Loretta Lynn, one of country music’s pioneering figures, died earlier this week (October 4) at the age of 90.
Born in Kentucky in 1932 and married (with a daughter) by the age of 16, Lynn made her name with tough, frank and no-nonsense songs about her domestic life, and growing up in a working-class Appalachian family.
Lynn’s straight-shooting hits, such as Don’t Come Home A- Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind), Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Pill, were trailblazing, and hugely influential to not only generations of country-minded listeners, but musicians of all stylistic inclinations.
It may not be immediately apparent while he’s melting the fretboard on a pitch-shifting Jazzmaster or his Three-Wheel Motion Low Rider Fender Telecaster, but one of the musicians that Lynn had a tremendous influence on was Jack White.
Though White’s blues and hard-rock touchstones are obvious in his music, and quite well-documented, there’s a clear strain of country that runs through his work with the White Stripes and Raconteurs. His most recent solo album – the acoustic-driven Entering Heaven Alive – is especially indebted to the guitarist’s country side.
In the early 2000s, Lynn and White found themselves on opposite career trajectories. Having exploded into the limelight with 2001’s White Blood Cells, and solidified their place in the top tier of rock with 2003’s eclectically brilliant Elephant, The White Stripes were one of the most buzzed-about bands on the planet, with Jack White frequently anointed as one of the early-aughts’ reigning guitar heroes.
Lynn, meanwhile, had only released one album of secular music since the death of her beloved husband, Oliver Vanetta Lynn Jr., in 1996 (opens in new tab). Though she had found great success in 1993 with her Honky Tonk Angels collaboration with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, the steady stream of solo country hits Lynn had enjoyed for decades had largely dried up.
In early 2004 though, the unlikely pair decided to join forces for an album called Van Lear Rose.
White produced, and played electric guitar, on the entire album, an incredibly strong collection of Lynn originals that touched on revenge (Women’s Prison), her incredible life (the appropriately titled Story of My Life) and the loss of her husband (Miss Being Mrs.).
The highlight of the record, though, is Portland Oregon, a rollicking duet about a drunken one-night stand that features Lynn and White trading off lead vocals.
Particularly killer is Lynn and White’s 2004 performance of the song on Late Show with David Letterman, which shows the latter’s almost mandolin-like instrumental intro – full of piercing upper-register bends and evocative single-note lines – and David Feeny’s biting, bluesy pedal steel licks up-close. You can watch the performance in full below.
Van Lear Rose would go on to become one of the highest-charting albums of Lynn’s whole career, and by far her biggest crossover hit. It was responsible for two (opens in new tab) of the three Grammy awards that Lynn would win in her lifetime, including one – for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals – for Portland Oregon.
Like Rick Rubin had done with Johnny Cash a decade before, White took an established country talent – whose brilliance had never faded – and simply presented her remarkable songwriting in a new light, introducing her to new, appreciative audiences in the rock/alt-rock realm in the process.
“I learned so much from her working together on Van Lear Rose, and there was times where I just had to take a pause and step outside because she was just so brilliant, I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing and hearing,” White said on social media (opens in new tab) following Lynn’s death.
“I almost felt like she didn’t even realize it, you know. But she was just a genius and just brilliant at what she did and we were lucky to have her and people can learn from example – the rags to riches part of it and the beautiful natural voice part of it.
“She was like a mother figure to me and also a very good friend at times. She told me some amazing things that I’ll never tell anybody. Rest in peace, Loretta. God bless you.”
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