. That poverty is a long way in the rearview mirror by 2004, but on songs like “High on a Mountain Top” you can hear loud and clear how those early experiences continue to shape her worldview. Covering this same theme with less success is the spoken-word piece “Little Red Shoes.” You can tell Lynn likes telling another story about the struggle to afford shoes as a kid, but it feels trite and out of place amid the amazing melodies and vocals elsewhere on the record.

For all that poverty and heartbreak, it is the celebratory title track that steals the show. “Van Lear Rose” is a traditional “how I met your mother” song that celebrates good old-fashioned love at first sight. Like a lot of Loretta Lynn songs, it is a simple tale that she fills with colour and texture.

Loretta Lynn’s vocals hold up beautifully, with that mix of sweetness and quaver that rightfully made her famous. Added to this, Jack White throws in flourishes of his country blues stylings. They mesh particularly well on “Portland, Oregon” another love song that is a lot more ribald than “Van Lear Rose” but no less heartfelt. White’s work on the electric guitar is the perfect addition here, hazing up the song with boozy wisdom. Love at first sight, but this time with the aid of pitchers full of gin fizz.

White’s production is brilliant overall, as he adds flourishes here and there but never messes with the purity of Lynn’s songwriting. He never forgets that if you’re looking at Loretta Lynn, you’re lookin’ at country. The result is a record that is fresh and new, but feels so familiar it is like you’ve heard it a hundred times. You may even convince yourself you have.

Best tracks: Van Lear Rose, Portland Oregon, Family Tree, High on a Mountain Top, Women’s Prison, Mrs. Leroy Brown

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey! Thanks for this reminder of Loretta Lynn. I had a good time listening to some of her classics last night. She sure can sing about heartache.