Loretta Lynn's latest album is winning her fans all over again, this time with the help of Jack White of The White Stripes, she tells Siobhán Long.
The trouble with country music? It's falling down with titles: you ain't nothing unless you've been christened its queen or first lady. Hell, even Margo and Gloria, the heroines of country and Irish, were known to wear those thorny crowns in their 1970s heydays. So what do you do to stand out from the crowd, to set yourself apart from all that royalty? You work so darned hard that you become country's first female millionaire. You also sing not only about divorce and dead dogs on the highway but also about taboo subjects such as birth control and economic independence.
Loretta Lynn may not rest easy amid the sisterhood of Nell McCafferty, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, but she's been just as quick to call it when it comes to infidelity, unplanned pregnancy and alcoholism, not to mention crimes of passion. And now, at the tender age of 69, she's gone and recorded Van Lear Rose, one of the most successful albums of her career, produced not by some Nashville homeboy but by Jack White, the latest rebel with a cause.
Lynn stood out from the posse from the day she left her home in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, with her husband, Doolittle. She believes that, with Irish and Cherokee bloodlines, she knew more than most how to have a good time, so when it came to breathing life into a career that has spanned some five decades she was sure she'd do it whatever way she wanted. Lynn is no subscriber to the colour-by-numbers Nashville school of country-hit making.
The White Stripes dedicated their 2001 album White Blood Cells to Lynn, paving the way for Van Lear Rose, which has already earned Lynn nominations in the best-album, best-song and artist-of-the-year categories in this year's Americana music awards.
"Jack White's a rock singer from The White Stripes," Lynn says with the patience of a woman who's got to start at the very beginning, "and they're very well known. He's got more energy than anyone I know. I told him I was going to record an album, and he said, well, how about letting me produce it? So we went into this old house to record, and I thought, Lord have mercy, if we get anything out of this place it's going to be something, because there was just this one little guy there with one little board" - mixing desk - "and I just thought, well, Jack, I sure hope you know what you're doing. We sang every song just one time."
With a career that has included 27 number-one singles and 18 number-one albums in the US, not to mention her hugely successful autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter, which was turned into an Oscar-winning film with Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones, Lynn would have been forgiven for coasting on her reputation. But she's not one for lolling in the bluegrass. With a Dylanesque reputation for notching up the miles, she's more than happy to find an audience just as willing to listen to new material as to old favourites such as The Pill, Pregnant Again and Rated X.
"I turn them away at every show and have done for years and years," she says. "And it kind of makes me feel good when they start hollering in the audience to do songs from the new album. It's even being played on the rock stations. Portland Oregon is in the rock charts!"
Having written every song on Van Lear Rose, from its tribute to her mother to blood-curdling tales of murder (Women's Prison), salty exchanges with "the other woman" (FamilyTree) and the loneliness of widowhood (Miss Being Mrs), Lynn is not inclined towards reticence. The album's closing track, Story Of My Life, ricochets through her biography, stopping for highlights and lowlights, from unplanned pregnancies (babies "coming in pairs") to the hazards of selling her story to Hollywood and the perils of sticking with a wayward husband. Not quite the stuff of bubblegum heaven but ideal fodder for country music. "I wrote about what happened to me," she says. "It's as simple as that."
In Family Tree she declares: "No, I didn't come to fight. If he was a better man I might." Would she have been able to write those lines were Doolittle still alive? "Doo wasn't no angel," she says. "A lot of men are no angels. I still write like he's still here. I have to do that. I let my guard down with that song, because that's what I had to do. I'd sure write those same words if Doo was still alive. In fact I might have said instead that I had come to fight! The other one that I wrote that's a little bit sassy is Mrs Leroy Brown. Him sitting back with that big old ugly blonde with the phoney ponytail in her hair. I thought that was pretty good too."
Regrets? She has a few, particularly about the punishing impact touring can have on family life. "If I had my whole life to do over I think I'd spend more time at home," she says. "Since I've been singing it's been hitting the road, and hitting it hard. When I wasn't on the road I was working on albums, and I really haven't enjoyed that part of it that much. I enjoy going into the studio to sing, and I enjoy writing the songs, but the road's hard."
Having fought the good and the not-so-good fights, does she think any feminists are left in country music? Is there anything left for them to fight for? "You know, not a lot," she says. "As I look back, and I listen to their records, they don't say it as plain as I do. I doubt if anyone else is prepared to do that. Anyway, country's gone pop now. It's not real country. "But when you hear my songs they're real country. Kentucky's real country. When I write my songs I live them. I can't ever understand why singers sing other people's songs. Why don't they write their own songs and write their life, talk about themselves? I just don't understand it."
Lynn has been known to campaign on behalf of George Bush Sr. Has her support for Republican politics been eroded by George Jr's activities since 9/11? Bush Sr is "such a good guy" and Barbara, his wife, is "such a nice lady", she says. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't think they were worth it, you know. Naturally, I'm going to vote for George W., but, you know, I had a son in the army and a son in the marines. I don't think any mother wants to see her son go off and fight."
With Van Lear Rose winning such acclaim, Lynn's dance card is booked up for the next while. "It's been 25 years since I've had so many nominations, and I can't believe it. It's kind of embarrassing to be in that position at this point in my life. What's important is that I make a good record and forget about the awards."
Van Lear Rose is on Polydor