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Blue Kentucky Grrl

Loretta Lynn's America

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If alternate universes exist, I'd like to think there's a world where Lou Reed never met John Cale. Instead, the Velvet Underground was formed by Jerry Reed and J.J. Cale, and they set up shop in Nashville, or Austin, or maybe Bakersfield. They didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one went on to form a country band of his own. On that Earth, it's Bobbie Gentry, not Patti Smith, who recorded Horses; it's Townes van Zandt, not Richard Hell, who fronted the Voidoids. The Clash is a Texas punk band led by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and no one is mystified on learning that CBGB stands for "Country, Bluegrass and Blues."

An artifact from that universe has just fallen into our world. Loretta Lynn's new CD, Van Lear Rose, was produced and arranged by Jack White of the Detroit rock band the White Stripes, who also plays guitar on the album and sometimes adds his vocals; the result feels like the lost bridge between Dolly Parton and the Stooges. Summarizing his approach for No Depression magazine, White said he was thinking, "Let's just let Loretta and that steel guitar be country, and whatever else happens—happens." What happened is the best CD to reach my ears in years, and I'll be amazed if a better one is released in 2004. It's the finest music Lynn has written and recorded since the '70s—indeed, some of the finest music she's created in her career. It's selling well and even getting some airplay, so I suspect I'm not the only one who likes it.

Like many country singers, Loretta Lynn evades easy stereotypes. Those who've tried to suss out the complicated politics of Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash might throw up their hands at Lynn, whose frank reports from the battle between the sexes hew too closely to real life to fit anyone's ideological abstractions. The woman who wrote "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath," "Don't Come Home a-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)," and "The Pill"—and who recorded Shel Silverstein's "One's On the Way"—ought to be a feminist icon. Then again, for every "Don't Come Home a-Drinkin'" aimed at the wayward husband, there was a "Fist City" aimed at the other woman; Lynn's lyrics long for an intact and stable family, not for the spirit of sisterhood. Furthermore, her angry songs and her love songs were generally inspired by the same man: her late husband Oliver "Mooney" Lynn, whom she married at age 13 and was still wed to when he died 48 years later. Many feminists who might admire Lynn's songs would also be amazed that, for all their clashes, she was able to forgive Mooney's tomcatting and abuse, to stay with him for half a century, even to try to name a town after him when he died.

Such ambiguities are strewn through the new album. "High on the Mountaintop" paints an idealized portrait of her Appalachian home—but it's followed immediately by the autobiographical "Little Red Shoes," a dreamlike memoir of rural poverty that begins with the 11-month-old Loretta getting accidentally struck with a big stick her family kept "behind the door, just in case somebody was to come in that was drunk on moonshine"; it ends with Lynn's father fleeing the police with the shoes his wife just shoplifted. "God Makes No Mistakes" repeats the familiar country theme that every tragedy fits God's plan, but once it melts into the next track—"Women's Prison," a song with the exact same melody—we're hearing an existential tale from death row, one where all the choices were made by human beings, the outcome is hard to reconcile with any divine purpose, and the only hints of God's hand come from the priest reading the prisoner's last rites ("He says dying's part of living") and her mother singing "Amazing Grace." And one of Lynn's great angry-woman songs, the raucous "Mrs. Leroy Brown," is followed here by "Miss Being Mrs.," a lament for her lost husband.

This year especially, we've heard a lot of casual stereotypes about Red America and Blue America. Genuine cultural differences are transformed into two rigid models, and the crossovers and exceptions are forgotten or ignored. Against that backdrop, Lynn is a reminder that life is never so bland or so simple. She's both traditionalist and feminist, both clear-eyed and nostalgic, and now she's recorded an album that is both unmistakably punk and undeniably country. Somewhere in another world, Messieurs Reed and Cale are nodding with recognition.