Honky-tonk grande dame

Jun 25, 2003 at 12:00 am

Some might see it as a generational passing of the torch: An established music icon sharing the stage with a younger rising star, and there’s no mistaking whose altar is being genuflected before.

In a sense, though, when that younger star possesses the credibility, cultural cachet and inexplicable celebrity power of a Jack White, announcing both in gesture and in words that this is cool, that this is the real deal, the torch-passing lines get blurry. Whose career is influencing whose? After all, tonight in New York City — at the trendy Hammersmith Ballroom — it’s a White Stripes show and a White Stripes audience.

Jack White is undoubtedly aware of all this when, following an opening set from twangy noir-country rockers Blanche, he steps up to the microphone. And what comes out of his mouth isn’t as much of an introduction as it is a defiant, unequivocal statement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century — Ms. Loretta Lynn!”

The crowd gets its first surprise during the country queen’s portion of the show when White reappears onstage and runs through versions of Lynn’s 1968 hit “Fist City” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” a song made famous in ’73 by Lynn and Conway Twitty.

In between songs Lynn addresses the audience, nodding her head at White and teasing, "Isn’t he somethin’? I had them over for dinner, Jack and Meg, and I served them biscuits and gravy. I think I might’ve poisoned ’em — naw, only kiddin!" Replies White flirtatiously, "Miss Loretta, you are the most gorgeous thing to ever come out of the South. I’m looking for a girlfriend, you know." "Well," shoots back Lynn, "I’m lookin’ for a boyfriend!"

Later in the evening, Lynn makes her own surprise entrance during the White Stripes’ encore. Jack, Meg and Loretta swap verses for "Rated X" (her controversial ’72 hit that the Stripes recorded as the flip side of "Hotel Yorba"), and the crimson vision is memorable, to say the least: Jack in his trademark white-fringed red suit; Meg, demure in a knee-length red dress; and Lynn herself, having changed from her earlier white gown into a long red blazer with sequined flowers. It’s a sight yanked right of out of a family photo album, a color-coordination conscious mother flanked by her attentive brood.

Does Loretta Lynn even need introducing? Go rent Coal Miner’s Daughter — better yet, read the book of the same name or Lynn’s second autobiography, Still Woman Enough. It’s unlikely that the White Stripes, still high on the hype and success of Elephant, require introduction either. Although prior to the release of 2001’s White Blood Cells the likelihood of both the Stripes and Lynn appearing in the same article was remote at best. But after the record began breaking nationally last year, someone on Lynn’s management team noticed the Stripes’ CD booklet dedication of their record to the singer. Lynn was tickled red, er, pink.

“My management called me and told me,” recalls Lynn “and then they said, ‘Did you not know that they have “Rated X” out also?’” Four decades in the music business haven’t done much to soften her mountain accent, and when her voice rises as she describes hearing the White Stripes for the first time, it’s impossible to dodge a mental image of an excitable young Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Continues Lynn, “So somebody brought me the CD, and you know what? Jack done that song just like me. I was shocked! I said, ‘He must be some Loretta Lynn fan to have recorded “Rated X.”’ He did a great job, just a great job.”

Lynn’s enthusiasm is genuine and, after having struck up a friendship with the Stripes, it runs deep. She says she’s back in her Hurricane Mills ranch (about 65 miles west of Nashville) for a couple of weeks, tending to business and the Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum. The singer has been busy writing songs and preparing for an upcoming visit from White; the two have been discussing the possibility of recording together.

Says Lynn, “Oh, I’m writing songs right now, right before this call, in fact. I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that I just went over to my studio and put down with the guitar. And I’ve a funny feeling that I’ve got a couple he [White] might even want to do himself. I run across one called ‘Portland, Oregon, And A Sloe Gin Fizz,’ she says laughing. “It’s a little up-tempo thing, and I think he’ll like that one!”

A couple days later I’m speaking to Jack White, who’s back home in Detroit but looking forward to a short vacation down South before kicking off the American leg of the Elephant tour. When I relay some of Lynn’s comments, you can practically hear him blush on the other end of the phone line.

“That’s a great compliment,” says White. “She’s one of those people, when you meet and talk to, the energy and excitement is still there. She’s like a 21 year old! We are talking about working together, just kinda testing the waters, make sure everyone feels good. I hope it works out.”

