CD: Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose


The worth of musical patronage - when a rock star attempts to kick start one of their idols' careers by producing, playing or touring with them - is debatable at best. When that rock star is Jack White, the very notion could cause you to swallow hard.

The leader of The White Stripes has made a career out of being obtuse: dressing only in certain colours and scorning technology such as computers, television, the horseless carriage etc. His musical taste follows suit: recently he dedicated a White Stripes gig to The Liver Birds - a distaff Merseybeat combo of scarcely believable wretchedness.

Thankfully, he has chosen to extend his patronage not to the Liver Birds, but to the country singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn. In her heyday, Lynn was an unprecedented figure, dealing in kitchen-sink feminism at a time when country divas were supposed to simper in sequins. Lacklustre husbands were scorned and cuckolded. Love rivals were frequently offered a punch in the mouth. In recent years, however, her output has dwindled while Lynn has concentrated on her businesses, including Loretta Lynn's Kitchen (a dining establishment which, judging by its website, makes Dolly Parton's Ham'n'Beans restaurant look like Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons) and a series of cookbooks that should come with a complementary packet of Rennies. One look at the recipe for Loretta Lynn's Gooey Cake - a packet of chocolate cake mix, three frozen chocolate bars and a jar of caramel - will tell you that the quality of her new album scarcely matters. Merely by turning her attentions away from gastronomy, Jack White has performed humanity a service.

As it turns out, White has done a great deal more than that. Firstly, he has come up with a sound that melds the White Stripes' hulking guitar attack with shadings of pedal steel, banjo and fiddle. The result is genuine alt-country at a time when the term has come to signify little more than middling acoustic rock. The shuddering Have Mercy crackles with nervous energy, the spooked slide guitar lends Little Red Shoes an eerie power.

Secondly, he has encouraged Lynn to write an entire album for the first time in her career. Her talent hasn't been dimmed by the passing years or Gooey Cake. Nor, apparently, has her willingness to get involved in fisticuffs. There is something unfeasibly thrilling about hearing a 70-year-old woman come up with something like Mrs Leroy Brown, not just because of its remarkable narrative - bored wife uses husband's savings to hire a limousine and go on a bender, takes exception to a fellow-drinker's ponytail and cheerfully beats her - but because of the relish in Lynn's singing. You hear it again on Portland Oregon, a tale of barfly romance on which she duets with White. You might expect May-to-December poignancy, given that one of the vocalists is 40 years older than the other, but no. There is no age or weariness in Lynn's performance, just lustful glee.

In addition, she can invest mawkish scenarios with a toughness and dignity, turning melodrama into something believable. Family Tree outlines a unique ploy for bringing an errant husband to heel: turn up outside his adulterous love-nest with a baby under each arm, a sheaf of unpaid bills in your hand and even "his old dog Charlie" bringing up the rear. The notion that the bills, the babies and the infirm canine might be precisely what said husband is trying to escape does not appear to have crossed her mind, but there's a steel in her voice that would stop you from saying that to her face, lest you end up lying in a heap next to the woman with the ponytail. The listener could live without God Makes No Mistakes, which displays the sort of enlightened attitude towards disability that lost Glenn Hoddle his job as England manager, but elsewhere Lynn seldom puts a foot wrong.

Van Lear Rose does not seem like a one-way process, a hip rock star bestowing riches on a grateful pensioner. Being in the presence of "the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century", as White puts it, has forced him to loosen up a bit, and as recent events have suggested, few rock stars could use loosening up more than Jack White. There's none of the White Stripes' slightly clenched mannerisms here, just songs like the wonderful High on a Mountaintop, where everyone involved is audibly having the time of their lives. Van Lear Rose seems to have done all concerned the power of good.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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