Loretta Lynn's seen a lot in her 70 years. An impoverished Kentucky childhood under the custody of a coal-minin' papa. Country-music stardom resulting from a series of proto-feminist anthems. An Oscar-winning movie based on her tough-and-tangled life. Marriage to a guy named Doolittle. But she's never seen nothin' like Jack White, the White Stripes frontman who produced and arranged Van Lear Rose, her first work of substance since Roe vs. Wade -- and the first great album of the year.
Like Rick Rubin, who steered Johnny Cash's comeback a decade ago, White has reverence for his living-legend client. But where Rubin curbed his own hard-rock instincts, White throws his blues-strewn punk at Lynn, and it sticks. Whether musing on the past (the title tune), leading a front-porch sing-along ("High on a Mountain Top"), resorting to her rough old ways ("Women's Prison"), or dueting with White on the muddy "Portland Oregon," Lynn (who wrote all the songs) is unyielding. She's never sounded more assured.
And that's all because of White, a lifelong fan. He injects Van Lear Rose with dirty guitar riffs, sturdy production, and a sense of purpose. But Lynn's found more than an inspired collaborator here; she's rediscovered the path lined with country music's leading ladies. And she's heading straight to the front of it.