Country music is full of iconic names I know, without ever knowingly hearing a note of their music. I think that’s because country music can get such a bad wrap and be extremely polarizing. Those iconic names have huge, globe spanning followings who buy enough records for them to infiltrate pop culture. But they also have just as many vocal detractors, so it’s easy to get caught up in that hype too, and never give them a chance. Which is probably why I know the name Loretta Lynn, without being able to name a single one of her songs. I’m not sure how her career started, but now I know how it ended, with Van Lear Rose.
Like the best country songs, the title track tells a story. A story about a woman who’s the dream of every man in her small town, and the one man who was lucky enough to woo her. It’s even a story complete with a great little twist at the end about who the couple in the song went on to become. It’s the kind of story that matches the slide guitar and country drawl of the vocals perfectly.
If quant, down home story telling ‘aint your thing, Loretta’s right there with something a little louder, a little grittier and a little edgier, with Portland Oregon. A he said, she said duet that borders on out and out rock and roll, while maintaining Lynn’s quintessential country sound. Which is a great precursor to Have Mercy (and later Mrs. Leroy Brown), pure 12 bar blues based rock that doesn’t quit.
Then get ready to go full blown hillbilly with High on a Mountain Top. It’s good when a singer or band surprises you, defying your preconceptions with something unexpected and great, in a genre you never knew they were capable of. It’s even better when they live up to your preconceptions, yet somehow deliver something way better than you ever thought possible. That is the fiddle fuelled perfection of High on a Mountain Top.
Spoken word and seemingly ad libbed over a cool country groove, Red Shoes is about a daddy defending his home and family from moonshiners. As this tale of injury and poverty goes on, its tragedy is perfectly off set by the matter of fact delivery. Sure, life for the character of this story was pretty terrible, but it was the only life she knew, and she just got on with it.
Loretta Lynn was a solid 35 years into her career when she made Van Lear Rose, and having never heard what came before, I can’t imagine she had lost any of spark by the time she made this record. It’s angry at times, loving at others, occasionally down and even cocky here and there. It sounds like an album made by some hungry, young gun. Song’s like Women’s Prison and This Old House definitely aren’t the sound of someone resting on their laurels and past glories.
Loretta Lynn gave me exactly what I wanted from Van Lear Rose. Pure country in all of its best forms. There’s acoustic guitar and heartbroken lament, there’s shit kicking rock, there’s dark tragedy. This is country music that perpetuates stereotypes, while making me realise that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
1960 – Present (no albums of new material since 2004)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1969)
Selected Major Achievements/Accolades:
Best Country Vocal Performance (1972)
Hall of Fame (1997)
Best Country Album (2005)