White’s ongoing romance with musical authenticity is part of documented White Stripes lore, so it’s not a stretch to assume he’d be drawn to someone like Loretta Lynn. Last year, when Britain’s Mojo asked the Stripes to choose 10 of their influences, White wrote about Lynn in glowing terms:

“The greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century. She broke down numerous barriers for women, wrote her own songs in a time when nobody did … tackled subject matter that everyone else was afraid to touch. She was not a fake product of the Nashville system … If you see the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter and don’t feel anything, or listen to her records and don’t hear anything, put down your guitar and take up jigsaw puzzles.”

A couple years ago, after finishing up White Blood Cells in Memphis, Jack and Meg were driving back home when they spotted a road sign for “Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch.” They wound up in Hurricane Mills, parked in front of the same mansion depicted in the film. Recalls White with an embarrassed laugh, “It was closed at the time, so we were sitting there in the rental car, and Meg had a cigarette — and she threw it out the window! ‘No! No! Don’t throw a cigarette out at Loretta’s house!’” Reckoning their unexpected detour to be a good omen, they dedicated the album to Lynn and the rest is history. Lynn wrote a letter of thanks, ultimately inviting them back down to Hurricane Mills for a tour of the museum and a spot of down-home cooking. (Lynn wasn’t joking onstage in New York; she really did fix Jack and Meg a biscuits-and-gravy dinner.)

Lynn, says White, is the real deal. “Oh, yeah, she’s just one of those people. Music is still very much a big part of her day, singing around the house and writing songs nonstop. And the storytelling that comes out of her. Like she says, when you’re looking at her, you’re looking at country — it’s the same. She’s so country, and the storytelling is just like poetry that’s coming out of her. From her telling a joke or telling some anecdote to the stories she tells in her songs, it’s completely American. Even when she’s talking in an interview, she’s talking the same way she’s talking to her daughter or a neighbor or someone. You’re getting exactly Loretta.”

After country music sat down in the ’90s for a makeover, a facelift and a boob job, paving the way for the country-pop crossover Wynonnas, Shanias and Faiths, the days of old-school Opry icons ruling country radio, as Loretta Lynn unquestionably did throughout the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, were over. Lynn, however, had already opted to sit out most of the ’90s in order to care for her ailing husband Mooney “Doo” Lynn, who died in ’96. The decade also saw her lose other family members and close friends, among them Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and longtime producer Owen Bradley.

Eventually, however, Lynn got the itch again. She recalls the exact moment when she knew it was time: “I hadn’t been working for, like, six years. Before Doo died, I’d set by his bed, took care of him. And a year after he died I looked at my friend and asked [her], ‘How long have I been up here in Nashville? Have I been up here for two months?’ She looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been up here a year.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ So I called my management and said, ‘Get me on the road — I’m losing it!’ I had to do something to get my mind straightened out, because it had stopped somewhere along the line.”

In 2000 Lynn recorded a new album, Still Country, produced by Randy Scruggs. Roots/alt-country bible No Depression gushed that it was “so good, so varied in its sound and its spirit, that there is no legitimate reason for country radio not to air selections from it.”

Claims Lynn, “I’m always gonna play country music. I guess that’s what makes me unique, because I don’t listen to other music. For some people, putting on ‘names’ may be good for them. But not me. I have to take me as I am.” Since then, with a busy touring schedule plus a renewed daily songwriting regimen, Lynn, at 68, is as busy as ever.

As feisty as ever too. Lynn will always be known for her outspokenness, from penning songs controversial for their time like “Rated X” and “The Pill” to frank talk in her two autobiographies about the ups and downs of her marriage to her take on the recent Dixie Chicks flap. (A staunch Bush supporter who also campaigned for George Sr., Lynn allows that maybe Natalie Maines is still young, but “that was a thing that shouldn’t have been said. When I was growing up, what Mommy said to me was, ‘Loretta, if you can’t say anything good about somebody, don’t say nothing at all!’”) That feistiness surfaces again when Lynn animatedly offers her take on the White Stripes’ in-your-face brand of reelin’ ’n’ rockin’ in New York, saying, “When you see Jack and Meg walk out on the stage and pick up the guitar and sticks, well, it sounded like they had a big band up there. I just went into shock, I’m tellin’ you! That Jack, he don’t slow down for no one. When he hits that stage you can’t control him. He’s way out there, you know?”

