What made Loretta Lynn so interesting, and stand out from all the other honky tonk women to pass through the Grand Ole Opry, was the casualness with which seemingly conflicting elements in her persona replicated themselves in her music. She wasn’t afraid of punching a competing woman’s lights out (“Fist City”) or calling out a husband’s marriage-threatening tendencies with a direct order (“Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’”), and for this she has been described as having brought feminism to country music in the ’60s. Yet she always regarded “Women’s Lib” movements with suspicion (“One on the Way”), her romantic notion of Southern working class life – based on her own experience, of course – has a distinctly libertarian bent to it (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”), and she recently revealed an affection for none other than Donald Trump.
So she’s a mishmash of protest and traditional values, a kind of realism and an often hopeless nostalgia. She has always had the quickness to call out the philandering of her own man, yet is somehow able to view Trump’s epic philandering with equanimity.
She’s radical and conservative all at once, then. A mess of contradictions, much like America itself.
It therefore makes sense that her latest, Wouldn’t It Be Great, would be a divided mess, much like all the other 40 albums of her career. Half of the album is comprised of new songs, one of which is actually a cover of a traditional murder ballad. The other half is oldies taken from Loretta’s expansive career, which the 86 year old reworks and spruces up with the help of some ace backing musicians and the slick production of her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash (who both recorded her last two albums, 2016’s Full Circle and White Christmas Blue, with more collaborations reportedly on the way).
Lynn joins a slew of older artists looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Yet Paul Simon’s In the Blue Light from this year opted to redo obscurities from his career, whereas Lynn plums for well-known classics such as “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. That can make Wouldn’t It Be Great sound at times like one of those greatest hits tours from beloved artists – which is fine, but they don’t add anything new to how we view an artist, and anyway why don’t we just play one of their greatest hits compilations instead? Paul Simon radically reworked his obscurities, adding jazz combos and changing the melodic structure or time signatures of many of the songs, and updating lyrics for 2018. Whereas Lynn brings nothing new to any of her classics, even if (like me) you could hear a lyric like “Love went to waste when the sexy lace wouldn’t turn his face” from the title track a thousand times over and still want to hear it again.
And as for the execrable “God Makes No Mistakes”, a blight on the much-vaunted Van Lear Rose… its inclusion here is grim indeed.
Yet even on that one the backing musicians plonk away sympathetically, shoring up good cheer from listeners attuned to traditional country sounds. Guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, and steel guitars offer no surprises throughout, yet their very familiarity – and the excellence of the playing, of course – create an intimate and friendly atmosphere that makes listening to the album a constant source of low-level pleasure.
“Low-level” because none of the new tracks really stand out as any sort of classic, despite their being consistently enjoyable. This is made all the more obvious by the album’s inclusion of “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, great songs which show up the lesser songwriting of the surrounding efforts. “Ruby’s Stool” is only passable honky tonk about fighting with yet another woman who ain’t woman enough for Loretta. The most touching thing about “I’m Dying for Someone to Live For” is the title. Ditto “Ain’t No Time to Go”.
Yet the most remarkable thing about every song here, old or new, is Lynn’s voice, which somehow manages to sound old and new at the same time, keeping alive the contradictions that make her so interesting. It has a remarkable crystalline presence, like the blue waters of Kentucky, amazingly alive and healthy for an octogenarian who had to delay the release of this album following a stroke. Yet it also reflexively relaxes a little more than early on in her career, such as in the murder ballad “Lulie Vars”, where Lynn almost seems to stroll through the song’s horrors. Such is the sound of aged maturity – not everything cries to be belted out. And her subtle suggestiveness increases the sinister nature of that ballad tenfold.
So tune in to Wouldn’t It Be Great to catch up with Loretta’s truly special voice in its latter years, by all means. Just don’t go in expecting the album to provide you with enough to stick around.