The Hipster and the Harridan Queen

The fact that she punched out her date prevented Loretta Lynn from winning the prom queen's tiara. But the guitar was a great consolation prize.
Russ Harrington

Wallet-chain-and-sideburn types looking for country-fried cred tend to forget that Loretta Lynn played the designation "First Lady of Country Music" for keeps: No president's wife in our lifetime had such queenly style. The onetime honky-tonk girl parlayed her early, dirty Decca Records success into a run of sensational hits that shrewdly deep-sixed the martyrly baby-come-back style of the period's country female singing. No, it was upside-your-head all the way for the girl from Butcher Hollow; the message was a flinty determination (I'm raisin' these kids right no matter what) mixed with unheard-of disgust at the Better Half's boozing, whoring, and La-Z-Boy attitude (I bet you couldn't stand up right now if you wanted to) that gave female country fans something they'd never had before. And a generation of wannabes followed Mrs. Lynn all the way to the bank.

It's somewhere in the early Conway Twitty era that things start getting...regal. Grandiloquent. Lynn's gowns get longer still, and then seem to need castrati to hold up the train. Though some of the duets are masterly--re-listen to the rawness of the ache on "As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone"--the sassy firebrand exits and the Establishment icon arrives. How quickly we forget, in our search for the authenticity of old-school, that those deadbeat dads and limp-dick drunkos came back to haunt Mrs. Lynn like a Freudian return of the repressed, by way of the outlaw movement that reanimated country in the late '70s, spurred on by the darker side of Merle Haggard and the county-jail-shithouse scuzz of David Allan Coe. Spiritually toxic and proud, these males' output plays like a long rant on a squad-car hood during the application of the cuffs. These fucked-up guys sure hated Nashville, but it doesn't take a master shrink to see that their greatest rage was against the--literal and figurative--Queen.

The outlaw skein is largely the one fetishized by American hipsters who dabble in country. It climaxed in a double act of baptism: the hip-hop kingpin Rick Rubin's rescue of Johnny Cash from the valley of the damned (and himself from obsolescence). Rubin's four spare, elegant American Recordings of Cash stand now as a testament--a diplomatic mission from what Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America" in a very fallen world. Mourning the absence of Cash, the hipoisie is currently hunting for more realness to engulf and devour. And they seem to have found realness at Loretta Lynn's dude ranch in Hurricane Falls, Tennessee.

Lynn's new album Van Lear Rose (Interscope) has been so thoroughly and wide-reachingly drizzled in hipster sauce it might as well be renamed Von Dutch Rose. If the album's producer--that famous mystic, self-mythologizer, and white-soul testifier Jack White--were more of a gentleman than he is, he would have made a record that Loretta's country fans could enjoy, too. One can only imagine the puzzled looks when sixtyish fans of "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" hit play and discover a mix of overloud guitars and claustral, basementy boxiness that resembles a deep-battered Exile on Main Street.

Loretta Lynn's voice--which stretches only from a babyish burble to a tantrummy long wail, notable more for its unguarded emotion than its strength or suspension--is well served by the smooth, embossed surfaces of old-school Nashville production. A classic Lynn song takes a melodramatic situation and nails it in place with a single, gimmicky yet haunting image; the vocal delivery system adds a sprinkle of sardonic, hardnosed humor to a lavalike outpouring of rage or grief. For that alchemy to work, the unpolished girl from Kentucky must, still, be the Queen. Cash could be regal in Rick Rubin's ruins, but Mrs. Lynn cannot be royal in Jack White's basement. Surrounded by alien and inapt garage-band trappings, she comes to seem poignantly, unselfconsciously kitschy, like Tony Bennett trotted out in the '90s for kids who wished they'd lived in a time when men wore aftershave.

Jack White's would-be-gutbucket style works with the neo-honkytonk style of Lynn's "Have Mercy," a simple return-to-roots number; White backs off the grime in the classically constructed "Trouble on the Line;" and to be fair, Lynn's duet with White, "Portland Oregon," succeeds powerfully--on his terms. But what is the producer doing when he lays down three minutes of Lee Ranaldo fuzz as a stream-of-consciousness Mrs. Lynn rambles on about a childhood illness, as if entering a second childhood? (Did White consciously emulate the effect of Loretta-like Ronee Blakley's public meltdown in Nashville?) In the liner notes, Lynn remarks of the producer-arranger, "I can see a little of Owen Bradley in that young man!" Was she referring to her notorious scuffle with Bradley over his "Loretta-izing" production of "I Remember Patsy"--a secret signal that Lynn, too, is aware White was trying to turn her into a footnote to himself?

Those looking for a many-sided portrait of the Ages of Loretta should check out the 1994 multidisc set Honky Tonk Girl. Van Lear Rose is music for those aspiring to, and failing to reach, the condition of the post-ironic.

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