At the core, it’s not about Loretta’s revived career, Jack White’s demographic reach, coal mining, feminism, marriage, guitars, or the aesthetics of music production. It’s about how people speak the English language where eastern Kentucky meets West Virginia and corners of Virginia and Tennessee. Humorous, ironic, syncopated, innocent, realistic, fatalistic, individualistic, stubborn, socially secure, neither elitist nor resentful of elites, unaware of hierarchy—it’s not only an accent, it’s a democratic ideal.
But not that easy to work into a style of singing that’s supposed to sound simple. Dolly Parton gets a piece sometimes, as do country folkies like Iris Dement and John Prine. Deadpan country foremothers from Sara Carter to Kitty Wells have maybe half of it. Emoters Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette have another piece. Only Butcher Hollow’s famous offspring puts it all together. No one sounds like Loretta Lynn.
Except for Sissy Spacek, who not only talks just like her but sings just like her in Coal Miner’s Daughter. In fact, she sounds more like Loretta at the beginning of the movie than Loretta herself, since Spacek can transpose the full Loretta style back onto the earlier recordings—underscoring the fact that her accent as we now perceive it was an artistic construction built over time. When finally put together, the feisty feminist, avenging spouse, dependent wife, loving but ambivalent mother, and loyal but distant daughter add up to enough persona to sustain that full east Kentucky accent. And a powerful role that Sissy Spacek could inhabit.
Which may be why Van Lear Rose succeeds. Other strategies have been used to realign country music stars long past their moment of cultural impact—the respectful-of-tradition folkiness of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken collaborations, Rick Rubin’s repositioning of Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard drawing on his own feel for tradition after backing off the ill-conceived “harder rocking” releases of the 1990s. Like all of these, Lynn benefits from less-is-more. Less rehearsal, less production, and fewer layers of sound let Loretta’s Lorettaness shine through. And if she can’t sustain the long heartbreaker notes anymore, well, that’s just less Patsy Cline and more Loretta. The clipped delivery gets more east Kentucky in the mix.
But she also benefits, most of the time, from White’s spasmodic electric guitar bursts and chopless noodling, and a general roughness all around. This would not work for Haggard, and would not have worked for Cash. In interviews, White gushes about Lynn’s authenticity, but as a producer he seems to intuit that she’s an achievement in need of refurbishing. His post-postpunk blues approximate the drive and perhaps vulgarity of the original honky-tonk country sound. When they work, they play up the way a lot of these songs are angry, even violent, and then, suddenly, funny. At times the pyrotechnics don’t match up, and moments feel derivative or too weak for the weight of the attention they receive. The songwriting is uneven, ranging from the widowed “Miss Being Mrs.” down to the borrowed Dolly Parton of “High on a Mountaintop.” But there’s one moment of genius: Lynn’s recitation of a childhood near-tragedy on “Little Red Shoes” over a moody, slightly ominous guitar riff. It’s something new, but it fits, and it takes advantage of the way she talks.
Some have called Van Lear Rose edgy, but the edge of what? The edge of the White Stripes’ rust-belt Detroit meeting the edge of Loretta Lynn’s mined-out Appalachia? Many have traveled between the two, through something called Ohio, currently identified as a battleground state, from my point of view in more ways than one. If Van Lear Rose is really an edgy success, then it’s the soundtrack of this battleground and should be playing somewhere on the edge—along I-75 between Michigan and Kentucky, say, on the jukebox at the Waffle House in Piqua, Ohio.