My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Van Lear Rose’

Van Lear Rose was to Loretta Lynn what the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings were to Johnny Cash: a late-career release that earned almost universal critical acclaim and a resurgence in popularity. Released in 2004 and produced by Jack White of The White Stripes, it blends elements of alternative rock with Loretta’s brand of traditional country, and if nothing else, it is a bold experiment in bucking the mainstream musical trends of the 2000s. Loretta was the sole songwriter on twelve of the album’s thirteen tracks, and co-wrote the remaining track (“Little Red Shoes”) with White, marking the first time in her career that she had a hand in writing every song on an album.

Unfortunately, I can’t include myself in the considerably large camp that loves this album. While I don’t actively dislike it, I don’t share most critics’ opinion that the musical styles of Lynn and White always mesh well. The songs themselves are all solid and well written. The production is both the album’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw. White made a conscious effort to avoid the slick, cookie-cutter type of production that had become prevalent in 21st century Nashville, and for that I applaud him. However, at times the album is not quite polished enough, sounding like it was recorded in someone’s garage, and on a few occasions, White’s production choices are a distraction that overwhelm Loretta’s vocal performance, badly marring otherwise very good songs.

The title track is a perfect case in point. It tells the story of the courtship of Loretta’s parents. It starts off fairly quietly with Loretta singing with an electric guitar accompaniment. By the second verse, drums and some steel guitar licks are added to the mix. While not guilty of overproduction, it’s a tad too loud. I would have preferred a quieter, more acoustic arrangement similar to the treatment that “Miss Being Mrs.”, a song that appears near the end of the album, receives. On this track, Loretta talks about her loneliness that comes with widowhood, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. The stripped-down arrangement is quite effective, and “Miss Being Mrs.” is easily the highlight of the album.

Another track on which the production becomes overwhelming is “Have Mercy”. While not lyrically deep, it’s a good song in which Loretta gives a remarkable vocal performance that finds her sounding much younger than her nearly 70 years, but it is ruined by the loud, indulgent rock-tinged production that dominates the final 40 or so seconds of the song. But perhaps the best example of the production getting in the way of the song is “Little Red Shoes.” On this track, the lyrics are spoken, rather than sung. It recalls a story that Loretta told in her second memoir, about a serious illness she suffered when she was a year old, and a pair of red shoes that Loretta’s desperate mother shoplifted because she couldn’t afford to buy them for her daughter. The poignancy of the story is totally lost due to White’s cluttered production which seems to be competing with, rather than accompanying, Lynn’s storytelling. It’s my least favorite track on the album, along with “Portland, Oregon”, a duet with Jack White that on which Loretta strays farther from her country roots than she ever had in the past. This track is not to my taste at all; it was downright jarring the first time I listened to it, but I’m apparently in the minority since the song won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals in 2005.

The remaining songs on the album are more conventional. It’s easy to imagine “God Makes No Mistakes” , “Women’s Prison”, “Trouble On The Line” and “Mrs Leroy Brown” appearing on Loretta’s 1970s albums, albeit in more polished form. “Family Tree” finds her treading familiar territory, confronting the other woman in her husband’s life. Unlike songs like “Fist City” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”, “Family Tree” reveals a more mature Loretta, who isn’t looking for a fight this time around:

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.
Bring out the babies’ daddy, that’s who they’ve come to see
Not the woman that’s burnin’ down our family tree

In addition to the aforementioned Grammy for Best Country Collaboration for Vocals, Van Lear Rose won the 2005 Grammy for Best Country Album. It reached #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, making it Loretta’s highest charting album since 1977’s I Remember Patsy, which also peaked at #2. Van Lear Rose also reached #24 on the Billboard 200, becoming the most successful crossover album of Loretta’s career, despite receiving no support from mainstream country radio.

Though Van Lear Rose is not my favorite Loretta Lynn album, both Loretta and Jack White deserve credit for their willingness to experiment instead of delivering a phoned-in performance, as many artists at this stage of their careers might have done. I have never tried harder to like an album than I have with this one. I thought that with repeated listenings, I’d come to appreciate it as much as everyone else seems to, but I’ve come to accept that many of the production choices are just not to my taste. If “Little Red Shoes” and “Portland, Oregon” could have been thrown out, and Owen Bradley brought back from the dead to produce the remaining tracks, I probably would have loved it. However, despite its flaws, it is an important entry in Loretta’s discography and stands as a testament to the fact that it’s never too late to break the mold and experiment a little.

