Loretta Lynn with Martha Wainwright at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (July 22). $39.50-$59.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
When you see Loretta Lynn, you're looking at country.
After recording well over 600 songs and releasing 70 albums in a productive and controversial career, Lynn at a feisty 71 remains the reigning queen of roots country music.
If there was any doubt about that, it was cleared up by her triumphant showing at the Grammy Awards, where she shocked Nashville by grabbing best country album honours for her Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose disc, while her duet with White on the intriguing tune Portland Oregon won the hardware for best country collaboration with vocals.
Yet despite Lynn's regal status as one of country music's greatest singer/songwriters - the first to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - she remains the disarmingly down-to-earth Coal Miner's Daughter of her autobiographical 1970 chart-topper.
Boisterous laughter comes easily to Lynn, but she also has no qualms about telling you exactly what's on her mind, which is why complete strangers can soon feel like lifelong friends in her company. There's absolutely no bullshit with Ms. Lynn.
"For cryin' out loud, Tim," Lynn roars down the line from her home outside Nashville, "you cut out that 'Ms. Lynn' stuff right now! This is Loretta you're talkin' to!"
With that, all formalities fly out the window and, just like two barstool buddies, we start reminiscing about the old days with Ernest Tubb ("He was a real live country monument"), Patsy Cline ("She wanted to yodel on everything - even the pretty ballads") and Conway Twitty ("He never would smile onstage, so I'd try anything just to crack him up"). Every colourful tale she tells is so darn vivid and entertaining, I almost forget the clock's ticking.
In retrospect, Lynn's unlikely pairing with producer Jack White for Van Lear Rose proved to be a genius move that paved the way for the country music comeback of the decade. But even though White seemed confident that the odd combination would pay dividends, Lynn admits she wasn't quite so sure.
"The first time I met Jack was at a show I did with the White Stripes in Manhattan. I told him I was gonna have to leave early to work on my new album, and he said, 'Why don't you let me produce it?' I stood there for a second and thought, 'Well, why not? If it works, great, and if it doesn't I'll just do another one myself. It ain't no big thing.'
"So I came to the studio to put down my vocals, but it wasn't no studio at all, really, just a tiny room in some old house. I was like, 'Uh huh, this'll be good.' And then inside I saw these four kids - they couldn't have been much older than 20 - and Jack introduced them as my band. I said, 'I guess there ain't gonna be no Nashville sound around here.' There sure wasn't."
Any apprehensions Lynn had about the recording quickly vanished once those Greenhornes kiddos got to kicking out the jams and White moved behind the board to work his mix magic.
Soon they were deeper into real country territory than Lynn had been in years, taking her back in spirit to a place in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, known as Bradley's Barn, where she'd recorded many of her best-loved songs with legendary producer Owen Bradley.
"It was amazing for me to watch this 26-year-old young man in the studio. He handled himself like an old pro. When we were mixing, there were little things he did, certain mannerisms, that reminded me of Owen. Jack would get so wrapped up in what we'd be doing, you'd know not to say a word - or even breathe. That was exactly like Owen."
Although the fantastic Van Lear Rose, whose success was due as much to Lynn's truth-telling tunes as to White's ragged-but-right production, received across-the-board critical praise, commercial country radio didn't want to hear about it. The lack of airplay hasn't hurt sales, and it sure won't dissuade Lynn from pushing forward.
"The record is selling well, we won the Grammy for best country album, and Nashville has had not a single thing to do with it. I really doubt that WSM played my record even 10 times, but they still want me to come and play the Grand Ole Opry. That's how it works, they want the artists to make money for them, but they won't do anything for you."
Evidently, it was another case of being too country for country radio, where hot-tub hotties crooning soft-rock schlock now rule the waves. Lynn hasn't been losing any sleep over the snub. She's seen it all before, when her songs like Rated X and The Pill were banned by radio yet still became top-selling hits.
"Owen always said the trouble with girl singers is that they're too afraid to cross lines and take risks. I never had that problem. I go as far to the edge as I can, because that's real life. If you're livin' it, you might as well write about it.
"I remember all the controversy about that song The Pill. People thought it was just terrible for a woman to be singing about birth control. At the time I wrote it, everybody was taking the pill but me, because I didn't have the money to buy 'em - and I've got the kids to prove it.
"Some women came backstage after a show saying, 'How could you put out a song like that?' I said, 'You take the pill, don't you? Yeah, so what's the deal?' They're on the counter of every drugstore in the country. What's there to be ashamed about?"
Don't think for a second that Lynn's going to settle into quiet retirement with her Grammy win. She's got three new albums in the works right now and has just finished recording an update of her Ernest Tubb duet Sweet Thang, with Alan Jackson. And she's still playing more shows each year than many artists half her age.
"I like to keep busy. It's better to be working than not. When I come home from the road I might rest for a day, but then it's right back to work writing. I've never stopped rhymin' lines and coming up with new songs.
"Right now I'm doing a gospel album, a honky-tonk record and a Christmas album. I'll probably ask Jack to come on over and help with the honky-tonk one. That is, if he's not still out there on the Amazon River."
WHATS SO SPECIAL ABOUT LORETTA LYNNS SONGS
When Rodney Crowell released his Fate's Right Hand album, the veteran Nashville singer/songwriter considered it to be his very best work in a stellar recording career. Clearly, he has a right to be pissed that it didn't win him the 2004 Americana album of the year award. But he isn't. He got beat by a better record, Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose.
"That album of hers was so damn sloppy and whacked out, it was art. It made me feel jealous. I had to think, 'Would I have had the courage to record anything so incredibly jarring and beautifully fucked up?' It's a great piece of work - very moving.
"Her songs are genius. She's like the female Chuck Berry documenting the simple poetry of life in a very direct and poignant way. Something like You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man is just perfect. When I consider all the metaphorical messing and pretense of my stuff alongside hers, it leaves me wondering what I've really learned about songwriting after all these years." RODNEY CROWELL
No less impressed with Lynn's compositional chops is Neko Case, who's performed and recorded fabulous versions of Lynn's controversial Rated X and the punch-happy Fist City.
"She's not afraid to get her hands dirty. Loretta never put any annoying after-school-special-style moralizing into her songs. She already was a good lady, so she didn't need to make it look like she was taking the high road. If some tramp tried to get with her husband, that woman would be treated to a sound ass-kicking. Then she'd turn right around and make you cry in the same song.
"And The Pill? Don't even get me started. That song still shocks me. Hot pants! Birth control! Chicken metaphors! Only Loretta could pull that off with dignity and aplomb. Thanks for sticking up for the ladies, Loretta!" NEKO CASE