In early 2004, Loretta Lynn celebrated her 70th birthday. She broke into the music business forty five years earlier and had recorded tons of country hits throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including the anthemic Coal Miner's Daughter. However, she hadn't cracked the country charts in many years (her last hit was 1982's I Lie) and hadn't released an album of any sort since 2000.

So, what happens next? On April 27, 2004, Loretta released Van Lear Rose to a tidal wave of critical acclaim and success. The album debuted at #24 on the Billboard (overall, not just country genre) album charts and has appeared on virtually every best of 2004 album list that has appeared.

How did this happen? It turns out that Jack White (one half of The White Stripes, who dedicated their 2001 album White Blood Cells to Loretta) spent several weeks in late 2003 with Loretta, producing this album with her, and encouraging her to write all of her own music. It seems an odd mix, a rock star from Detroit mixing it up with a country singer from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, but in reality it's not. Both of them, at their core, are the real continuations of American roots music; they both follow the great line of musicians all the way back to Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers and Mississippi John Hurt and The Carter Family.

This album is an absolute gem, from beginning to end, and is one of a very small number of truly essential albums released in 2004.

Van Lear Rose

I've spent the last several years traveling all over the world. I've seen and heard things that defy any sort of description. I've vanished into the crowds in the most populated city on Earth and I've eaten a meal on top of a pyramid. I've climbed a mountain and fallen drunk beneath Stonehenge.

In the end, though, I came back to Iowa. Nothing seems more pleasant to me than sitting out on the wide old porch of an old Iowa farmhouse, where all I can see in any direction is cornfield and a gravel road that runs past my place in both directions. Hours will go by before an automobile breaks the stillness of the day. In the night time, I can climb out on the roof, look up at the sky, and see literally billions of stars flowing together.

I've heard your rock and roll, but my heart is in the country.

Release Date: April 27, 2004
Label: Interscope
Written & Performed By: Loretta Lynn
Produced By: Jack White (of The White Stripes)

The cover of the album depicts Loretta in a blue gown, holding a guitar with one hand and staring off into the distance, with an old farmhouse in the background. Is she happy? Introspective? Sad? It's done in such a way that it's up to you to fill in that blank.

The back cover reprises the cover shot, except with Jack White standing near her and the rest of her backing band for this album (The Do Whaters, consisting of Jack White, Jack Lawrence, Patrick Keeler, and Dave Feeny on a wide variety of instruments) standing on the porch of the house. I truly enjoy the symbolic dichotomy of the two shots.

 1. Van Lear Rose           (3:50)
 2. Portland, Oregon        (3:49)
 3. Trouble on the Line     (2:21)
 4. Family Tree             (3:03)
 5. Have Mercy              (2:35)
 6. High on a Mountain Top  (2:44)
 7. Little Red Shoes        (3:34)
 8. God Makes No Mistakes   (1:45)
 9. Women's Prison          (4:16)
10. This Old House          (1:56)
11. Mrs. Leroy Brown        (3:38)
12. Miss Being Mrs.         (2:50)
13. Story of My Life        (2:40)

One listen to this album with some attention to the lyrics reveals the truth of what Loretta is trying to say: this entire album is an autobiography, starting with a look back at her parents on through looking back at her own life in summary. Because of this narrative structure, it's quite possible to parallel the album with my own life, and perhaps you with yours.

 1. Van Lear Rose           (3:50)

The album opens with one of the most straightforward "country" sounding songs on the entire album, but the song is a winner for much the same reason Coal Miner's Daughter was. As opposed to many of the singers of today, Loretta carries the song with an authenticity in her voice, and she has that authenticity; not only that she wrote the song (and every other song on this album) herself, but that the song is about her mother and father's unexpected romance.

  One of my fondest memories
      Was sittin' on my daddy's knee
          Listenin' to the stories he told
              He'd pull out that old photograph
                  Like a treasured memory from the past
                      And say, "Child,
                        This here's the Van Lear rose."

