The only bright side to the country-music industry's determination to ignore its old-guard stars is that it makes their comebacks that much more meaningful. Following Johnny Cash's example, artists from Dolly Parton to Merle Haggard have spent the last decade making a virtue of the senior ghetto, retrenching and rediscovering what made them great the first time around. Now it's Loretta Lynn's turn, and from the first note of Van Lear Rose, it's clear she has no intention of blowing it.
Beginning in the early '60s, Lynn scored hit after hit with songs that touched on sexual politics, romantic dissatisfaction, Vietnam, and God with a frankness that earned admiration and occasional controversy. Lynn's life story became the subject of the bestselling autobiography and hit film Coal Miner's Daughter, but she's recorded only sporadically since falling off the country charts in the '80s and losing her husband in the '90s. Her last album, 2000's Still Country, sounded timid, and the song selection bore the stamp of too many merely competent Nashville tunesmiths.
Lynn wrote all the songs on Van Lear Rose (collaborating on two of them), and each bears her unmistakable stamp: Hers is a world of wronged, lonely women, a past that's a source of both nostalgia and pain, and an unwavering faith in a God that gives the hardship meaning. Lynn's best material has always been her own, and with this album, she's found a sympathetic producer, arranger, bandleader, and occasional duet partner in longtime fan Jack White. Stripping off the Nashville polish, White molds the songs to Lynn's personality, crafting swooping drama from the sentimental title track, letting "Have Mercy" take the form of soul-baring rockabilly blues, and bathing the wronged-woman tale "Family Tree" in steel guitar and strings. It's the perfect accompaniment, and yet with its free mix of back-porch casualness and '60s countrypolitan sophistication, it sounds like nothing Lynn's recorded before. As a songwriter and vocalist, Lynn thrives in this environment. She sounds as secure on the jokingly autobiographical "Story Of My Life" as she does plunging into the death-row drama of "Women's Prison."
In one of Van Lear Rose's most oddly affecting moments, White puts a musical backing to one of the rambling, autobiographical tales that have long been a staple of Lynn's live sets (and the inspiration for some of Nashville's most unsettling scenes). It could have sounded uncomfortable, but instead, it sounds like the work of a fan getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shine the spotlight on a favorite artist, eccentricities and all. Given a chance to be herself, Lynn responds with a powerful return to form. White seems likely to be sharing his love with a bunch of new fans soon.