Van Lear Rose

Van Lear Rose, by any standards, is one of the most remarkable albums of the year.

Ten years ago Loretta Lynn, country legend and coal miner's daughter, was effectively retired from the music business. Five years ago, Jack White was putting out the first independent garage-rock album as The White Stripes. Lynn had something like 40 hit singles to her credit before White was even born.

But even so, their pairing on Lynn's album--she as singer and songwriter, he as producer and guitarist--works magnificently.

These sorts of collaborations--when an older star teams up with a hip, young musician to create music that might appeal to both audiences--can easily be a train wreck. The older star might end up looking foolish and shamelessly pandering for a wider audience, and the younger musician can reveal themselves to be completely ignorant of what comprises the other's appeal in the first place.

This doesn't, even remotely, occur on Van Lear Rose. Despite the unique rock-country fusion that White creates for the music, Lynn never strays from her straightforward style in either the songwriting or her singing. And White portrays an intuitive understanding about why Lynn is such a powerful and effective presence.

In short, the two are together unexpectedly complimentary and harmonious.

Even on "Portland, Oregon" or "Have Mercy"--two of the albums more rocking tracks--Lynn never sounds grafted on to the Led Zeppelin-esque backing tracks that are the hallmark of Jack White's usual style.

Other songs sound so classically Nashville, you'd never know an indie-rock critics-darling like Jack White was behind the sound board. The barn-dance ready stomper "High on a Mountain," for example, or the steel guitar-drenched "Trouble on the Line."

And Lynn's songwriting is sharp as ever, from the autobiographical to the distinctively fictitious. "Miss Being Mrs." is a touching ode to her late husband, who died in 1996. "Women's Prison," meanwhile, is the story of a woman who killed her husband and is now on death row.

Other notable tracks include "Little Red Shoes," where Lynn recounts an unpolished and off-the-cuff sounding tale of her difficult childhood and the story behind a previous song lyric while White weaves an intriguing sonic landscape behind Lynn's hypnotic speaking voice.

Van Lear Rose is a marvelous album from start to finish, and it's one of 2004's most essential CDs.

- by Mike Sauter, WYEP Music Director