It's hard to believe that the singer of this song is in her seventies, a feeling I repeatedly get throughout this entire album. Her voice is as lively and vivacious as it ever was, and her range exceeds anything I'm capable of doing as a late twentysomething even on my best day. I think that this song is perhaps her best vocal showcase on the album, showing that she can vocally compete with pretty much anyone else on the music scene today.

My parents were something of a surprising match, he a naturalist and she an artist with unbelievable sketching talent. They somehow found each other, and their dance led them to produce me. We didn't have much in my childhood days, but what we did have is love and my parents' undying commitment to make sure I would have the opportunity to spread my wings and fly to wherever I wanted to go.
 2. Portland, Oregon        (3:49)

Following a rather traditional-sounding Loretta Lynn number comes a duet with Jack White that sounds like it would fit well on a White Stripes album. It opens with a lengthy electric instrumental section that sounds so familiar, yet I can't quite put my finger on why, before pulling together into a saucy duet between Jack and Loretta.

  Well sloe gin fizz works mighty fast
      When you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass, uh huh
          Hey bartender before you close
              Pour us one more drink and a pitcher to go
                  And a pitcher to go

The pleasing part of this song is the evident fun that both participants are having with this number; you almost get the feeling it's two old friends (albeit two friends with enough musical talent to know how to properly combine their voices and flow with the rock music being played behind them) just goofing around together, and that is the true charm of this song.

My early life could be cast as a series of duets. I sang You Are My Sunshine with my mother as she tucked me in as an infant. I sang Wake Me Up Before You Go Go with the first crush of my life. I sang Folsom Prison Blues riding around in the truck with my father as a teenager. I sang Hot Patootie with my first date in high school. But soon I was cast out on my own, away to college, to find my own luck as a solo act.
 3. Trouble on the Line     (2:21)

From a rock duet the album then swerves back to a more traditional Loretta Lynn sound, lyrically using phone static as a metaphor for communication problems in a relationship. The song is slow and very mellow, following the fast paced duet that preceded it, it's a pretty sharp change of pace. Still, it is among the least memorable songs on the album.

  All I get is static when we're talkin'
      You say my line is out of order all the time
          We have nothin' left in common
              Your thoughts are not like mine
                  Oh Lord I'm sorry, but there's trouble on the line

Reading the liner notes for this song, however, reveals an interesting little nugget. Loretta apparently co-wrote this song with her late husband before he passed on in 1996, the only such song on the album (all other writing credits are exclusively Loretta's). This is interesting, in that the song is one of the few on the album about a dissolving relationship; that she wrote it with her husband is rather interesting.

I spent most of my early college years actively trying to reject what I had learned at home, instead intending to start from a clean slate. I would call home and quickly find little but disagreement with them; I was desperately trying to find my own way, not their way.
 4. Family Tree             (3:03)

This song, in parts, sounds quite a lot like Coal Miner's Daughter and is among the strongest of the "traditional" sounding songs on the album. This song shows off Loretta's lyrical strength, her ability to paint an image with her words and vocal inflections.

  Their daddy once was a good man
      Until he ran into trash like you
          Now take a look at the baby's face
              And tell me who loves who
                  I brought along his old dog Charlie
                      And the bills that's overdue
                        This job you're working
                          Lord, we need money too

This is a tale of an independent and self-confident woman scorned, who responds through nonviolent (almost comical) confrontation. Yet, Loretta injects the song with a sense of realism and honesty; this is who I am, she seems to say, take it or leave it. That level of honesty is wonderful to hear, when so many musicians instead try to bury that core of who they are.

There were many nights I sat alone in my room, wondering if I would ever find love, wondering about my future, and realizing that it was up to me, no one else, to make my life work. If I failed at making things work, it was my own fault. Me. No one else.
 5. Have Mercy              (2:35)

From its first seconds, it's clear that the album has switched gears yet again, firmly into the camp of The White Stripes. Have Mercy is a bluesy, boozy, driving rock number that almost feels like it's being performed in some smoky little club somewhere in Chicago.

