I didn’t grow up listening to Loretta Lynn. I came to her, as many rock fans did, through Jack White. His band, the White Stripes, was easily the most exciting of the late ‘90s/early 2000s rock artists. They had a knack for taking old things and making them feel new, or at least recontextualized. They mostly did this with the blues, but they also paid tribute to country music icons. They covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” as the B-side to their 2000 single “Hello Operator.” They frequently played Loretta Lynn’s “Rated ‘X’” in concert and eventually released it as a B-side to their 2001 “Hotel Yorba” single.
Of course, I knew who Dolly Parton was: everyone does. I had heard of Loretta Lynn, and knew that she was the subject of the film Coal Miner’s Daughter, but that was about it. After reading an interview with Jack White where he spoke about her in such glowing terms, I went out and picked up a Loretta Lynn compilation CD. There were great songs about romantic rivals, like “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “Fist City.” There were tales of women putting their men in their place: “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath.” Songs about cheating, like “After The Fire Is Gone” and “I Can’t Feel You Anymore.”
But there were also less dramatic songs about love fading; they weren’t about blowups, they were about the duller pain of life. “When The Tingle Becomes A Chill” doesn’t have tantrums, it’s just a woman lying in bed knowing that she is no longer in love with her man, and it’s not even anyone’s fault. That one kind of stopped me in my tracks: it was so honest, and so raw. She’s on the other end of the breakup in “As Soon As I Hang Up The Phone,” where her man tries to let her down easy, but he can’t stop her from descending into despair.
“One’s On The Way” tells the tale of a pregnant mother of two, overwhelmed with her life, and not getting much help from her husband. The last line hits hard: “Oh gee, I hope it ain’t twins, again.” She also mentions that “And the pill may change the world tomorrow,” but it won’t change a thing for her today.
Four years later, she released a song called “The Pill,” which she co-wrote. In the song, she tells her man in no uncertain terms that she’s done with getting pregnant over and over, “‘Cause now I’ve got the pill.” Furthermore, she’s going to require him to watch the kids, because she’s going out to have a good time on her own. “This old maternity dress I’ve got is goin’ in the garbage,” she sings. “The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on/Won’t take up so much yardage/Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills/Yeah I’m makin’ up for all those years/Since I’ve got the pill.” The song was one of her few crossover hits. No matter how you feel about the sentiment she expresses in the lyrics, you have to give her credit for her bravery. This was not a subject that many singers in any genre would dare to trend, and particularly not in country music.
I found “The Pill” shocking. And ditto for “Rated ‘X,’” a song that deals with the stigma placed upon women (but not men) after a divorce. I’d heard Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” a heartbreaking song about avoiding telling the kids about a marital split. But “Rated ‘X’” addressed what happens next, in a clear-eyed and sobering way: “The women all look at you like you’re bad/And the men all hope you are/But if you go too far you’re gonna wear the scar/Of a woman rated ‘X.’” And, she adds, “If you’re rated ‘X’ you’re some kind of goal.” After a few runs through her songs, I was a fan.
So, I was pretty excited when I heard that she would be opening for the White Stripes at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in June of 2003 . The White Stripes were a white-hot rock band, they hadn’t yet hit arena-status, but they were clearly going in that direction. Their current album, Elephant, had their biggest hit – the stadium anthem “Seven Nation Army.” When a rock band has that kind of momentum, there are inevitably people there just to hear that song. How would those people treat Loretta Lynn, if they showed up early enough to see her?
Jack White may have been thinking the same thing, which might have been why he introduced her to the audience as “the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century!” Her set was about an hour long and it was well received by all. To many of us, we realized we were in the presence of greatness, which isn’t something to take lightly. She was 69 years old… and earning new fans. Jack White joined her for the end of her set for “Fist City” and her Conway Twitty duet, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” At the end of the White Stripes’ thunderous set, she joined them for “Rated ‘X.’”
I remember telling anyone who would listen (including some people at Universal Music) that they should get Jack White to produce a Loretta Lynn album (“He could be her ‘Rick Rubin!’”). Indeed, that was in the works, and Jack White produced her classic Van Lear Rose, which was released in 2004. This wasn’t just a situation where someone put a legend in the studio to knock out a few songs. This wasn’t the musical equivalent of a baseball “Old Timer’s Day.” White treated her as if she was still an artist with something to say, something still to offer. And, it turns out, she did. Van Lear Rose wasn’t just another line in her discography, it was an essential album. Don’t take my word for it, Entertainment Weekly and Spin both gave the album an “A” rating, and prestigious British magazines Mojo and Uncut each gave the album five out of five stars. Eighteen years later, the album still holds up.
I’m grateful to Jack White for turning me on to such an amazing artist – an American treasure – who I would not have checked out otherwise. I’m definitely grateful that I had the chance to see her perform that night in New York City nearly two decades ago. But most of all, I’m grateful to her for all for the incredible music that she put out, over the course of six decades.