Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Van Lear Rose

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

Loretta Lynn. Van Lear Rose
Interscope Records. 2004.

I have suddenly become a huge fan of Loretta Lynn. It's not such a big stretch. After all, I grew up listening to country music because it was what my parents liked, and I knew of Loretta--hell, everyone knows of Loretta. After her movie came
out, it was cool to love Loretta Lynn and sing along to "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "The Pill." That movie reminded us
that just like the blues, rock and roll and gospel, country music has roots buried deep in U.S. history, that to know it, or to at least know its origins, was to know certain specific truths about a huge area of the country. Loretta has always been the standard bearer for that truth, proudly singing about her life and heritage at every opportunity. Her latest album is by far her most personal and most strongly written set in decades. "Van Lear Rose" is an artist laying it on the line and telling it like it is, and I adore it. I am now committed to spreading the word on Loretta Lynn.

All writers have certain habits, time of day or type of paper, certain places or specific chairs. Some write longhand, others swear by index cards and computerized outlines. I love to read about writers and their habits. It intrigues me how such similar goals can be achieved by vastly different processes. You write so many words before you can eat anything, or you keep snacks to help you along. You turn off the phone and lock the door, or you write at the kitchen table in the middle of after school chaos. Some are paranoid about their habits, their rules, their customs. Me, I'm easy. I write at night mostly, just because it's easier. I use the computer for every draft, although I print out several copies along the way to read and make corrections. If I'm hungry, I eat; if I'm tired, I sleep. I try to write a page a day. Sometimes there's a lot more; sometimes that page
is sheer hell on earth. And sometimes, truly bleak desperate times, I sit and I stare and I struggle to remember why in the world I ever thought I was ever any good at this. But those times, thankfully, are rare, and they more importantly have nothing to do with Loretta. And this essay is all about loving Loretta.

My most basic writing habit, the one that never changes, is background noise. I can't have the television on unless it's playing something I have already seen dozens of times and thus can generally ignore. I played a lot of dvds this past year, largely consisting of every available season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and lately The Gilmore Girls. But some evenings it's Jaws (only
the original), others it's Little Women, Frida, Twister, and for about a month straight it was Chocolat over and over and over (I'm all about Judi Dench love--she just rocks!) But as often as I reach for a DVD, I will also reach for a CD instead.

At the beginning of this summer, as I was getting ever deeper into the short story collection that dominates my life these days, I bought Van Lear Rose. It was completely spontaneous. I had heard some good buzz surrounding the CD and thought well, heck, how much of a risk can a Loretta Lynn record be? The first time I played it, I was hooked. She sounds great, of course she sounds great, but what really made me happy were the songs themselves. Every song on this album was written by Loretta,
and she proves herself to be more than up to the challenge. Just as she told us what she was feeling back in the sixties with "Fist City" and "You Ain't Woman Enough", Van Lear Rose brings words about her parents, her marriage and her home. There are also the songs that make you wonder, like what exactly did or did not happen in "Portland, Oregon" to inspire those lyrics of a one night stand, and was their really a trip with her children to bring home a cheating husband like in "Family Tree"? Loretta tantalizes with her truth, revealing her mother was the true Van Lear Rose and sighing her way through the saddest of sad songs, with a chorus of "I miss being Mrs. tonight." This is her life, and you know it, so how much of the rest is part of her as well?

I fell into the habit of Loretta very quickly. I'd think about Tori Amos, who is a favorite, or maybe U2, or maybe Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker or Jimmy Buffet. I have a lot of Cds, people. The possibilities are huge. But since June, I just
keep reaching for Loretta. By now I know the lyrics by heart, know what' s slow and what's fast, what's going to make me pause and wonder yet again. I've been trying to figure out just what it is about Van Lear Rose that has captured my attention so completely, why I really love this album so much. I think it's just written so honestly, whether it is partly fiction or not, that it inspires me to stick to the truth in my own writing. And since that is not so easy, since overwritten falsehoods can be so seductive when you're stuck, I need Loretta to ground me. She tells it like it is, in every single song, and that's some of the best writing advice anyone can give you, to just shut up and tell it like it is.

So here's my musical truth. I know all the words to Marty Robbin's gunfighter songs: "Big Iron," "El Paso," and so on. I
learned about the War of 1812 from Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans." When I hear Elvis, I think of my mother. Frank Sinatra sings of my grandmother. In the 8th grade, Danny Matarazzo broke up with my best friend Caryn Robinson while they were dancing to Journey's "Open Arms," and I always remember her crying in the bathroom when I hear that song on the radio. I spent an entire summer in junior high listening to the Go-Gos over and over again on the beach. Bruce Springsteen got me through high school, and no, I had no idea what "Born in the USA" really meant back then. I just loved screaming out the lyrics at the top of my lungs. "Cruel Summer" takes me back to Dan Burklew's car as we arrived at a football game in the 10th grade, ready for another marching band performance (what an embarrassing revelation that is--I was a band geek!)

Madonna, Madonna, Madonna, high school and college are all Madonna years. "Margaritaville" was a great afternoon in my boyfriend's Fiat with my roommate Heather and I crammed in together in the passenger seat, the top down, the Florida
sun blasting and the three of us serenading everyone at the traffic lights. College was all about Jimmy Buffet. The Fine Young Cannibals and "She Drives Me Crazy" was the summer I spent working in Virginia, driving back and forth on I-95 and flirting with the soldiers who pulled up beside us at every chance.

Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" was the song for working at the Company in Alaska, all of us wanting to be somewhere else, but none of us knowing where that was or how to get there. Guns-N-Roses are my husband's songs, which would shock anyone who knows him. We have every Cd they have ever cut in the U.S. or Europe. There are songs for every moment in my life, lots of them for moments that seemed to be nothing, but have stuck with me because the song always returns to remind me again of who I was and where I was on that day so long ago. Harry Belafonte singing "Mr. Bojangles" was the last time my father looked at me, the last time he was conscious, the last time he smiled and called me his baby. That CD, his CD, sits on my shelf now, five years later, and it dares me to play it. But I can't, and I don't know if I ever will. The song has become part of my personal soundtrack, and it takes me to the saddest place that I have ever known. I just don't think I could stand another visit.

And now there is Loretta. When I finish these stories, they will not be at all about country music or Kentucky or cheating husbands or coal mining. No one would possibly link them to the music of Loretta Lynn. But I know she is there; I know she is everywhere within them. I spent last summer writing with Loretta, and she made me better for her company. Sometimes you have to listen to a master to remember just how hard you need to work, just how honest you need to be. Who would have thought Loretta Lynn would live inside stories about Alaska? She's amazing, and I'm one lucky writer for having discovered her yet again.


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