  She's got you hypnotized
      And your brain is paralyzed
          You know she's only playin' with you
              Like a puppet on a string
                  Remember just one thing
                      She can't love you like I do, no

Loretta is so convincing in her mode as a southern blues singer here that you're convinced by the end that she could make a go of it in that genre as well; this doesn't come off like William Shatner singing Common People, this actually works.

As I moved mentally further and further away from where I grew up, a great sadness came over me and almost overwhelmed me. I became lost in a great sea without any horizon or stars to guide me, and I drifted for the better part of a year, desperately alone.
 6. High on a Mountain Top  (2:44)

You know, the real beauty of this album is how Loretta is able to hop across supposed "musical boundaries" as though they weren't even there, meshing together and jumping back and forth between all sorts of genres. Here, she takes another leap: she follows a traditional country song and a bluesy rock song with a leap straight into Appalachia: here, we have an Appalachian style sing-along.

  High on a mountain top
      We live, we love, and we laugh a lot
          Folks up here know what they got
              High on a mountain top
                  High on a mountain top

The chorus of this song is the best part. Close your mind and imagine four twentysomething male rockers singing a mountain-style singalong with Loretta Lynn leading them - and every one of them sounds like they're having fun. The instrumentation is almost reminiscent of a jug band and the fun of the entire piece just comes through.

I would go back home and see everyone moving through the motions of their lives, happy as could be, and I couldn't understand it. Until one night, I climbed up on the roof and looked up at the stars, with the air crisp and cool. I could hear the night birds singing their rhythmic songs and so far up above me, there was something beautiful that I couldn't see in the city.
 7. Little Red Shoes        (3:34)

From there, we jump into a spoken word piece with a rock backing. Loretta tells the story of her parents having to steal shoes for her when she was a baby, bringing into light the economic wasteland she grew up in. This track really stands out from the rest of the album, and given that it is at the midway point on the disc, it gives the entire album something of a pivot point, almost dividing the album into two distinct pieces using this as the bridge between the two halves.

It's worth listening to, but after hearing the album a number of times, I find myself skipping right past this track, onto the next one. It's the only track I find myself skipping.

I could think back of the poor days of my youth, where my dad would sit at the kitchen table with my mother and the two of them would try to figure out where our money would come from for the next month. I could think back to suppers of cabbage soup, because that's all we had. Even with that, I could think back to happiness, and a reassurance that things were going to be all right, no matter what.
 8. God Makes No Mistakes   (1:45)

The second half of the disc opens with a short gospel number that serves as a direct prelude to the song to follow it, as the two have almost the exact same song structure (or, at least, Women's Prison builds on this one). It's a very simple song of faith and states clearly that, indeed, that's all that faith is, faith in something.

  Why, I've heard people say God cannot be alive
      And all the things that people say had to be a lie
          When they're down and out and they need a hand
              And their very soul's at stake
                  If they'll call on him and just believe that God makes no mistakes

This song is so short and segues so effectively into the next one that they almost seem to be one song; Women's Prison builds from the gentle gospel presented here into a bluesy rock song.

I was so lost at that point, so confused, so torn between two worlds, that I turned to faith to find solace, and it brought me great solace in my times of trouble.
 9. Women's Prison          (4:16)

This song is segued so smoothly from the last track that the two almost become one piece. This is something of a bluesy number about a woman condemned to die for killing her ex-lover and his newfound lady. It builds from a mellow start to a crescendo at the end, ending up with one of the best tracks on the album.

  And there's a crowd outside screamin'
      Let that murderer fry
          But above all their voices
              I can hear my mama cry

How does this connect to the statement about faith from the last song? You would of course expect the two songs to be linked thematically if they're so closely linked musically. The clue to this is revealed in the middle of the second verse, with the lines The judge says I'm guilty / My sentence is to die / I know I've been forgiven / But the price of love is high. Clearly, the murderer has some solace in her faith, and that connects the two seemingly discrete stories together.

