I don’t own a single Johnny Cash album, but I have to say I miss him.
When his career got a boost in the early ’90s, I didn’t understand it. The idea of a country singer covering Soundgarden sounded, well, cheesy.
That was before 1995, when Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball formally introduced me to the genre. (Pleased to meet you!)
And it was Cash who inspired Harris to back away from a Nashville label deal, go independent for a few years, then write her own moody material on two albums for the eclectic Nonesuch label.
I’m not sure whether Cash had any bearing on Loretta Lynn’s decision to work with the White Stripes’ Jack White on Van Lear Rose, but it does seem to follow a generational gap.
The artists country radio have long left behind are connecting with audiences country radio wouldn’t bother with.
Cash singing Nine Inch Nails. Harris working with U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. Now Lynn working with Jack White.
It’s producing some of the most rocking country music in recent memory, and it’s leaving the current crop of country charttoppers in the dust.
I mean, really — Kenny Chesney, the crown prince of male country singers, is working with … Uncle Kracker?
By now, a lot of ink has already been spilled about the forceful clarity and sheer bravado of Lynn’s performance on Van Lear Rose.
“Write what you know” may be somewhat disparaged in pockets of the literati, but for some songwriters, they can plumb the depths of personal experience and still have a lot leftover.
The songs on Van Lear Rose follow in Lynn’s style of homespun tales. She not out to make a statement about the criminal justice system on “Women’s Prison”, nor about the sanctity of marriage on “Family Tree”, nor about poverty in “Little Red Shoes”.
She just reports the happenings, thank you, and lets you make up your own mind about them. These aren’t fables.
(She does, however, get preachy on “God Makes no Mistakes”.)
What makes Van Lear Rose different is the performance. White’s raging guitar on “Have Mercy” really brings out a fire in Lynn. “Portland, Oregon” finds White and Lynn trading verses, and yes, it’s something to hear, all right.
“High on the Mountain Top” brings the album back down from its brasher moments, while “Little Red Shoes”, a narrated song, goes for something a bit more experimental.
But all this has been said before.
What’s heartening is the fact two generations at opposite ends — a relunctant star of the underground and a legendary performer of her field — can create work that flies in the face of commercial metrics.
Maybe it’s art, but it sure sounds good.