Van Lear Rose is readily available from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B-

23 responses to “Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Van Lear Rose’

  1. Ken Johnson April 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

    First of all, I am a HUGE Loretta Lynn fan.

    That said, this is absolutely the WORST album Loretta ever made and it could easily be one of the top ten worst country albums of all time. Perhaps the concept sounded good on paper but sonically what a mess! Loretta’s earliest recordings for the Zero label circa 1960 are more enjoyable to listen to and have better production values than this album does.

    The SONGS should have been given a much better showcase than this garage-band experiment. Too bad Loretta wasn’t teamed with T. Bone Burnett or Ricky Skaggs or Alison Krauss who would’ve had a sense of Loretta’s history and framed her voice with instrumentation and a mix that befits her legendary status. They could have brought Loretta into the 21st century with freshness and class.

    At the time it was released I wondered if the reviewers who gave such glowing comments had previously ruined their hearing by listening to loud rock/punk music. Perhaps they were completely stoned when they first heard it. There are few CD’s that I’ve listened to ONCE and never again. This is one of them.

    If you ever wanted proof that the folks who vote for the Grammy Awards probably never really listen to the nominated music, this is it. How could anyone listen to this mess and consider it award-winning? And have you ever noticed that folks who really don’t like or know anything about country music always seem to think that country music is always better if it sounds like rock or pop music? They never realize that people who truly love country music do so BECAUSE it does not sound like other genres. Otherwise, we would not be COUNTRY MUSIC fans to begin with!

    Loretta should have all of the master copies of this ill conceived project destroyed so they will not survive to tarnish her legendary status for future generations. Her Decca/MCA recordings will serve as her ultimate legacy.

  2. Paul W Dennis April 30, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    While I am not as harsh a critic of this album as Ken Johnson, I too think it is highly overpraised. For me the biggest issue is that her voice is shot. For me, the door for Loretta closed about 20 years ago and I will purchase nothing new by her – I prefer to remember her vocals as they were , not as they are now (I feel the same way about latter Sinatra recordings) .

    I would like to her these songs tackled by another singer with 60s/70s style country backing

    • Razor X April 30, 2010 at 3:08 pm

      That’s how I feel about George Jones; it’s painful to listen to him sing now, so I won’t bother with anything new from him. I haven’t reached that point with Loretta, Haggard or Nelson yet, though there is no denying that all of them are past their vocal peak.

      • Erik April 30, 2010 at 3:27 pm

        To me, it doesn’t matter if the singers are past their “vocal peaks” – as long as they can still carry a tune, which Loretta can. Reba for instance is way past her vocal peak, and the diminishing of the power of her voice is admittedly not fun to witness, but she is FAR from the stage where she cannot sing anymore.

        Loretta sounded just fine to me on Van Lear Rose, even though she’d lost a lot of the clarity of her earlier days.

  3. Leeann Ward April 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Like Razor, I respect this album on some level, but it’s not one that I could personally get into on a sonic level.

  4. Michael April 30, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Believe it or not, Van Lear Rose was the first Loretta Lynn album I ever purchased. “Portland, Oregon” drew me in. Of course I had heard so many of her classic, earlier singles but this was the first one that got me to purchase an album. I’ve still never dug deep into her catalog the way I have for Dolly, Emmylou, etc., but I’ve learned a lot more about her over the past month. Before this month, I pretty much only knew her for Van Lear Rose, her monster singles and a guest appearance on Roseanne. Looking forward to the announcement of May’s Spotlight Artist tomorrow!

    • Julia C H (Theoretical Country) April 30, 2010 at 7:02 pm

      Like Michael, this is also the album that first drew me to Loretta Lynn. I grew up watching Coal Miner’s Daughter as almost a monthly ritual but I never really delved into her back catalog until Van Lear Rose was released and it is only recently that I have made a substantial effort to procure more of her original material.

      • Occasional Hope May 1, 2010 at 4:18 am

        I guess the album did its job in reminding a new audience of Loretta with you two at least, although I agree with Razor about its intrinsic quality.