As I neared graduation, things took a turn for the worse for my family, and it became clear that one of them was falling down a bottomless spiral of despair. As distant as I often felt, when I thought about them, all I could feel is hope in my heart that things wouldn't end up that way, even though I did not know how to reach out.
10. This Old House          (1:56)

This is another short number, this one reminiscent of the 1950s country sound (think early Johnny Cash or Hank Williams). In it, Loretta sings about a house and the memories contained in it, a pretty common theme in music over the years.

  Oh, if this old house could talk
      I know what it would say
          I'm as lonesome as you are
              And I feel more empty every day

This is in itself a good song, but there are so many excellent songs on this disc that it causes a pretty good song like this one to be overshadowed by the excellence of the remainder of the disc.

The Christmas after graduation, I saw the house I grew up in for the first time in years. I remembered it badly, remembering only how it was fallen into disrepair, but when I stood on the front step again and looked at it, I didn't see the wear of many years of life inside of it, I saw the thousands and thousands of warm memories I had tied up in this place, warts and all. I breathed in the fresh country air and stepped inside the door, convinced I had learned something new.
11. Mrs. Leroy Brown        (3:38)

This is an interesting song, written as a bit of a different perspective on the Jim Croce classic Bad Bad Leroy Brown, looking at the perspective of that character's long-suffering wife who gets fed up with being left behind and decides to do something about it. The song is an uptempo one, a rock number with just a hint of country flavor to it, and the lyrics are entirely tongue in cheek:

  Hey Leroy Brown, how do you like my big ol' pink limo?
      I just drawed all your money out of the bank today
          Honey, you don't have no mo'

Most of Loretta's songs take the perspective of a very independent-minded woman, a woman who may be in a relationship, but that relationship doesn't define who she is and she has the strength to kick ass when it needs to be done. In other words, the type of role model that I pray my daughter has.

I got married on a hot summer day, just a few miles from that old house I grew up in. I looked across from me and there stood a strong, independent, intelligent woman, every bit my equal, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
12. Miss Being Mrs.         (2:50)

This is probably the most emotional song on the album, and it's treated quite carefully, with minimal instrumentation of any kind. Loretta's lone voice carries the song, as she sings about losing her husband of forty eight years and having to get on with life after that.

  Oh, I miss being Mrs. tonight
      Oh, and how I loved them loving arms that once held me tight
          I took off my wedding band
              And put it on my right hand
                  I miss being Mrs. tonight

The treatment and production of this song is so gentle and loving that you can't help but be moved by it a bit; she so clearly deeply misses her late husband and this is a very poignant expression of it.

Now I'm married, and I think of how important my family is to me, and all I can think about is that I want my children to have the chance to grow up like I did. So, I'm looking for a big old farmhouse in the country, with a big white porch out in front of it. That will be right.
13. Story of My Life        (2:40)

The album closes with a song that is, essentially, a complete review of Loretta's long and adventurous life. It's kind of a traditional uptempo country song that just fits as an album closer here.

  Well some big shot from Hollywood
      Thought a movie about my life would be good
          It was a big hit made a big splash
              What I wanna know is what happened to the cash

Somehow, she just ties everything together with the last line of the song: I have to say that I've been blessed / Not bad for a Kentucky girl, I guess. It's really hard to summarize this album, or her entire career, much more succinctly and beautifully than that, and it's a perfect way to finish off the album of her career.

It is amazing to me how everything comes full circle.

If you enjoy all kinds of music and aren't biased against the country genre, you'll love this album.
If you admire the type of courageous feminism that Loretta espoused in such songs as Coal Miner's Daughter, you'll love this album.
If any part of you enjoys the country sound (and by that I don't mean modern overproduced "pop country"), you'll love this album.

In my opinion, this album barely nudges out Franz Ferdinand to be the essential album of 2004. Please, give it a whirl; you'll be pleasantly surprised, I think.

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