A legendary-but-fading country singer teams up with a rock ‘n’ roll star at the top of his game to resurrect her career and return to her glory days. And after the most unlikely pairing actually pans out, and the album is released to universal acclaim, it becomes clear that this is a unique event, one that will forever stand out in the careers of two musicians from separate eras and genres.
Loretta Lynn has made music for forty years, a true star from a time when popular country music meant something, before it became the homogenized junk of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. Lynn’s late-career triumph is not without precedent in the genre, but unlike Johnny Cash’s famous team-up with Rick Rubin, Jack White of the White Stripes is not here to re-imagine Lynn as a contemporary star. Instead, Van Lear Rose is intent on emphasizing exactly what Lynn has always displayed.
Using all self-penned songs for the first time, Lynn plays to her strengths. Her incredible autobiographical material, represented best here on the title track and the appropriately titled closer, “Story of My Life,” would be classics without the benefit of Lynn’s credibility. But it has always been her gift to be able to convey legitimacy through her voice. Her rough edges come through in her performances, and they lend even the most depressing and fictional songs, “Women’s Prison” and “Miss Being Mrs.,” their entertaining and believable aspects.
“Women’s Prison” is a particularly enjoyable tale of love gone wrong. “I’m in a women’s prison,” she sings, “with bars all around/ I caught my darlin’ cheatin’/ that’s when I shot him down/ I caught him in a honky tonk/ with a girl I used to know/ The door to my cell is open wide/ and a voice cries out ‘Oh, no.’ ” If that isn’t what country music — hell, all music — was made for, then I don’t know what was.
The band here is as tight as could be desired. Called “the Do Whaters” by Lynn because “they got in there and did whatever we needed them to,” the band includes White, excellent drumming from Patrick Keeler, and Dave Feeny on a wicked slide guitar. They prove their usefulness on the duet/single “Portland, Oregon” and the rock ‘n’ roll topper “Have Mercy.” But they never overstep their boundaries and allow Lynn the space to shine. The album has so many perfect aspects it’s hard to find a flaw; even the spoken word “Little Red Shoes” brings enough pleasure to follow up the pristine “High on a Mountain Top” with pride.
Ultimately, none of the back story really matters. The record isn’t about Loretta Lynn making a comeback or teaming up with a young hip producer. It isn’t about making crossover country music or even classic country music. It’s about making music that displays the best talent these two supremely talented people have to offer and pulling it off with a perfection rarely seen. That is why the album deserves its praise. This is an essential record for every music lover.