With West Coast dates currently being floated as possibilities, Lynn anticipates sharing a bill with the Stripes again in the near future, although it won’t happen when she plays near Detroit (the Stripes will be in Oklahoma City). She’s also quick with kudos for the Motor City’s own Blanche, who impressed her enough in New York that she requested they open for her here. “That whole band is great,” says Lynn. “I even thought when I went onstage, ‘Should I try to follow this?’ [laughs] But if the crowd is down when you go on, they’re gonna be down for a long time, so that’s why it’s good to have somebody open for you that’ll get ’em up for you.”

Jack White has something he’d like to say to the New York Times, and that something is, ‘Fuuuck youuuu.’ Well, not really. But he’s definitely miffed over what he perceives as an injustice paid at the hands of a Times critic to Loretta Lynn.

Now, while May-December musical summits can sometimes conjure what we press wags dub “The Carlos Santana Effect” — aging star needs career boost, hooks up with hot young properties — White makes it clear that it wasn’t Lynn who put the call out to the White Stripes. They dedicated their record to her, and they invited her to come to New York. Just the same, Times reviewer Ben Ratliff, presumably not a country music fan (nor possessed of a long memory — in the ‘60s, trans-generational/trans-genre concerts at the Fillmore East were commonplace), called the entire event into question, suggesting that “camp was thick in the air” and it was “unlikely that anyone in the crowd who hadn’t heard of [Lynn] before would become a fan.”

“I think he’s just missing the connotation of it,” fumes White. “He was completely ignorant about it, just didn’t do his homework. His thought was, ‘Who books this show?’ Not thinking that we booked the show — we love her to death and we wanted to play with her. It was a dream come true. In the dressing room and we kinda went through the songs a little bit, and it went great. So during her set we did her and Conway Twitty’s duet, plus ‘Fist City,’ which is my all-time favorite Loretta Lynn song, and then she came out in our encore.

“[The writer] just thought that someone was trying to do some [in a snide voice] ‘nifty little thing’ — and that it didn’t work out. When it totally did! Our fans were in love with her, yelling ‘Loretta!’ There were people with banners out there for Loretta. She went over well, and he just didn’t see that. And it was completely unfair.”

White’s not being defensive per se. Maybe a better way to put it is that, as a friend and fan of Lynn’s, he feels bound to defend her honor. But before he catches himself calling for muskets at dawn, White allows that Lynn is such an icon that she probably doesn’t need him. “Nothing can faze her. She’s unstoppable.”

Would he characterize their friendship along mentor-student lines?

At that White turns candid. “When meeting somebody who I’m completely amazed by, I don’t want to try to just bombard them with compliments or anything. I like to see if just the two of us, our own personalities, can be comfortable with each other. And you pretty much know from the bat if you’re not gonna click with her. But I think we really have. Just as good friends too, you know?”

Pausing for a moment, White adds, “I’m, of course, at the same time, keeping my mouth shut and my ears open because there is so much to learn from her. One problem with a lot of modern music [is that] songwriters try to pretend they just exist in a vacuum, that they have no influences. But the important part, if you’re calling yourself a musician or a songwriter, is to acknowledge the history of the songwriters and of the storytelling. Acknowledge who did it better before you. And if you’re doing anything interesting, to carry on that tradition, to carry those stories on.”

Maybe the familial image cast at the beginning of this piece isn’t just forced metaphor. Ask Jack White about Loretta Lynn and he radiates adoration pointing out that “Meg’s completely in love with Loretta too. Even though Meg’s very shy, she [Loretta] has really connected with Meg.” (The red dress that Meg White wore for the New York concert was a gift from Lynn).

Lynn, for her part, demonstrates an affection for the pair that borders on the maternal. Near the end of our conversation, I mention to her that I’ll also be interviewing Jack for this article.

“Listen honey,” Lynn instructs me, “when you talk to that boy, you tell him I said that I really love him. Tell him, ‘Jack, Loretta loves you.’”


See Loretta Lynn Friday, June 26, at Freedom Hill Amphitheater (14900 Metro Parkway, Sterling Heights) with Blanche. For information, call 586-268-5100.

Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]