      • J.R. Journey May 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm

        It must be a generational thing. We grew up with Loretta Lynn as an icon and knew her music as huge pop culture hits. This was also the first studio album I bought from Loretta Lynn as well. I had several hits albums, my favorite being the Country Music Hall of Fame collection, but I hadn’t really gone back into her catalog yet in 2004.

  5. Razor X April 30, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Reba for instance is way past her vocal peak …

    Sez who?

    • J.R. Journey April 30, 2010 at 10:19 pm

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. I’ve noticed she doesn’t reach for the power notes she once did, but I think she could still hit them if she wanted. And she does when she wants to. She’s only 54, a little early for the voice to start deteriorating anyway, unless she were a pack-a-day smoker for 20+ years like Lorrie Morgan.

    • Erik May 1, 2010 at 4:03 am

      Sez I. Like J.R. said, she doesn’t hit the power notes to the same extent anymore, only I think she’s trying to. She’s lost some of the pure power of her “Starting Over” days, and personally I feel like some of the pleasant warmth to her voice is gone. And 54 is not early for vocal deterioration, as female voices tend to peak around 40 or even earlier – Mariah Carey, for instance can barely sing anymore, and she’s only 40.

  6. Razor X May 1, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Mariah Carey, for instance can barely sing anymore, and she’s only 40.

    That’s because oversinging can ruin a voice.

    • J.R. Journey May 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      Oversinging is what Reba was doing in her Starting Over days and just because she doesn’t do that anymore doesn’t mean she can’t. I’m glad she doesn’t approach every song with the intention of singing to the ceiling. Not every song is meant to be performed at full-volume. Reba’s oversinging, while not nearly as rampant as some artists, was apparently only a phase, and now she’s past it. And just as a side note: I like the Starting Over album a lot more than most folks, and I think it has some of her best vocal performances of her career, but it is also the best example of how, at times, even the best singers like Reba are prone to an overdramatic vocal delivery.

      I was always amazed at Reba’s vocal power, but there are times when her performances are loud for no apparent reason. Never as much as some (Martina, Carrie), but Reba has been known to record a screamfest or two in her day as well.

      And as to Loretta’s vocals, I agree they lack the clarity and control she once had on this album. With Loretta, we didn’t really get to hear the progression of her voice going because she all but stopped recording during that time. Loretta wasn’t singing at full-power on Still Country, recorded in 1998. The most recent album I’ve heard that you can find Loretta still in her vocal prime is the ’93 Honky Tonk Angels record with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette.

      • Razor X May 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

        Most of the songs Reba has done lately are not “belt it out” kind of songs like a lot of her 90s material. She’s singing at the lower end of her register, which doesn’t really do her voice justice.

      • Michael May 1, 2010 at 4:18 pm

        Starting Over (and “On My Own” in particular) is a guilty pleasure of mine too.

  7. Razor X May 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    It must be a generational thing. We grew up with Loretta Lynn as an icon and knew her music as huge pop culture hits.

    Meaning us old geezers just don’t “get it”? 😉

    • J.R. Journey May 1, 2010 at 3:15 pm

      Ha. I was just pointing out that since Loretta Lynn wasn’t making any new radio hits when we came to listen to country music, we had to actively seek out her material.

      But yeah, it’s because we aren’t old enough to have been around for her hit-making days.

  8. Dan Milliken May 1, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I’m a big fan of the album as whole, because I feel like the loose, somewhat Gothic sound paints Loretta’s life experiences with more depth than her old bouncy production tended to (even though none of these songs are quite as good as her best hits). But I do agree that White’s experiments don’t always work. I think “Portland, Oregon” is well-executed, but “Have Mercy” feels kind of pointlessly loud, and “Little Red Shoes” definitely needed to have its levels adjusted (I like the guitar track, but have to strain to make out the story).

  9. erika young September 21, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    I love all of lorreta lynns music, and she is the queen of country. I remember my mom (thelma) saying she met loretta lynn at a country bar and she always was playing her guitar. My mom said that loretta lynn was always calling her name Thelma!Thelma. I wonder do loretta lynn remembers that, well my mother is dead now, but i was really happy with the stories my mom told ne about loretta lynn, and every time the movie Coal Miners Daughter comes on, i watch it. God Bless Loretta Lynn.

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