I’m never quite sure what I’m going to order until I find myself saying “a sloe gin fizz please” or “white beer” or whatever – and – if the bar is somewhere like Wapping – the sloe gin arrives and I wonder why I suddenly thought of it. “Well sloe gin fizz works mighty fast / when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass” sings Lynn on “Portland, Oregon”, a duet with Jack White. Particular drinks mentioned in songs suggest themselves insidiously – think of that “rum and coca-cola” from “Common People” or “one bourbon, one scotch and one beer.” In Van Lear Rose there are other particular things and places mixed with the sloe gin: a pink limousine, a women’s prison, a Kentucky coal mine, a ruined house, a chapel, a little girl’s favourite red shoes. You can just press play and walk right into this particular world.
Jack White has long admired Lynn’s work and now he gets to produce, play guitar, sing, and hang out with her. The result is a crossing of two very distinct musical personalities – the kind of collaboration which too often ends in “a wasted opportunity” – with spectacular success. The songs are prime Country – but they’re invigorated by Jack White who shakes things up.
His punk sensibility joins perfectly with Lynn’s feisty singing. Johnny Cash’s stripped-down American Recordings series was a return to form; Parton has returned to bluegrass roots for Little Sparrow and Haloes and Horns – but Lynn has done something more interesting: actually forged something new.
The title track opens and it’s a perfect upbeat ballad, the backing band culled from other groups – dubbed The Do-Whaters by Lynn because they could do anything she asked – is loose and rackety and full of energy. Lynn’s voice is an expressive whisper then a full-lung assault with a Kentucky lilt as she tells this story of the beautiful girl who came to town – the Van Lear Rose “a diamond in the coal” – and took the hearts of all the men.
The lyrics are worthy of Tom Waits in ballad-mode, the performance full of vitality. Then a duet with Jack White rattles on (he’s eclipsed by her) as they recount a night of seduction in Oregon. Then the punk guitars take a holiday for “Trouble On The Line”, a song that comes straight from the Country cliché of the woeful lover incommunicado – but it’s done so subtly and plaintively that one feels that, yes, one does need a song with lyrics such as “your thoughts are not like mine / Oh Lord there’s trouble on the line” every now and again. In any writing I look for an attentiveness to language and Lynn, for the most part, does stud her songs with little turns of phrase, but it’s directness she wants above all.
The drum-beat Gospel of “Have Mercy” rocks hard, and then “High On A Mountain Top” comes with a sing-a-long chorus and a folk feel as Lynn sings “Where I come from the mountain flowers grow wild / The blue grass sways like it’s goin out of style” while a fiddle joins in the fun. Then comes the unexpected triumph of the set, “Little Red Shoes”, in which Jack White creates a swirl of acoustic guitar over which Loretta relates a childhood memory, speaking in her lovely voice, a story about a near-death episode and her little red shoes – it opens “Daddy always kept a big stick beside the door, just in case someone came in, y’know, drunk on moonshine.” – and it reminded me of Travis’ monologue in the climactic mirror scene of Paris, Texas mixed with Ry Cooder’s sparse and utterly American noodlings.
Highlights of the album’s second half include the honky-tonk stomp of Mrs Leroy Brown and the clever widow’s lament Miss Being Mrs – “I took off my wedding band / and put it on my right hand”. This is a lovingly-crafted and very fine album: Lynn’s trick of being jubilant and understated continues on into a new decade and retains its charm even “in the morning when the night had sobered up.”