Van Lear Rose
Conventional wisdom has it that country music is a more conservative genre than rock, and in some senses that's true--you'll hear worse things said about George W. Bush from the stage at a rock club any night of the week than Natalie Maines has come out with in her whole life. But for all its ritualized nods to the past, these days mainstream country seems to care less for its own tradition than rock does. It's gotten to where a top-notch songwriter like Robbie Fulks has been shut out of Nashville for not keeping up with its trends and a venerable master like Johnny Cash sounds most like his old self when he leapfrogs out of the genre to cover Nick Cave or Trent Reznor.
Meanwhile, some of the most exciting young rock bands around don't seem terribly interested in music made during their lifetimes--Cincinnati's Thee Shams are channeling 60s garage heroes like the Shadows of Knight, and Boston's Mr. Airplane Man don't wanna hear from anybody born after Howlin' Wolf (though when they're slumming they'll throw a bone to the Cramps or Captain Beefheart). Jack White sits atop this wave of retro fervor, and to see him playing producer, arranger, and guitarist to Loretta Lynn, a country music icon old enough to be his grandmother (or great-grandmother, if everybody down the line got the early start she did) has a certain rightness to it. (The ad hoc backing band, the Do Whaters, also features members of the Greenhornes.) Lynn had all but retired in the 90s, a victim of the same "new country" fashions that have thwarted Fulks, but on Van Lear Rose she sounds rejuvenated. The traditions White holds most dear may not be country traditions, but on this album that hardly seems to make a difference: when these two play together, decades are like pages to be flipped past, skimmed, dog-eared, or ripped from the book.
Postmodernism might be what makes this fusion of retro rock and old-fashioned country possible, but such a cynical philosophy can't account for the idealism of the music on Van Lear Rose. This is the genre that might exist if rock and country had never gone their separate ways, driven apart by political, social, and market forces. It's as if Vegas never got its claws into the skinny Elvis, as if truck stops in the south never refused to serve hippies, as if the Sex Pistols never got into any bar brawls in Texas. The record posits a world where rural folk don't fear the sinfulness of urban life and city dwellers don't hear "Dueling Banjos" in their heads when they drive through the hills. One album can't heal that rift in any realm other than the metaphorical, but it's nice to know that people want to believe it can be done: Van Lear Rose, which came out in late April, debuted higher on the Billboard country chart than any of Lynn's previous releases, and there's no way White Stripes fans account for all those extra sales.
I googled far and wide to find a bad review of this record, or even a lukewarm one--I wanted to see if anybody could talk me out of my uncritical affection for it. No luck. And the lovefest doesn't stop with the music press: Lynn writes in the liner notes that White reminds her of her first producer, the late Owen Bradley, and White's on record calling her "the best female singer-songwriter of the 20th century." The whole situation seems to be crying out for a contrarian viewpoint, but it ain't gonna come from me--this isn't a high school forensics club, where you can win a debate by arguing a position you don't believe in. White's raw, simple production style (the album was recorded in a living room, and you can hear the amps buzzing) is the same sort of approach I get tired of hearing about from indie-rock vintage-gear fetishists, but applied to Lynn's ageless, nimble voice, it's a revelation--or rather a reminder.
Most of White's generation doesn't remember that country, rockabilly, and rock were once siblings--that rock was once the music of the kids who left for the city to find their fortunes and country the music of the kids who stayed home. (It bears mentioning that I'm talking mostly about white kids here.) It used to be that the two genres exerted a kind of sympathetic pull on each other, but that old duality has broken down: nowadays heading for the bright lights can mean following in Faith Hill's footsteps. Country has become yet another strain of adult contemporary pop, alluding to its twangy roots in the same glancing, patronizing way that chain restaurants allude to regional dishes. Van Lear Rose asks us to forget all this unsavory history and hear its music for what it is--and in this case even forgetting history is nostalgic, since it means we're experiencing these songs the way people must've heard hillbilly proto-rockers back in the early 50s. Country doesn't sound like this too often anymore, excepting the Bloodshot roster and their kin--and even those folks rarely get it so right.
What's not to like about a song like "Portland Oregon," where White and Lynn duet as merry drunks, wondering whether a sloshy one-night stand means they're in love or insane? Their vocal back-and-forth is a hell of a lot of fun, even if you're not inclined to appreciate the tune as a reconciliation between genres or generations. (And I should admit that if he were 69 and she were 28 I'd be pretty creeped out.) Amid the dizzying slide guitar licks near the end, Lynn cuts loose with a piercing, magically on-point ululation that might as well be the Fountain of Youth itself erupting out of a beer tap. The togetherness we feel now, she seems to be saying, is the most ephemeral thing in the world--and it's all the more precious for that.
"Portland Oregon" would make a fine radio hit, but Lynn doesn't need a foil to bring out her best--that tune's the only duet on the record. She mourns her husband on "Miss Being Mrs." (he died in 1996, just a couple years shy of their 50th anniversary), and on "Family Tree" she tells the other woman, "No I didn't come to fight / If he was a better man I might." White defers to her decades of seniority, building her a room to get comfortable in and then getting out of her way. He uses every trick in his toolbox to bring her into sharper focus--and rescue her radical honesty from the past.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Russ Harrington.